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Ten Years Later

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Chapter LXI. The Storm.


The dawn of the following day was dark and gloomy, and as every one knew that the promenade was down in the royal programme, every one’s gaze, as his eyes were opened, was directed towards the sky. Just above the tops of the trees a thick, suffocating vapor seemed to remain suspended, with barely sufficient power to rise thirty feet above the ground under the influence of the sun’s rays, which was scarcely visible as a faint spot of lesser darkness through the veil of heavy mist. No dew had fallen in the morning; the turf was dried up for want of moisture, the flowers withered. The birds sang less inspiringly than usual upon the boughs, which remained motionless as the limbs of corpses. The strange confused and animated murmurs, which seemed born and to exist in virtue of the sun, that respiration of nature which is unceasingly heard amidst all other sounds, could not be heard now, and never had the silence been so profound.

The king had noticed the cheerless aspect of the heavens as he approached the window immediately upon rising. But as all the necessary directions had been given respecting the promenade, and every preparation had been made accordingly, and as, which was far more imperious than anything else, Louis relied upon this promenade to satisfy the cravings of his imagination, and we will even already say, the clamorous desires of his heart—the king unhesitatingly decided that the appearance of the heavens had nothing whatever to do with the matter; that the promenade was arranged, and that, whatever the state of the weather, the promenade should take place. Besides, there are certain terrestrial sovereigns who seem to have accorded them privileged existences, and there are certain times when it might almost be supposed that the expressed wish of an earthly monarch has its influence over the Divine will. It was Virgil who observed of Augustus: Nocte pluit tota redeunt spectacula mane. 10

Louis attended mass as usual, but it was evident that his attention was somewhat distracted from the presence of the Creator by the remembrance of the creature. His mind was occupied during the service in reckoning more than once the number of minutes, then of seconds, which separated him from the blissful moment when the promenade would begin, that is to say, the moment when Madame would set out with her maids of honor. Besides, as a matter of course, everybody at the chateau was ignorant of the interview which had taken place between La Valliere and the king. Montalais, perhaps, with her usual chattering propensity, might have been disposed to talk about it; but Montalais on this occasion was held in check by Malicorne, who had securely fastened on her pretty lips the golden padlock of mutual interest. As for Louis XIV., his happiness was so extreme that he had forgiven Madame, or nearly so, her little piece of malice of the previous evening. In fact, he had occasion to congratulate himself rather than to complain of it. Had it not been for her ill-natured action, he would not have received the letter from La Valliere; had it not been for the letter, he would have had no interview; and had it not been for the interview he would have remained undecided. His heart was filled with too much happiness for any ill-feeling to remain in it, at that moment at least. Instead, therefore, of knitting his brows into a frown when he perceived his sister-in-law, Louis resolved to receive her in a more friendly and gracious manner than usual. But on one condition only, that she would be ready to set out early. Such was the nature of Louis’s thoughts during mass; which made him, during the ceremony, forget matters which, in his character of Most Christian King and of the eldest son of the Church, ought to have occupied his attention. He returned to the chateau, and as the promenade was fixed for midday, and it was at present just ten o’clock, he set to work desperately with Colbert and Lyonne. But even while he worked Louis went from the table to the window, inasmuch as the window looked out upon Madame’s pavilion: he could see M. Fouquet in the courtyard, to whom the courtiers, since the favor shown towards him on the previous evening, paid greater attention than ever. The king, instinctively, on noticing Fouquet, turned towards Colbert, who was smiling, and seemed full of benevolence and delight, a state of feeling which had arisen from the very moment one of his secretaries had entered and handed him a pocket-book, which he had put unopened into his pocket. But, as there was always something sinister at the bottom of any delight expressed by Colbert, Louis preferred, of the smiles of the two men, that of Fouquet. He beckoned to the superintendent to come up, and turning towards Lyonne and Colbert, he said:—“Finish this matter, place it on my desk, and I will read it at my leisure.” And he left the room. At the sign the king had made to him, Fouquet had hastened up the staircase, while Aramis, who was with the superintendent, quietly retired among the group of courtiers and disappeared without having been even observed by the king. The king and Fouquet met at the top of the staircase.

“Sire,” said Fouquet, remarking the gracious manner in which Louis was about to receive him, “your majesty has overwhelmed me with kindness during the last few days. It is not a youthful monarch, but a being of higher order, who reigns over France, one whom pleasure, happiness, and love acknowledge as their master.” The king colored. The compliment, although flattering, was not the less somewhat pointed. Louis conducted Fouquet to a small room that divided his study from his sleeping-apartment.

“Do you know why I summoned you?” said the king as he seated himself upon the edge of the window, so as not to lose anything that might be passing in the gardens which fronted the opposite entrance to Madame’s pavilion.

“No, sire,” replied Fouquet, “but I am sure for something agreeable, if I am to judge from your majesty’s gracious smile.”

“You are mistaken, then.”

“I, sire?”

“For I summoned you, on the contrary, to pick a quarrel with you.”

“With me, sire?”

“Yes: and that a serious one.”

“Your majesty alarms me—and yet I was most confident in your justice and goodness.”

“Do you know I am told, Monsieur Fouquet, that you are preparing a grand fete at Vaux.”

Fouquet smiled, as a sick man would do at the first shiver of a fever which has left him but returns again.

“And that you have not invited me!” continued the king.

“Sire,” replied Fouquet, “I have not even thought of the fete you speak of, and it was only yesterday evening that one of my friends,” Fouquet laid a stress upon the word, “was kind enough to make me think of it.”

“Yet I saw you yesterday evening, Monsieur Fouquet, and you said nothing to me about it.”

“How dared I hope that your majesty would so greatly descend from your own exalted station as to honor my dwelling with your royal presence?”

“Excuse me, Monsieur Fouquet, you did not speak to me about your fete.”

“I did not allude to the fete to your majesty, I repeat, in the first place, because nothing had been decided with regard to it, and, secondly, because I feared a refusal.”

“And something made you fear a refusal, Monsieur Fouquet? You see I am determined to push you hard.”

“The profound wish I had that your majesty should accept my invitation—”

“Well, Monsieur Fouquet, nothing is easier, I perceive, than our coming to an understanding. Your wish is to invite me to your fete, my own is to be present at it; invite me and I will go.”

“Is it possible that your majesty will deign to accept?” murmured the superintendent.

“Why, really, monsieur,” said the king, laughing, “I think I do more than accept; I rather fancy I am inviting myself.”

“Your majesty overwhelms me with honor and delight,” exclaimed Fouquet, “but I shall be obliged to repeat what M. Vieuville said to your ancestor, Henry IV., Domine non sum dignus.” 11

“To which I reply, Monsieur Fouquet, that if you give a fete, I will go, whether I am invited or not.”

“I thank your majesty deeply,” said Fouquet, as he raised his head beneath this favor, which he was convinced would be his ruin.

“But how could your majesty have been informed of it?”

“By a public rumor, Monsieur Fouquet, which says such wonderful things of yourself and the marvels of your house. Would you become proud, Monsieur Fouquet, if the king were to be jealous of you?”

“I should be the happiest man in the world, sire, since the very day on which your majesty were to be jealous of Vaux, I should possess something worthy of being offered to you.”

“Very well, Monsieur Fouquet, prepare your fete, and open the door of your house as wide as possible.”

“It is for your majesty to fix the day.”

“This day month, then.”

“Has your majesty any further commands?”

“Nothing, Monsieur Fouquet, except from the present moment until then to have you near me as much as possible.”

“I have the honor to form one of your majesty’s party for the promenade.”

“Very good; indeed, I am now setting out; for there are the ladies, I see, who are going to start.”

With this remark, the king, with all the eagerness, not only of a young man, but of a young man in love, withdrew from the window, in order to take his gloves and cane, which his valet held ready for him. The neighing of the horses and the crunching of the wheels on the gravel of the courtyard could be distinctly heard. The king descended the stairs, and at the moment he appeared upon the flight of steps, every one stopped. The king walked straight up to the young queen. The queen-mother, who was still suffering more than ever from the illness with which she was afflicted, did not wish to go out. Maria Theresa accompanied Madame in her carriage, and asked the king in what direction he wished the promenade to drive. The king, who had just seen La Valliere, still pale from the event of the previous evening, get into a carriage with three of her companions, told the queen that he had no preference, and wherever she would like to go, there would he be with her. The queen then desired that the outriders should proceed in the direction of Apremont. The outriders set off accordingly before the others. The king rode on horseback, and for a few minutes accompanied the carriage of the queen and Madame. The weather had cleared up a little, but a kind of veil of dust, like a thick gauze, was still spread over the surface of the heavens, and the sun made every atom glisten within the circuit of its rays. The heat was stifling; but, as the king did not seem to pay any attention to the appearance of the heavens, no one made himself uneasy about it, and the promenade, in obedience to the orders given by the queen, took its course in the direction of Apremont. The courtiers who followed were in the very highest spirits; it was evident that every one tried to forget, and to make others forget, the bitter discussions of the previous evening. Madame, particularly, was delightful. In fact, seeing the king at the door of her carriage, as she did not suppose he would be there for the queen’s sake, she hoped that her prince had returned to her. Hardly, however, had they proceeded a quarter of a mile on the road, when the king, with a gracious smile, saluted them and drew up his horse, leaving the queen’s carriage to pass on, then that of the principal ladies of honor, and then all the others in succession, who, seeing the king stop, wished in their turn to stop too; but the king made a sign to them to continue their progress. When La Valliere’s carriage passed, the king approached it, saluted the ladies who were inside, and was preparing to accompany the carriage containing the maids of honor, in the same way he had followed that in which Madame was, when suddenly the whole file of carriages stopped. It was probable that Madame, uneasy at the king having left her, had just given directions for the performance of this maneuver, the direction in which the promenade was to take place having been left to her. The king, having sent to inquire what her object was in stopping the cavalcade, was informed in reply, that she wished to walk. She most likely hoped that the king, who was following the carriages of the maids of honor on horseback, would not venture to follow the maids of honor themselves on foot. They had arrived in the middle of the forest.

The promenade, in fact, was not ill-timed, especially for those who were dreamers or lovers. From the little open space where the halt had taken place, three beautiful long walks, shady and undulating, stretched out before them. These walks were covered with moss or with leaves that formed a carpet from the loom of nature; and each walk had its horizon in the distance, consisting of about a hand-breadth of sky, apparent through the interlacing of the branches of the trees. At the end of almost every walk, evidently in great tribulation and uneasiness, the startled deer were seen hurrying to and fro, first stopping for a moment in the middle of the path, and then raising their heads they fled with the speed of an arrow or bounded into the depths of the forest, where they disappeared from view; now and then a rabbit, of philosophical mien, might be noticed quietly sitting upright, rubbing his muzzle with his fore paws, and looking about inquiringly, as though wondering whether all these people, who were approaching in his direction, and who had just disturbed him in his meditations and his meal, were not followed by their dogs, or had not their guns under their arms. All alighted from their carriages as soon as they observed that the queen was doing so. Maria Theresa took the arm of one of her ladies of honor, and, with a side glance towards the king, who did not perceive that he was in the slightest degree the object of the queen’s attention, entered the forest by the first path before her. Two of the outriders preceded her majesty with long poles, which they used for the purpose of putting the branches of the trees aside, or removing the bushes that might impede her progress. As soon as Madame alighted, she found the Comte de Guiche at her side, who bowed and placed himself at her disposal. Monsieur, delighted with his bath of the two previous days, had announced his preference for the river, and, having given De Guiche leave of absence, remained at the chateau with the Chevalier de Lorraine and Manicamp. He was not in the slightest degree jealous. He had been looked for to no purpose among those present; but as Monsieur was a man who thought a great deal of himself, and usually added very little to the general pleasure, his absence was rather a subject of satisfaction than regret. Every one had followed the example which the queen and Madame had set, doing just as they pleased, according as chance or fancy influenced them. The king, we have already observed, remained near La Valliere, and, throwing himself off his horse at the moment the door of her carriage was opened, he offered her his hand to alight. Montalais and Tonnay-Charente immediately drew back and kept at a distance; the former from calculated, the latter from natural motives. There was this difference, however, between the two, that the one had withdrawn from a wish to please the king, the other for a very opposite reason. During the last half-hour the weather also had undergone a change; the veil which had been spread over the sky, as if driven by a blast of heated air, had become massed together in the western part of the heavens; and afterwards, as if driven by a current of air from the opposite direction, was now advancing slowly and heavily towards them. The approach of the storm could be felt, but as the king did not perceive it, no one thought it proper to do so. The promenade was therefore continued; some of the company, with minds ill at ease on the subject, raised their eyes from time to time towards the sky; others, even more timid still, walked about without wandering too far from the carriages, where they relied upon taking shelter in case the storm burst. The greater number of these, however, observing that the king fearlessly entered the wood with La Valliere, followed his majesty. The king, noticing this, took La Valliere’s hand, and led her to a lateral forest-alley; where no one this time ventured to follow him.






Chapter LXII. The Shower of Rain.


At this moment, and in the same direction, too, that the king and La Valliere had taken, except that they were in the wood itself instead of following the path, two men were walking together, utterly indifferent to the appearance of the heavens. Their heads were bent down in the manner of people occupied with matters of great moment. They had not observed either De Guiche or Madame, the king or La Valliere. Suddenly something fell through the air like a colossal sheet of flame, followed by a loud but distant rumbling noise.

“Ah!” said one of them, raising his head, “here comes the storm. Let us reach our carriages, my dear D’Herblay.”

Aramis looked inquiringly at the heavens. “There is no occasion to hurry yet,” he said; and then resuming the conversation where it had doubtless been interrupted, he said, “You were observing that the letter we wrote last evening must by this time have reached its destination?”

“I was saying that she certainly has it.”

“Whom did you send it by?”

“By my own servant, as I have already told you.”

“Did he bring back an answer?”

“I have not seen him since; the young girl was probably in attendance on Madame, or was in her own room dressing, and he may have had to wait. Our time for leaving arrived, and we set off, of course; I cannot, therefore, know what is going on yonder.”

“Did you see the king before leaving?”

“Yes.”

“How did he seem?”

“Nothing could have passed off better, or worse; according as he be sincere or hypocritical.”

“And the fete?”

“Will take place in a month.”

“He invited himself, you say?”

“With a pertinacity in which I detected Colbert’s influence. But has not last night removed your illusions?”

“What illusions?”

“With respect to the assistance you may be able to give me under these circumstances.”

“No; I have passed the night writing, and all my orders are given.”

“Do not conceal it from yourself, D’Herblay, but the fete will cost some millions.”

“I will supply six; do you on your side get two or three.”

“You are a wonderful man, my dear D’Herblay.”

Aramis smiled.

“But,” inquired Fouquet, with some remaining uneasiness, “how is it that while you are now squandering millions in this manner, a few days ago you did not pay the fifty thousand francs to Baisemeaux out of your own pocket?”

“Because a few days ago I was as poor as Job.”

“And to-day?”

“To-day I am wealthier than the king himself.”

“Very well,” said Fouquet; “I understand men pretty well; I know you are incapable of forfeiting your word; I do not wish to wrest your secret from you, and so let us talk no more about it.”

At this moment a dull, heavy rumbling was heard, which suddenly developed into a violent clap of thunder.

“Oh, oh!” said Fouquet, “I was quite right in what I said.”

“Come,” said Aramis, “let us rejoin the carriages.”

“We shall not have time,” said Fouquet, “for here comes the rain.”

In fact, as he spoke, and as if the heavens were opened, a shower of large drops of rain was suddenly heard pattering on the leaves about them.

“We shall have time,” said Aramis, “to reach the carriages before the foliage becomes saturated.”

“It will be better,” said Fouquet, “to take shelter somewhere—in a grotto, for instance.”

“Yes, but where are we to find a grotto?” inquired Aramis.

“I know one,” said Fouquet, smiling, “not ten paces from here.” Then looking round him, he added: “Yes, we are quite right.”

“You are very fortunate to have so good a memory,” said Aramis, smiling in his turn, “but are you not afraid that your coachman, finding we do not return, will suppose we have taken another road back, and that he will not follow the carriages belonging to the court?”

“Oh, there is no fear of that,” said Fouquet; “whenever I place my coachman and my carriage in any particular spot, nothing but an express order from the king could stir them; and more than that, too, it seems that we are not the only ones who have come so far, for I hear footsteps and the sound of voices.”

As he spoke, Fouquet turned round, and opened with his cane a mass of foliage which hid the path from his view. Aramis’s glance as well as his own plunged at the same moment through the aperture he had made.

“A woman,” said Aramis.

“And a man,” said Fouquet.

“It is La Valliere and the king,” they both exclaimed together.

“Oh, oh!” said Aramis, “is his majesty aware of your cavern as well? I should not be astonished if he were, for he seems to be on very good terms with the dryads of Fontainebleau.”

“Never mind,” said Fouquet; “let us get there. If he is not aware of it, we shall see what he will do if he should know it, as it has two entrances, so that whilst he enters by one, we can leave by the other.”

“Is it far?” asked Aramis, “for the rain is beginning to penetrate.”

“We are there now,” said Fouquet, as he pushed aside a few branches, and an excavation in the solid rock could be observed, hitherto concealed by heaths, ivy, and a thick covert of small shrubs.

Fouquet led the way, followed by Aramis; but as the latter entered the grotto, he turned round, saying: “Yes, they are entering the wood; and, see, they are bending their steps this way.”

“Very well; let us make room for them,” said Fouquet, smiling and pulling Aramis by his cloak; “but I do not think the king knows of my grotto.”

“Yes,” said Aramis, “they are looking about them, but it is only for a thicker tree.”

Aramis was not mistaken, the king’s looks were directed upward, and not around him. He held La Valliere’s arm within his own, and held her hand in his. La Valliere’s feet began to sleep on the damp grass. Louis again looked round him with greater attention than before, and perceiving an enormous oak with wide-spreading branches, he hurriedly drew La Valliere beneath its protecting shelter. The poor girl looked round her on all sides, and seemed half afraid, half desirous of being followed. The king made her lean back against the trunk of the tree, whose vast circumference, protected by the thickness of the foliage, was as dry as if at that moment the rain had not been falling in torrents. He himself remained standing before her with his head uncovered. After a few minutes, however, some drops of rain penetrated through the branches of the tree and fell on the king’s forehead, who did not pay any attention to them.

“Oh, sire!” murmured La Valliere, pushing the king’s hat towards him. But the king simply bowed, and determinedly refused to cover his head.

“Now or never is the time to offer your place,” said Fouquet in Aramis’s ear.

“Now or never is the time to listen, and not lose a syllable of what they may have to say to each other,” replied Aramis in Fouquet’s ear.

In fact they both remained perfectly silent, and the king’s voice reached them where they were.

“Believe me,” said the king, “I perceive, or rather I can imagine your uneasiness; believe me, I sincerely regret having isolated you from the rest of the company, and brought you, also, to a spot where you will be inconvenienced by the rain. You are wet already, and perhaps cold too?”

“No, sire.”

“And yet you tremble?”

“I am afraid, sire, that my absence may be misinterpreted; at a moment, too, when all the others are reunited.”

“I would not hesitate to propose returning to the carriages, Mademoiselle de la Valliere, but pray look and listen, and tell me if it be possible to attempt to make the slightest progress at present?”

In fact the thunder was still rolling, and the rain continued to fall in torrents.

“Besides,” continued the king, “no possible interpretation can be made which would be to your discredit. Are you not with the king of France; in other words, with the first gentleman of the kingdom?”

“Certainly, sire,” replied La Valliere, “and it is a very distinguished honor for me; it is not, therefore, for myself that I fear any interpretations that may be made.”

“For whom, then?”

“For you, sire.”

“For me?” said the king, smiling, “I do not understand you.”

“Has your majesty already forgotten what took place yesterday evening in her royal highness’s apartments?”

“Oh! forget that, I beg, or allow me to remember it for no other purpose than to thank you once more for your letter, and—”

“Sire,” interrupted La Valliere, “the rain is falling, and your majesty’s head is uncovered.”

“I entreat you not to think of anything but yourself.”

“Oh! I,” said La Valliere, smiling, “I am a country girl, accustomed to roaming through the meadows of the Loire and the gardens of Blois, whatever the weather may be. And, as for my clothes,” she added, looking at her simple muslin dress, “your majesty sees there is but little room for injury.”

“Indeed, I have already noticed, more than once, that you owed nearly everything to yourself and nothing to your toilette. Your freedom from coquetry is one of your greatest charms in my eyes.”

“Sire, do not make me out better than I am, and say merely, ‘You cannot possibly be a coquette.’”

“Why so?”

“Because,” said La Valliere, smiling, “I am not rich.”

“You admit, then,” said the king, quickly, “that you have a love for beautiful things?”

“Sire, I only regard those things as beautiful which are within my reach. Everything which is too highly placed for me—”

“You are indifferent to?”

“Is foreign to me, as being prohibited.”

“And I,” said the king, “do not find that you are at my court on the footing you should be. The services of your family have not been sufficiently brought under my notice. The advancement of your family was cruelly neglected by my uncle.”

“On the contrary, sire. His royal highness, the Duke of Orleans, was always exceedingly kind towards M. de Saint-Remy, my step-father. The services rendered were humble, and, properly speaking, our services have been adequately recognized. It is not every one who is happy enough to find opportunities of serving his sovereign with distinction. I have no doubt at all, that, if ever opportunities had been met with, my family’s actions would have been as lofty as their loyalty was firm: but that happiness was never ours.”

“In that case, Mademoiselle de la Valliere, it belongs to kings to repair the want of opportunity, and most delightedly do I undertake to repair, in your instance, and with the least possible delay, the wrongs of fortune towards you.”

“Nay, sire,” cried La Valliere, eagerly; “leave things, I beg, as they are now.”

“Is it possible! you refuse what I ought, and what I wish to do for you?”

“All I desired has been granted me, when the honor was conferred upon me of forming one of Madame’s household.”

“But if you refuse for yourself, at least accept for your family.”

“Your generous intentions, sire, bewilder me and make me apprehensive, for, in doing for my family what your kindness urges you to do, your majesty will raise up enemies for us, and enemies for yourself, too. Leave me in the ranks of middle life, sire; of all the feelings and sentiments I experience, leave me to enjoy the pleasing instinct of disinterestedness.”

“The sentiments you express,” said the king, “are indeed admirable.”

“Quite true,” murmured Aramis in Fouquet’s ear, “and he cannot be accustomed to them.”

“But,” replied Fouquet, “suppose she were to make a similar reply to my letter.”

“True!” said Aramis, “let us not anticipate, but wait the conclusion.”

“And then, dear Monsieur d’Herblay,” added the superintendent, hardly able to appreciate the sentiments which La Valliere had just expressed, “it is very often sound calculation to seem disinterested with monarchs.”

“Exactly what I was thinking this very minute,” said Aramis. “Let us listen.”

The king approached nearer to La Valliere, and as the rain dripped more and more through the foliage of the oak, he held his hat over the head of the young girl, who raised her beautiful blue eyes towards the royal hat which sheltered her, and shook her head, sighing deeply as she did so.

“What melancholy thought,” said the king, “can possibly reach your heart when I place mine as a rampart before it?”

“I will tell you, sire. I had already once before broached this question, which is so difficult for a young girl of my age to discuss, but your majesty imposed silence on me. Your majesty belongs not to yourself alone: you are married; and every sentiment which would separate your majesty from the queen, in leading you to take notice of me, will be a source of profoundest sorrow for the queen.” The king endeavored to interrupt the young girl, but she continued with a suppliant gesture. “The Queen Maria, with an attachment which can be well understood, follows with her eyes every step of your majesty which separates you from her. Happy enough in having had her fate united to your own, she weepingly implores Heaven to preserve you to her, and is jealous of the faintest throb of your heart bestowed elsewhere.” The king again seemed anxious to speak, but again did La Valliere venture to prevent him.—“Would it not, therefore, be a most blamable action,” she continued, “if your majesty, a witness of this anxious and disinterested affection, gave the queen any cause for jealousy? Forgive me, sire, for the expressions I have used. I well know it is impossible, or rather that it would be impossible, that the greatest queen of the whole world could be jealous of a poor girl like myself. But though a queen, she is still a woman, and her heart, like that of the rest of her sex, cannot close itself against the suspicions which such as are evilly disposed, insinuate. For Heaven’s sake, sire, think no more of me; I am unworthy of your regard.”

“Do you not know that in speaking as you have done, you change my esteem for you into the profoundest admiration?”

“Sire, you assume my words to be contrary to the truth; you suppose me to be better than I really am, and attach a greater merit to me than God ever intended should be the case. Spare me, sire; for, did I not know that your majesty was the most generous man in your kingdom, I should believe you were jesting.”

“You do not, I know, fear such a thing; I am quite sure of that,” exclaimed Louis.

“I shall be obliged to believe it, if your majesty continues to hold such language towards me.”

“I am most unhappy, then,” said the king, in a tone of regret which was not assumed; “I am the unhappiest prince in the Christian world, since I am powerless to induce belief in my words, in one whom I love the best in the wide world, and who almost breaks my heart by refusing to credit my regard for her.”

“Oh, sire!” said La Valliere, gently putting the king aside, who had approached nearer to her, “I think the storm has passed away now, and the rain has ceased.” At the very moment, however, as the poor girl, fleeing as it were from her own heart, which doubtless throbbed but too well in unison with the king’s, uttered these words, the storm undertook to contradict her. A dead-white flash of lightning illumined the forest with a weird glare, and a peal of thunder, like a discharge of artillery, burst over their heads, as if the height of the oak that sheltered them had attracted the storm. The young girl could not repress a cry of terror. The king with one hand drew her towards his heart, and stretched the other above her head, as though to shield her from the lightning. A moment’s silence ensued, as the group, delightful as everything young and loving is delightful, remained motionless, while Fouquet and Aramis contemplated it in attitudes as motionless as La Valliere and the king. “Oh, sire!” murmured La Valliere, “do you hear?” and her head fell upon his shoulder.

“Yes,” said the king. “You see, the storm has not passed away.”

“It is a warning, sire.” The king smiled. “Sire, it is the voice of Heaven in anger.”

“Be it so,” said the king. “I agree to accept that peal of thunder as a warning, and even as a menace, if, in five minutes from the present moment, it is renewed with equal violence; but if not, permit me to think that the storm is a storm simply, and nothing more.” And the king, at the same moment, raised his head, as if to interrogate the heavens. But, as if the remark had been heard and accepted, during the five minutes which elapsed after the burst of thunder which had alarmed them, no renewed peal was heard; and, when the thunder was again heard, it was passing as plainly as if, during those same five minutes, the storm, put to flight, had traversed the heavens with the wings of the wind. “Well, Louise,” said the king, in a low tone of voice, “do you still threaten me with the anger of Heaven? and, since you wished to regard the storm as a warning, do you still believe it bodes misfortune?”

The young girl looked up, and saw that while they had been talking, the rain had penetrated the foliage above them, and was trickling down the king’s face. “Oh, sire, sire!” she exclaimed, in accents of eager apprehensions, which greatly agitated the king. “Is it for me,” she murmured, “that the king remains thus uncovered, and exposed to the rain? What am I, then?”

“You are, you perceive,” said the king, “the divinity who dissipates the storm, and brings back fine weather.” In fact, even as the king spoke, a ray of sunlight streamed through the forest, and caused the rain-drops which rested upon the leaves, or fell vertically among the openings in the branches of the trees, to glisten like diamonds.

“Sire,” said La Valliere, almost overcome, but making a powerful effort over herself, “think of the anxieties your majesty will have to submit to on my account. At this very moment, they are seeking you in every direction. The queen must be full of uneasiness; and Madame—oh, Madame!” the young girl exclaimed, with an expression almost resembling terror.

This name had a certain effect upon the king. He started, and disengaged himself from La Valliere, whom he had, till that moment, held pressed against his heart. He then advanced towards the path, in order to look round, and returned, somewhat thoughtfully, to La Valliere. “Madame, did you say?” he remarked.

“Yes, Madame; she, too, is jealous,” said La Valliere, with a marked tone of voice; and her eyes, so timorous in their expression, and so modestly fugitive in their glance, for a moment, ventured to look inquiringly into the king’s.

“Still,” returned Louis, making an effort over himself, “it seems to me that Madame has no reason, no right to be jealous of me.”

“Alas!” murmured La Valliere.

“Are you, too,” said the king, almost in a tone of reproach, “are you among those who think the sister has a right to be jealous of the brother?”

“It is not for me, sire, to seek to penetrate your majesty’s secrets.”

“You do believe it, then?” exclaimed the king.

“I believe Madame is jealous, sire,” La Valliere replied, firmly.

“Is it possible,” said the king with some anxiety, “that you have perceived it, then, from her conduct towards you? Have her manners in any way been such towards you that you can attribute them to the jealousy you speak of?”

“Not at all, sire; I am of so little importance.”

“Oh! if it were really the case—” exclaimed Louis, violently.

“Sire,” interrupted the young girl, “it has ceased raining; some one is coming, I think.” And, forgetful of all etiquette, she had seized the king by the arm.

“Well,” replied the king, “let them come. Who is there who would venture to think I had done wrong in remaining alone with Mademoiselle de la Valliere?”

“For pity’s sake, sire! they will think it strange to see you wet through, in this manner, and that you should have run such risk for me.”

“I have simply done my duty as a gentleman,” said Louis; “and woe to him who may fail in his, in criticising his sovereign’s conduct.” In fact, at this moment a few eager and curious faces were seen in the walk, as if engaged in a search. Catching glimpses at last of the king and La Valliere, they seemed to have found what they were seeking. They were some of the courtiers who had been sent by the queen and Madame, and uncovered themselves, in token of having perceived his majesty. But Louis, notwithstanding La Valliere’s confusion, did not quit his respectful and tender attitude. Then, when all the courtiers were assembled in the walk—when every one had been able to perceive the extraordinary mark of deference with which he had treated the young girl, by remaining standing and bare-headed during the storm—he offered her his arm, led her towards the group who were waiting, recognized by an inclination of the head the respectful salutations which were paid him on all sides; and, still holding his hat in his hand, he conducted her to her carriage. And, as a few sparse drops of rain continued to fall—a last adieu of the vanishing storm—the other ladies, whom respect had prevented from getting into their carriages before the king, remained altogether unprotected by hood or cloak, exposed to the rain from which the king was protecting, as well as he was able, the humblest among them. The queen and Madame must, like the others, have witnessed this exaggerated courtesy of the king. Madame was so disconcerted at it, that she touched the queen with her elbow, saying at the same time, “Look there, look there.”

The queen closed her eyes as if she had been suddenly seized with a fainting-spell. She lifted her hands to her face and entered her carriage, Madame following her. The king again mounted his horse, and without showing a preference for any particular carriage door, he returned to Fontainebleau, the reins hanging over his horse’s neck, absorbed in thought. As soon as the crowd had disappeared, and the sound of the horses and carriages grew fainter in the distance, and when they were certain, in fact, that no one could see them, Aramis and Fouquet came out of their grotto, and both of them in silence passed slowly on towards the walk. Aramis looked most narrowly not only at the whole extent of the open space stretching out before and behind him, but even into the very depth of the wood.

“Monsieur Fouquet,” he said, when he had quite satisfied himself that they were alone, “we must get back, at any cost, that letter you wrote to La Valliere.”

“That will be easy enough,” said Fouquet, “if my servant has not given it to her.”

“In any case it must be had, do you understand?”

“Yes. The king is in love with the girl, you mean?”

“Deeply, and what is worse is, that on her side, the girl is passionately attached to him.”

“As much as to say that we must change our tactics, I suppose?”

“Not a doubt of it; you have no time to lose. You must see La Valliere, and, without thinking any more of becoming her lover, which is out of the question, must declare yourself her most devoted friend and her most humble servant.”

“I will do so,” replied Fouquet, “and without the slightest feeling of disinclination, for she seems a good-hearted girl.”

“Or a very clever one,” said Aramis; “but in that case, all the greater reason.” Then he added, after a moment’s pause, “If I am not mistaken, that girl will become the strongest passion of the king’s life. Let us return to our carriage, and, as fast as possible, to the chateau.”






Chapter LXIII. Toby.


Two hours after the superintendent’s carriage had set off by Aramis’s directions, conveying them both towards Fontainebleau with the fleetness of the clouds the last breath of the tempest was hurrying across the face of heaven, La Valliere was closeted in her own apartment, with a simple muslin wrapper round her, having just finished a slight repast, which was placed upon a marble table. Suddenly the door was opened, and a servant entered to announce M. Fouquet, who had called to request permission to pay his respects to her. She made him repeat the message twice over, for the poor girl only knew M. Fouquet by name, and could not conceive what business she could possibly have with a superintendent of finances. However, as he might represent the king—and, after the conversation we have recorded, it was very likely—she glanced at her mirror, drew out still more the ringlets of her hair, and desired him to be admitted. La Valliere could not, however, refrain from a certain feeling of uneasiness. A visit from the superintendent was not an ordinary event in the life of any woman attached to the court. Fouquet, so notorious for his generosity, his gallantry, and his sensitive delicacy of feeling with regard to women generally, had received more invitations than he had requested audiences. In many houses, the presence of the superintendent had been significant of fortune; in many hearts, of love. Fouquet entered the apartment with a manner full of respect, presenting himself with that ease and gracefulness of manner which was the distinctive characteristic of the men of eminence of that period, and which at the present day seems no longer to be understood, even through the interpretation of the portraits of the period, in which the painter has endeavored to recall them to being. La Valliere acknowledged the ceremonious salutation which Fouquet addressed to her by a gentle inclination of the head, and motioned him to a seat. But Fouquet, with a bow, said, “I will not sit down until you have pardoned me.”

“I?” asked La Valliere, “pardon what?”

Fouquet fixed a most piercing look upon the young girl, and fancied he could perceive in her face nothing but the most unaffected surprise. “I observe,” he said, “that you have as much generosity as intelligence, and I read in your eyes the forgiveness I solicit. A pardon pronounced by your lips is insufficient for me, and I need the forgiveness of your heart and mind.”

“Upon my honor, monsieur,” said La Valliere, “I assure you most positively I do not understand your meaning.”

“Again, that is a delicacy on your part which charms me,” replied Fouquet, “and I see you do not wish me to blush before you.”

“Blush! blush before me! Why should you blush?”

“Can I have deceived myself,” said Fouquet; “and can I have been happy enough not to have offended you by my conduct towards you?”

“Really, monsieur,” said La Valliere, shrugging her shoulders, “you speak in enigmas, and I suppose I am too ignorant to understand you.”

“Be it so,” said Fouquet; “I will not insist. Tell me, only, I entreat you, that I may rely upon your full and complete forgiveness.”

“I have but one reply to make to you, monsieur,” said La Valliere, somewhat impatiently, “and I hope that will satisfy you. If I knew the wrong you have done me, I would forgive you, and I now do so with still greater reason since I am ignorant of the wrong you allude to.”

Fouquet bit his lips, as Aramis would have done. “In that case,” he said, “I may hope, that, notwithstanding what has happened, our good understanding will remain undisturbed, and that you will kindly confer the favor upon me of believing in my respectful friendship.”

La Valliere fancied that she now began to understand, and said to herself, “I should not have believed M. Fouquet so eager to seek the source of a favor so very recent,” and then added aloud, “Your friendship, monsieur! you offer me your friendship. The honor, on the contrary, is mine, and I feel overpowered by it.”

“I am aware,” replied Fouquet, “that the friendship of the master may appear more brilliant and desirable than that of the servant; but I assure you the latter will be quite as devoted, quite as faithful, and altogether disinterested.”

La Valliere bowed, for, in fact, the voice of the superintendent seemed to convey both conviction and real devotion in its tone, and she held out her hand to him, saying, “I believe you.”

Fouquet eagerly took hold of the young girl’s hand. “You see no difficulty, therefore,” he added, “in restoring me that unhappy letter.”

“What letter?” inquired La Valliere.

Fouquet interrogated her with his most searching gaze, as he had already done before, but the same ingenious expressions, the same transparently candid look met his. “I am obliged to confess,” he said, after this denial, “that your heart is the most delicate in the world, and I should not feel I was a man of honor and uprightness if I were to suspect anything from a woman so generous as yourself.”

“Really, Monsieur Fouquet,” replied La Valliere, “it is with profound regret I am obliged to repeat that I absolutely understand nothing of what you refer to.”

“In fact, then, upon your honor, mademoiselle, you have not received any letter from me?”

“Upon my honor, none,” replied La Valliere, firmly.

“Very well, that is quite sufficient; permit me, then, to renew the assurance of my utmost esteem and respect,” said Fouquet. Then, bowing, he left the room to seek Aramis, who was waiting for him in his own apartment, and leaving La Valliere to ask herself whether the superintendent had not lost his senses.

“Well!” inquired Aramis, who was impatiently waiting Fouquet’s return, “are you satisfied with the favorite?”

“Enchanted,” replied Fouquet; “she is a woman full of intelligence and fine feeling.”

“She did not get angry, then?”

“Far from that—she did not even seem to understand.”

“To understand what?”

“To understand that I had written to her.”

“She must, however, have understood you sufficiently to give the letter back to you, for I presume she returned it.”

“Not at all.”

“At least, you satisfied yourself that she had burnt it.”

“My dear Monsieur d’Herblay, I have been playing at cross-purposes for more than an hour, and, however amusing it may be, I begin to have had enough of this game. So understand me thoroughly: the girl pretended not to understand what I was saying to her; she denied having received any letter; therefore, having positively denied its receipt, she was unable either to return or burn it.”

“Oh, oh!” said Aramis, with uneasiness, “what is this you tell me?”

“I say that she swore most positively she had not received any letter.”

“That is too much. And did you not insist?”

“On the contrary, I did insist, almost impertinently even.”

“And she persisted in her denial?”

“Unhesitatingly.”

“And did she not contradict herself?”

“Not once.”

“But, in that case, then, you have left our letter in her hands?”

“How could I do otherwise?”

“Oh! it was a great mistake.”

“What the deuce would you have done in my place?”

“One could not force her, certainly, but it is very embarrassing; such a letter ought not to remain in existence against us.”

“Oh! the young girl’s disposition is generosity itself; I looked at her eyes, and I can read eyes well.”

“You think she can be relied upon?”

“From my heart I do.”

“Well, I think we are mistaken.”

“In what way?”

“I think that, in point of fact, as she herself told you, she did not receive the letter.”

“What! do you suppose—”

“I suppose that, from some motive, of which we know nothing, your man did not deliver the letter to her.”

Fouquet rang the bell. A servant appeared. “Send Toby here,” he said. A moment afterwards a man made his appearance, with an anxious, restless look, shrewd expression of the mouth, with short arms, and his back somewhat bent. Aramis fixed a penetrating look upon him.

“Will you allow me to interrogate him myself?” inquired Aramis.

“Do so,” said Fouquet.

Aramis was about to say something to the lackey, when he paused. “No,” he said; “he would see that we attach too much importance to his answer; therefore question him yourself; I will pretend to be writing.” Aramis accordingly placed himself at a table, his back turned towards the old attendant, whose every gesture and look he watched in a looking-glass opposite to him.

“Come here, Toby,” said Fouquet to the valet, who approached with a tolerably firm step. “How did you execute my commission?” inquired Fouquet.

“In the usual way, monseigneur,” replied the man.

“But how, tell me?”

“I succeeded in penetrating as far as Mademoiselle de la Valliere’s apartment; but she was at mass, and so I placed the note on her toilette-table. Is not that what you told me to do?”

“Precisely; and is that all?”

“Absolutely all, monseigneur.”

“No one was there?”

“No one.”

“Did you conceal yourself as I told you?”

“Yes.”

“And she returned?”

“Ten minutes afterwards.”

“And no one could have taken the letter?”

“No one; for no one had entered the room.”

“From the outside, but from the interior?”

“From the place where I was secreted, I could see to the very end of the room.”

“Now listen to me,” said Fouquet, looking fixedly at the lackey; “if this letter did not reach its proper destination, confess it; for, if a mistake has been made, your head shall be the forfeit.”

Toby started, but immediately recovered himself. “Monseigneur,” he said, “I placed the letter on the very place I told you: and I ask only half an hour to prove to you that the letter is in Mademoiselle de la Valliere’s hand, or to bring you back the letter itself.”

Aramis looked at the valet scrutinizingly. Fouquet was ready in placing confidence in people, and for twenty years this man had served him faithfully. “Go,” he said; “but bring me the proof you speak of.” The lackey quitted the room.

“Well, what do you think of it?” inquired Fouquet of Aramis.

“I think that you must, by some means or another, assure yourself of the truth, either that the letter has, or has not, reached La Valliere; that, in the first case, La Valliere must return it to you, or satisfy you by burning it in your presence; that, in the second, you must have the letter back again, even were it to cost you a million. Come, is not that your opinion?”

“Yes; but still, my dear bishop, I believe you are exaggerating the importance of the affair.”

“Blind, how blind you are!” murmured Aramis.

“La Valliere,” returned Fouquet, “whom we assume to be a schemer of the first ability, is simply nothing more than a coquette, who hopes that I shall pay my court to her, because I have already done so, and who, now that she has received a confirmation of the king’s regard, hopes to keep me in leading strings with the letter. It is natural enough.”

Aramis shook his head.

“Is not that your opinion?” said Fouquet.

“She is not a coquette,” he replied.

“Allow me to tell you—”

“Oh! I am well enough acquainted with women who are coquettes,” said Aramis.

“My dear friend!”

“It is a long time ago since I finished my education, you mean. But women are the same, throughout the centuries.”

“True; but men change, and you at the present day are far more suspicious than you formerly were.” And then, beginning to laugh, he added, “Come, if La Valliere is willing to love me only to the extent of a third, and the king two-thirds, do you think the condition acceptable?”

Aramis rose impatiently. “La Valliere,” he said, “has never loved, and never will love, any one but the king.”

“At all events,” said Fouquet, “what would you do?”

“Ask me rather what I would have done?”

“Well! what would you have done?”

“In the first place, I should not have allowed that man to depart.”

“Toby?”

“Yes; Toby is a traitor. Nay, I am sure of it, and I would not have let him go until he had told me the truth.”

“There is still time. I will recall him, and do you question him in your turn.”

“Agreed.”

“But I assure you it is useless. He has been with me for twenty years, and has never made the slightest mistake, and yet,” added Fouquet, laughing, “it would have been easy enough for him to have done so.”

“Still, call him back. This morning I fancy I saw that face, in earnest conversation with one of M. Colbert’s men.”

“Where was that?”

“Opposite the stables.”

“Bah! all my people are at daggers drawn with that fellow.”

“I saw him, I tell you, and his face, which should have been unknown to me when he entered just now, struck me as disagreeably familiar.”

“Why did you not say something, then, while he was here?”

“Because it is only at this very minute that my memory is clear upon the subject.”

“Really,” said Fouquet, “you alarm me.” And he again rang the bell.

“Provided that it is not already too late,” said Aramis.

Fouquet once more rang impatiently. The valet usually in attendance appeared. “Toby!” said Fouquet, “send Toby.” The valet again shut the door.

“You leave me at perfect liberty, I suppose?”

“Entirely so.”

“I may employ all means, then, to ascertain the truth.”

“All.”

“Intimidation, even?”

“I constitute you public prosecutor in my place.”

They waited ten minutes longer, but uselessly, and Fouquet, thoroughly out of patience, again rang loudly.

“Toby!” he exclaimed.

“Monseigneur,” said the valet, “they are looking for him.”

“He cannot be far distant, I have not given him any commission to execute.”

“I will go and see, monseigneur,” replied the valet, as he closed the door. Aramis, during the interview, walked impatiently, but without a syllable, up and down the cabinet. They waited a further ten minutes. Fouquet rang in a manner to alarm the very dead. The valet again presented himself, trembling in a way to induce a belief that he was the bearer of bad news.

“Monseigneur is mistaken,” he said, before even Fouquet could interrogate him, “you must have given Toby some commission, for he has been to the stables and taken your lordship’s swiftest horse, and saddled it himself.”

“Well?”

“And he has gone off.”

“Gone!” exclaimed Fouquet. “Let him be pursued, let him be captured.”

“Nay, nay,” whispered Aramis, taking him by the hand, “be calm, the evil is done.”

The valet quietly went out.

“The evil is done, you say?”

“No doubt; I was sure of it. And now, let us give no cause for suspicion; we must calculate the result of the blow, and ward it off, if possible.”

“After all,” said Fouquet, “the evil is not great.”

“You think so?” said Aramis.

“Of course. Surely a man is allowed to write a love-letter to a woman.”

“A man, certainly; a subject, no; especially, too, when the woman in question is one with whom the king is in love.”

“But the king was not in love with La Valliere a week ago! he was not in love with her yesterday, and the letter is dated yesterday; I could not guess the king was in love, when the king’s affection was not even yet in existence.”

“As you please,” replied Aramis; “but unfortunately the letter is not dated, and it is that circumstance particularly which annoys me. If it had only been dated yesterday, I should not have the slightest shadow of uneasiness on your account.”

Fouquet shrugged his shoulders.

“Am I not my own master,” he said, “and is the king, then, king of my brain and of my flesh?”

“You are right,” replied Aramis, “do not let us attach greater importance to matters than is necessary; and besides... Well! if we are menaced, we have means of defense.”

“Oh! menaced!” said Fouquet, “you do not place this gnat bite, as it were, among the number of menaces which may compromise my fortune and my life, do you?”

“Do not forget, Monsieur Fouquet, that the bit of an insect can kill a giant, if the insect be venomous.”

“But has this sovereign power you were speaking of, already vanished?”

“I am all-powerful, it is true, but I am not immortal.”

“Come, then, the most pressing matter is to find Toby again, I suppose. Is not that your opinion?”

“Oh! as for that, you will not find him again,” said Aramis, “and if he were of any great value to you, you must give him up for lost.”

“At all events he is somewhere or another in the world,” said Fouquet.

“You’re right, let me act,” replied Aramis.