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The Man in the Iron Mask

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Chapter XIII. Nectar and Ambrosia.


M. Fouquet held the stirrup of the king, who, having dismounted, bowed most graciously, and more graciously still held out his hand to him, which Fouquet, in spite of a slight resistance on the king’s part, carried respectfully to his lips. The king wished to wait in the first courtyard for the arrival of the carriages, nor had he long to wait, for the roads had been put into excellent order by the superintendent, and a stone would hardly have been found of the size of an egg the whole way from Melun to Vaux; so that the carriages, rolling along as though on a carpet, brought the ladies to Vaux, without jolting or fatigue, by eight o’clock. They were received by Madame Fouquet, and at the moment they made their appearance, a light as bright as day burst forth from every quarter, trees, vases, and marble statues. This species of enchantment lasted until their majesties had retired into the palace. All these wonders and magical effects which the chronicler has heaped up, or rather embalmed, in his recital, at the risk of rivaling the brain-born scenes of romancers; these splendors whereby night seemed vanquished and nature corrected, together with every delight and luxury combined for the satisfaction of all the senses, as well as the imagination, Fouquet did in real truth offer to his sovereign in that enchanting retreat of which no monarch could at that time boast of possessing an equal. We do not intend to describe the grand banquet, at which the royal guests were present, nor the concerts, nor the fairy-like and more than magic transformations and metamorphoses; it will be enough for our purpose to depict the countenance the king assumed, which, from being gay, soon wore a very gloomy, constrained, and irritated expression. He remembered his own residence, royal though it was, and the mean and indifferent style of luxury that prevailed there, which comprised but little more than what was merely useful for the royal wants, without being his own personal property. The large vases of the Louvre, the older furniture and plate of Henry II., of Francis I., and of Louis XI., were but historic monuments of earlier days; nothing but specimens of art, the relics of his predecessors; while with Fouquet, the value of the article was as much in the workmanship as in the article itself. Fouquet ate from a gold service, which artists in his own employ had modeled and cast for him alone. Fouquet drank wines of which the king of France did not even know the name, and drank them out of goblets each more valuable than the entire royal cellar.

What, too, was to be said of the apartments, the hangings, the pictures, the servants and officers, of every description, of his household? What of the mode of service in which etiquette was replaced by order; stiff formality by personal, unrestrained comfort; the happiness and contentment of the guest became the supreme law of all who obeyed the host? The perfect swarm of busily engaged persons moving about noiselessly; the multitude of guests,—who were, however, even less numerous than the servants who waited on them,—the myriad of exquisitely prepared dishes, of gold and silver vases; the floods of dazzling light, the masses of unknown flowers of which the hot-houses had been despoiled, redundant with luxuriance of unequaled scent and beauty; the perfect harmony of the surroundings, which, indeed, was no more than the prelude of the promised fete, charmed all who were there; and they testified their admiration over and over again, not by voice or gesture, but by deep silence and rapt attention, those two languages of the courtier which acknowledge the hand of no master powerful enough to restrain them.

As for the king, his eyes filled with tears; he dared not look at the queen. Anne of Austria, whose pride was superior to that of any creature breathing, overwhelmed her host by the contempt with which she treated everything handed to her. The young queen, kind-hearted by nature and curious by disposition, praised Fouquet, ate with an exceedingly good appetite, and asked the names of the strange fruits as they were placed upon the table. Fouquet replied that he was not aware of their names. The fruits came from his own stores; he had often cultivated them himself, having an intimate acquaintance with the cultivation of exotic fruits and plants. The king felt and appreciated the delicacy of the replies, but was only the more humiliated; he thought the queen a little too familiar in her manners, and that Anne of Austria resembled Juno a little too much, in being too proud and haughty; his chief anxiety, however, was himself, that he might remain cold and distant in his behavior, bordering lightly the limits of supreme disdain or simple admiration.

But Fouquet had foreseen all this; he was, in fact, one of those men who foresee everything. The king had expressly declared that, so long as he remained under Fouquet’s roof, he did not wish his own different repasts to be served in accordance with the usual etiquette, and that he would, consequently, dine with the rest of society; but by the thoughtful attention of the surintendant, the king’s dinner was served up separately, if one may so express it, in the middle of the general table; the dinner, wonderful in every respect, from the dishes of which was composed, comprised everything the king liked and generally preferred to anything else. Louis had no excuse—he, indeed, who had the keenest appetite in his kingdom—for saying that he was not hungry. Nay, M. Fouquet did even better still; he certainly, in obedience to the king’s expressed desire, seated himself at the table, but as soon as the soups were served, he arose and personally waited on the king, while Madame Fouquet stood behind the queen-mother’s armchair. The disdain of Juno and the sulky fits of temper of Jupiter could not resist this excess of kindly feeling and polite attention. The queen ate a biscuit dipped in a glass of San-Lucar wine; and the king ate of everything, saying to M. Fouquet: “It is impossible, monsieur le surintendant, to dine better anywhere.” Whereupon the whole court began, on all sides, to devour the dishes spread before them with such enthusiasm that it looked as though a cloud of Egyptian locusts was settling down on green and growing crops.

As soon, however, as his hunger was appeased, the king became morose and overgloomed again; the more so in proportion to the satisfaction he fancied he had previously manifested, and particularly on account of the deferential manner which his courtiers had shown towards Fouquet. D’Artagnan, who ate a good deal and drank but little, without allowing it to be noticed, did not lose a single opportunity, but made a great number of observations which he turned to good profit.

When the supper was finished, the king expressed a wish not to lose the promenade. The park was illuminated; the moon, too, as if she had placed herself at the orders of the lord of Vaux, silvered the trees and lake with her own bright and quasi-phosphorescent light. The air was strangely soft and balmy; the daintily shell-gravelled walks through the thickly set avenues yielded luxuriously to the feet. The fete was complete in every respect, for the king, having met La Valliere in one of the winding paths of the wood, was able to press her hand and say, “I love you,” without any one overhearing him except M. d’Artagnan, who followed, and M. Fouquet, who preceded him.

The dreamy night of magical enchantments stole smoothly on. The king having requested to be shown to his room, there was immediately a movement in every direction. The queens passed to their own apartments, accompanied by them music of theorbos and lutes; the king found his musketeers awaiting him on the grand flight of steps, for M. Fouquet had brought them on from Melun and had invited them to supper. D’Artagnan’s suspicions at once disappeared. He was weary, he had supped well, and wished, for once in his life, thoroughly to enjoy a fete given by a man who was in every sense of the word a king. “M. Fouquet,” he said, “is the man for me.”

The king was conducted with the greatest ceremony to the chamber of Morpheus, of which we owe some cursory description to our readers. It was the handsomest and largest in the palace. Lebrun had painted on the vaulted ceiling the happy as well as the unhappy dreams which Morpheus inflicts on kings as well as on other men. Everything that sleep gives birth to that is lovely, its fairy scenes, its flowers and nectar, the wild voluptuousness or profound repose of the senses, had the painter elaborated on his frescoes. It was a composition as soft and pleasing in one part as dark and gloomy and terrible in another. The poisoned chalice, the glittering dagger suspended over the head of the sleeper; wizards and phantoms with terrific masks, those half-dim shadows more alarming than the approach of fire or the somber face of midnight, these, and such as these, he had made the companions of his more pleasing pictures. No sooner had the king entered his room than a cold shiver seemed to pass through him, and on Fouquet asking him the cause of it, the king replied, as pale as death:

“I am sleepy, that is all.”

“Does your majesty wish for your attendants at once?”

“No; I have to talk with a few persons first,” said the king. “Will you have the goodness to tell M. Colbert I wish to see him.”

Fouquet bowed and left the room.






Chapter XIV. A Gascon, and a Gascon and a Half.


D’Artagnan had determined to lose no time, and in fact he never was in the habit of doing so. After having inquired for Aramis, he had looked for him in every direction until he had succeeded in finding him. Besides, no sooner had the king entered Vaux, than Aramis had retired to his own room, meditating, doubtless, some new piece of gallant attention for his majesty’s amusement. D’Artagnan desired the servants to announce him, and found on the second story (in a beautiful room called the Blue Chamber, on account of the color of its hangings) the bishop of Vannes in company with Porthos and several of the modern Epicureans. Aramis came forward to embrace his friend, and offered him the best seat. As it was after awhile generally remarked among those present that the musketeer was reserved, and wished for an opportunity for conversing secretly with Aramis, the Epicureans took their leave. Porthos, however, did not stir; for true it is that, having dined exceedingly well, he was fast asleep in his armchair; and the freedom of conversation therefore was not interrupted by a third person. Porthos had a deep, harmonious snore, and people might talk in the midst of its loud bass without fear of disturbing him. D’Artagnan felt that he was called upon to open the conversation.

“Well, and so we have come to Vaux,” he said.

“Why, yes, D’Artagnan. And how do you like the place?”

“Very much, and I like M. Fouquet, also.”

“Is he not a charming host?”

“No one could be more so.”

“I am told that the king began by showing great distance of manner towards M. Fouquet, but that his majesty grew much more cordial afterwards.”

“You did not notice it, then, since you say you have been told so?”

“No; I was engaged with the gentlemen who have just left the room about the theatrical performances and the tournaments which are to take place to-morrow.”

“Ah, indeed! you are the comptroller-general of the fetes here, then?”

“You know I am a friend of all kinds of amusement where the exercise of the imagination is called into activity; I have always been a poet in one way or another.”

“Yes, I remember the verses you used to write, they were charming.”

“I have forgotten them, but I am delighted to read the verses of others, when those others are known by the names of Moliere, Pelisson, La Fontaine, etc.”

“Do you know what idea occurred to me this evening, Aramis?”

“No; tell me what it was, for I should never be able to guess it, you have so many.”

“Well, the idea occurred to me, that the true king of France is not Louis XIV.”

“What!” said Aramis, involuntarily, looking the musketeer full in the eyes.

“No, it is Monsieur Fouquet.”

Aramis breathed again, and smiled. “Ah! you are like all the rest, jealous,” he said. “I would wager that it was M. Colbert who turned that pretty phrase.” D’Artagnan, in order to throw Aramis off his guard, related Colbert’s misadventures with regard to the vin de Melun.

“He comes of a mean race, does Colbert,” said Aramis.

“Quite true.”

“When I think, too,” added the bishop, “that that fellow will be your minister within four months, and that you will serve him as blindly as you did Richelieu or Mazarin—”

“And as you serve M. Fouquet,” said D’Artagnan.

“With this difference, though, that M. Fouquet is not M. Colbert.”

“True, true,” said D’Artagnan, as he pretended to become sad and full of reflection; and then, a moment after, he added, “Why do you tell me that M. Colbert will be minister in four months?”

“Because M. Fouquet will have ceased to be so,” replied Aramis.

“He will be ruined, you mean?” said D’Artagnan.

“Completely so.”

“Why does he give these fetes, then?” said the musketeer, in a tone so full of thoughtful consideration, and so well assumed, that the bishop was for the moment deceived by it. “Why did you not dissuade him from it?”

The latter part of the phrase was just a little too much, and Aramis’s former suspicions were again aroused. “It is done with the object of humoring the king.”

“By ruining himself?”

“Yes, by ruining himself for the king.”

“A most eccentric, one might say, sinister calculation, that.”

“Necessity, necessity, my friend.”

“I don’t see that, dear Aramis.”

“Do you not? Have you not remarked M. Colbert’s daily increasing antagonism, and that he is doing his utmost to drive the king to get rid of the superintendent?”

“One must be blind not to see it.”

“And that a cabal is already armed against M. Fouquet?”

“That is well known.”

“What likelihood is there that the king would join a party formed against a man who will have spent everything he had to please him?”

“True, true,” said D’Artagnan, slowly, hardly convinced, yet curious to broach another phase of the conversation. “There are follies, and follies,” he resumed, “and I do not like those you are committing.”

“What do you allude to?”

“As for the banquet, the ball, the concert, the theatricals, the tournaments, the cascades, the fireworks, the illuminations, and the presents—these are well and good, I grant; but why were not these expenses sufficient? Why was it necessary to have new liveries and costumes for your whole household?”

“You are quite right. I told M. Fouquet that myself; he replied, that if he were rich enough he would offer the king a newly erected chateau, from the vanes at the houses to the very sub-cellars; completely new inside and out; and that, as soon as the king had left, he would burn the whole building and its contents, in order that it might not be made use of by any one else.”

“How completely Spanish!”

“I told him so, and he then added this: ‘Whoever advises me to spare expense, I shall look upon as my enemy.’”

“It is positive madness; and that portrait, too!”

“What portrait?” said Aramis.

“That of the king, and the surprise as well.”

“What surprise?”

“The surprise you seem to have in view, and on account of which you took some specimens away, when I met you at Percerin’s.” D’Artagnan paused. The shaft was discharged, and all he had to do was to wait and watch its effect.

“That is merely an act of graceful attention,” replied Aramis.

D’Artagnan went up to his friend, took hold of both his hands, and looking him full in the eyes, said, “Aramis, do you still care for me a very little?”

“What a question to ask!”

“Very good. One favor, then. Why did you take some patterns of the king’s costumes at Percerin’s?”

“Come with me and ask poor Lebrun, who has been working upon them for the last two days and nights.”

“Aramis, that may be truth for everybody else, but for me—”

“Upon my word, D’Artagnan, you astonish me.”

“Be a little considerate. Tell me the exact truth; you would not like anything disagreeable to happen to me, would you?”

“My dear friend, you are becoming quite incomprehensible. What suspicion can you have possibly got hold of?”

“Do you believe in my instinctive feelings? Formerly you used to have faith in them. Well, then, an instinct tells me that you have some concealed project on foot.”

“I—a project?”

“I am convinced of it.”

“What nonsense!”

“I am not only sure of it, but I would even swear it.”

“Indeed, D’Artagnan, you cause me the greatest pain. Is it likely, if I have any project in hand that I ought to keep secret from you, I should tell you about it? If I had one that I could and ought to have revealed, should I not have long ago divulged it?”

“No, Aramis, no. There are certain projects which are never revealed until the favorable opportunity arrives.”

“In that case, my dear fellow,” returned the bishop, laughing, “the only thing now is, that the ‘opportunity’ has not yet arrived.”

D’Artagnan shook his head with a sorrowful expression. “Oh, friendship, friendship!” he said, “what an idle word you are! Here is a man who, if I were but to ask it, would suffer himself to be cut in pieces for my sake.”

“You are right,” said Aramis, nobly.

“And this man, who would shed every drop of blood in his veins for me, will not open up before me the least corner in his heart. Friendship, I repeat, is nothing but an unsubstantial shadow—a lure, like everything else in this bright, dazzling world.”

“It is not thus you should speak of our friendship,” replied the bishop, in a firm, assured voice; “for ours is not of the same nature as those of which you have been speaking.”

“Look at us, Aramis; three out of the old ‘four.’ You are deceiving me; I suspect you; and Porthos is fast asleep. An admirable trio of friends, don’t you think so? What an affecting relic of the former dear old times!”

“I can only tell you one thing, D’Artagnan, and I swear it on the Bible: I love you just as I used to do. If I ever suspect you, it is on account of others, and not on account of either of us. In everything I may do, and should happen to succeed in, you will find your fourth. Will you promise me the same favor?”

“If I am not mistaken, Aramis, your words—at the moment you pronounce them—are full of generous feeling.”

“Such a thing is very possible.”

“You are conspiring against M. Colbert. If that be all, mordioux, tell me so at once. I have the instrument in my own hand, and will pull out the tooth easily enough.”

Aramis could not conceal a smile of disdain that flitted over his haughty features. “And supposing that I were conspiring against Colbert, what harm would there be in that?”

“No, no; that would be too trifling a matter for you to take in hand, and it was not on that account you asked Percerin for those patterns of the king’s costumes. Oh! Aramis, we are not enemies, remember—we are brothers. Tell me what you wish to undertake, and, upon the word of a D’Artagnan, if I cannot help you, I will swear to remain neuter.”

“I am undertaking nothing,” said Aramis.

“Aramis, a voice within me speaks and seems to trickle forth a rill of light within my darkness: it is a voice that has never yet deceived me. It is the king you are conspiring against.”

“The king?” exclaimed the bishop, pretending to be annoyed.

“Your face will not convince me; the king, I repeat.”

“Will you help me?” said Aramis, smiling ironically.

“Aramis, I will do more than help you—I will do more than remain neuter—I will save you.”

“You are mad, D’Artagnan.”

“I am the wiser of the two, in this matter.”

“You to suspect me of wishing to assassinate the king!”

“Who spoke of such a thing?” smiled the musketeer.

“Well, let us understand one another. I do not see what any one can do to a legitimate king as ours is, if he does not assassinate him.” D’Artagnan did not say a word. “Besides, you have your guards and your musketeers here,” said the bishop.

“True.”

“You are not in M. Fouquet’s house, but in your own.”

“True; but in spite of that, Aramis, grant me, for pity’s sake, one single word of a true friend.”

“A true friend’s word is ever truth itself. If I think of touching, even with my finger, the son of Anne of Austria, the true king of this realm of France—if I have not the firm intention of prostrating myself before his throne—if in every idea I may entertain to-morrow, here at Vaux, will not be the most glorious day my king ever enjoyed—may Heaven’s lightning blast me where I stand!” Aramis had pronounced these words with his face turned towards the alcove of his own bedroom, where D’Artagnan, seated with his back towards the alcove, could not suspect that any one was lying concealed. The earnestness of his words, the studied slowness with which he pronounced them, the solemnity of his oath, gave the musketeer the most complete satisfaction. He took hold of both Aramis’s hands, and shook them cordially. Aramis had endured reproaches without turning pale, and had blushed as he listened to words of praise. D’Artagnan, deceived, did him honor; but D’Artagnan, trustful and reliant, made him feel ashamed. “Are you going away?” he said, as he embraced him, in order to conceal the flush on his face.

“Yes. Duty summons me. I have to get the watch-word. It seems I am to be lodged in the king’s ante-room. Where does Porthos sleep?”

“Take him away with you, if you like, for he rumbles through his sleepy nose like a park of artillery.”

“Ah! he does not stay with you, then?” said D’Artagnan.

“Not the least in the world. He has a chamber to himself, but I don’t know where.”

“Very good!” said the musketeer; from whom this separation of the two associates removed his last suspicion, and he touched Porthos lightly on the shoulder; the latter replied by a loud yawn. “Come,” said D’Artagnan.

“What, D’Artagnan, my dear fellow, is that you? What a lucky chance! Oh, yes—true; I have forgotten; I am at the fete at Vaux.”

“Yes; and your beautiful dress, too.”

“Yes, it was very attentive on the part of Monsieur Coquelin de Voliere, was it not?”

“Hush!” said Aramis. “You are walking so heavily you will make the flooring give way.”

“True,” said the musketeer; “this room is above the dome, I think.”

“And I did not choose it for a fencing-room, I assure you,” added the bishop. “The ceiling of the king’s room has all the lightness and calm of wholesome sleep. Do not forget, therefore, that my flooring is merely the covering of his ceiling. Good night, my friends, and in ten minutes I shall be asleep myself.” And Aramis accompanied them to the door, laughing quietly all the while. As soon as they were outside, he bolted the door, hurriedly; closed up the chinks of the windows, and then called out, “Monseigneur!—monseigneur!” Philippe made his appearance from the alcove, as he pushed aside a sliding panel placed behind the bed.

“M. d’Artagnan entertains a great many suspicions, it seems,” he said.

“Ah!—you recognized M. d’Artagnan, then?”

“Before you called him by his name, even.”

“He is your captain of musketeers.”

“He is very devoted to me,” replied Philippe, laying a stress upon the personal pronoun.

“As faithful as a dog; but he bites sometimes. If D’Artagnan does not recognize you before the other has disappeared, rely upon D’Artagnan to the end of the world; for in that case, if he has seen nothing, he will keep his fidelity. If he sees, when it is too late, he is a Gascon, and will never admit that he has been deceived.”

“I thought so. What are we to do, now?”

“Sit in this folding-chair. I am going to push aside a portion of the flooring; you will look through the opening, which answers to one of the false windows made in the dome of the king’s apartment. Can you see?”

“Yes,” said Philippe, starting as at the sight of an enemy; “I see the king!”

“What is he doing?”

“He seems to wish some man to sit down close to him.”

“M. Fouquet?”

“No, no; wait a moment—”

“Look at the notes and the portraits, my prince.”

“The man whom the king wishes to sit down in his presence is M. Colbert.”

“Colbert sit down in the king’s presence!” exclaimed Aramis. “It is impossible.”

“Look.”

Aramis looked through the opening in the flooring. “Yes,” he said. “Colbert himself. Oh, monseigneur! what can we be going to hear—and what can result from this intimacy?”

“Nothing good for M. Fouquet, at all events.”

The prince did not deceive himself.

We have seen that Louis XIV. had sent for Colbert, and Colbert had arrived. The conversation began between them by the king according to him one of the highest favors that he had ever done; it was true the king was alone with his subject. “Colbert,” said he, “sit down.”

The intendant, overcome with delight, for he feared he was about to be dismissed, refused this unprecedented honor.

“Does he accept?” said Aramis.

“No, he remains standing.”

“Let us listen, then.” And the future king and the future pope listened eagerly to the simple mortals they held under their feet, ready to crush them when they liked.

“Colbert,” said the king, “you have annoyed me exceedingly to-day.”

“I know it, sire.”

“Very good; I like that answer. Yes, you knew it, and there was courage in the doing of it.”

“I ran the risk of displeasing your majesty, but I risked, also, the concealment of your best interests.”

“What! you were afraid of something on my account?”

“I was, sire, even if it were nothing more than an indigestion,” said Colbert; “for people do not give their sovereigns such banquets as the one of to-day, unless it be to stifle them beneath the burden of good living.” Colbert awaited the effect this coarse jest would produce upon the king; and Louis XIV., who was the vainest and the most fastidiously delicate man in his kingdom, forgave Colbert the joke.

“The truth is,” he said, “that M. Fouquet has given me too good a meal. Tell me, Colbert, where does he get all the money required for this enormous expenditure,—can you tell?”

“Yes, I do know, sire.”

“Will you be able to prove it with tolerable certainty?”

“Easily; and to the utmost farthing.”

“I know you are very exact.”

“Exactitude is the principal qualification required in an intendant of finances.”

“But all are not so.”

“I thank you majesty for so flattering a compliment from your own lips.”

“M. Fouquet, therefore, is rich—very rich, and I suppose every man knows he is so.”

“Every one, sire; the living as well as the dead.”

“What does that mean, Monsieur Colbert?”

“The living are witnesses of M. Fouquet’s wealth,—they admire and applaud the result produced; but the dead, wiser and better informed than we are, know how that wealth was obtained—and they rise up in accusation.”

“So that M. Fouquet owes his wealth to some cause or other.”

“The occupation of an intendant very often favors those who practice it.”

“You have something to say to me more confidentially, I perceive; do not be afraid, we are quite alone.”

“I am never afraid of anything under the shelter of my own conscience, and under the protection of your majesty,” said Colbert, bowing.

“If the dead, therefore, were to speak—”

“They do speak sometimes, sire,—read.”

“Ah!” murmured Aramis, in the prince’s ear, who, close beside him, listened without losing a syllable, “since you are placed here, monseigneur, in order to learn your vocation of a king, listen to a piece of infamy—of a nature truly royal. You are about to be a witness of one of those scenes which the foul fiend alone conceives and executes. Listen attentively,—you will find your advantage in it.”

The prince redoubled his attention, and saw Louis XIV. take from Colbert’s hands a letter the latter held out to him.

“The late cardinal’s handwriting,” said the king.

“Your majesty has an excellent memory,” replied Colbert, bowing; “it is an immense advantage for a king who is destined for hard work to recognize handwritings at the first glance.”

The king read Mazarin’s letter, and, as its contents are already known to the reader, in consequence of the misunderstanding between Madame de Chevreuse and Aramis, nothing further would be learned if we stated them here again.

“I do not quite understand,” said the king, greatly interested.

“Your majesty has not acquired the utilitarian habit of checking the public accounts.”

“I see that it refers to money that had been given to M. Fouquet.”

“Thirteen millions. A tolerably good sum.”

“Yes. Well, these thirteen millions are wanting to balance the total of the account. That is what I do not very well understand. How was this deficit possible?”

“Possible I do not say; but there is no doubt about fact that it is really so.”

“You say that these thirteen millions are found to be wanting in the accounts?”

“I do not say so, but the registry does.”

“And this letter of M. Mazarin indicates the employment of that sum and the name of the person with whom it was deposited?”

“As your majesty can judge for yourself.”

“Yes; and the result is, then, that M. Fouquet has not yet restored the thirteen millions.”

“That results from the accounts, certainly, sire.”

“Well, and, consequently—”

“Well, sire, in that case, inasmuch as M. Fouquet has not yet given back the thirteen millions, he must have appropriated them to his own purpose; and with those thirteen millions one could incur four times and a little more as much expense, and make four times as great a display, as your majesty was able to do at Fontainebleau, where we only spent three millions altogether, if you remember.”

For a blunderer, the souvenir he had evoked was a rather skillfully contrived piece of baseness; for by the remembrance of his own fete he, for the first time, perceived its inferiority compared with that of Fouquet. Colbert received back again at Vaux what Fouquet had given him at Fontainebleau, and, as a good financier, returned it with the best possible interest. Having once disposed the king’s mind in this artful way, Colbert had nothing of much importance to detain him. He felt that such was the case, for the king, too, had again sunk into a dull and gloomy state. Colbert awaited the first words from the king’s lips with as much impatience as Philippe and Aramis did from their place of observation.

“Are you aware what is the usual and natural consequence of all this, Monsieur Colbert?” said the king, after a few moments’ reflection.

“No, sire, I do not know.”

“Well, then, the fact of the appropriation of the thirteen millions, if it can be proved—”

“But it is so already.”

“I mean if it were to be declared and certified, M. Colbert.”

“I think it will be to-morrow, if your majesty—”

“Were we not under M. Fouquet’s roof, you were going to say, perhaps,” replied the king, with something of nobility in his demeanor.

“The king is in his own palace wherever he may be—especially in houses which the royal money has constructed.”

“I think,” said Philippe in a low tone to Aramis, “that the architect who planned this dome ought, anticipating the use it could be put to at a future opportunity, so to have contrived that it might be made to fall upon the heads of scoundrels such as M. Colbert.”

“I think so too,” replied Aramis; “but M. Colbert is so very near the king at this moment.”

“That is true, and that would open the succession.”

“Of which your younger brother would reap all the advantage, monseigneur. But stay, let us keep quiet, and go on listening.”

“We shall not have long to listen,” said the young prince.

“Why not, monseigneur?”

“Because, if I were king, I should make no further reply.”

“And what would you do?”

“I should wait until to-morrow morning to give myself time for reflection.”

Louis XIV. at last raised his eyes, and finding Colbert attentively waiting for his next remarks, said, hastily, changing the conversation, “M. Colbert, I perceive it is getting very late, and I shall now retire to bed. By to-morrow morning I shall have made up my mind.”

“Very good, sire,” returned Colbert, greatly incensed, although he restrained himself in the presence of the king.

The king made a gesture of adieu, and Colbert withdrew with a respectful bow. “My attendants!” cried the king; and, as they entered the apartment, Philippe was about to quit his post of observation.

“A moment longer,” said Aramis to him, with his accustomed gentleness of manner; “what has just now taken place is only a detail, and to-morrow we shall have no occasion to think anything more about it; but the ceremony of the king’s retiring to rest, the etiquette observed in addressing the king, that indeed is of the greatest importance. Learn, sire, and study well how you ought to go to bed of a night. Look! look!”






Chapter XV. Colbert.


History will tell us, or rather history has told us, of the various events of the following day, of the splendid fetes given by the surintendant to his sovereign. Nothing but amusement and delight was allowed to prevail throughout the whole of the following day; there was a promenade, a banquet, a comedy to be acted, and a comedy, too, in which, to his great amazement, Porthos recognized “M. Coquelin de Voliere” as one of the actors, in the piece called “Les Facheux.” Full of preoccupation, however, from the scene of the previous evening, and hardly recovered from the effects of the poison which Colbert had then administered to him, the king, during the whole of the day, so brilliant in its effects, so full of unexpected and startling novelties, in which all the wonders of the “Arabian Night’s Entertainments” seemed to be reproduced for his especial amusement—the king, we say, showed himself cold, reserved, and taciturn. Nothing could smooth the frowns upon his face; every one who observed him noticed that a deep feeling of resentment, of remote origin, increased by slow degrees, as the source becomes a river, thanks to the thousand threads of water that increase its body, was keenly alive in the depths of the king’s heart. Towards the middle of the day only did he begin to resume a little serenity of manner, and by that time he had, in all probability, made up his mind. Aramis, who followed him step by step in his thoughts, as in his walk, concluded that the event he was expecting would not be long before it was announced. This time Colbert seemed to walk in concert with the bishop of Vannes, and had he received for every annoyance which he inflicted on the king a word of direction from Aramis, he could not have done better. During the whole of the day the king, who, in all probability, wished to free himself from some of the thoughts which disturbed his mind, seemed to seek La Valliere’s society as actively as he seemed to show his anxiety to flee that of M. Colbert or M. Fouquet. The evening came. The king had expressed a wish not to walk in the park until after cards in the evening. In the interval between supper and the promenade, cards and dice were introduced. The king won a thousand pistoles, and, having won them, put them in his pocket, and then rose, saying, “And now, gentlemen, to the park.” He found the ladies of the court were already there. The king, we have before observed, had won a thousand pistoles, and had put them in his pocket; but M. Fouquet had somehow contrived to lose ten thousand, so that among the courtiers there was still left a hundred and ninety thousand francs’ profit to divide, a circumstance which made the countenances of the courtiers and the officers of the king’s household the most joyous countenances in the world. It was not the same, however, with the king’s face; for, notwithstanding his success at play, to which he was by no means insensible, there still remained a slight shade of dissatisfaction. Colbert was waiting for or upon him at the corner of one of the avenues; he was most probably waiting there in consequence of a rendezvous which had been given him by the king, as Louis XIV., who had avoided him, or who had seemed to avoid him, suddenly made him a sign, and they then struck into the depths of the park together. But La Valliere, too, had observed the king’s gloomy aspect and kindling glances; she had remarked this—and as nothing which lay hidden or smoldering in his heart was hidden from the gaze of her affection, she understood that this repressed wrath menaced some one; she prepared to withstand the current of his vengeance, and intercede like an angel of mercy. Overcome by sadness, nervously agitated, deeply distressed at having been so long separated from her lover, disturbed at the sight of the emotion she had divined, she accordingly presented herself to the king with an embarrassed aspect, which in his then disposition of mind the king interpreted unfavorably. Then, as they were alone—nearly alone, inasmuch as Colbert, as soon as he perceived the young girl approaching, had stopped and drawn back a dozen paces—the king advanced towards La Valliere and took her by the hand. “Mademoiselle,” he said to her, “should I be guilty of an indiscretion if I were to inquire if you were indisposed? for you seem to breathe as if you were oppressed by some secret cause of uneasiness, and your eyes are filled with tears.”

“Oh! sire, if I be indeed so, and if my eyes are indeed full of tears, I am sorrowful only at the sadness which seems to oppress your majesty.”

“My sadness? You are mistaken, mademoiselle; no, it is not sadness I experience.”

“What is it, then, sire?”

“Humiliation.”

“Humiliation? oh! sire, what a word for you to use!”

“I mean, mademoiselle, that wherever I may happen to be, no one else ought to be the master. Well, then, look round you on every side, and judge whether I am not eclipsed—I, the king of France—before the monarch of these wide domains. Oh!” he continued, clenching his hands and teeth, “when I think that this king—”

“Well, sire?” said Louise, terrified.

“—That this king is a faithless, unworthy servant, who grows proud and self-sufficient upon the strength of property that belongs to me, and which he has stolen. And therefore I am about to change this impudent minister’s fete into sorrow and mourning, of which the nymph of Vaux, as the poets say, shall not soon lose the remembrance.”

“Oh! your majesty—”

“Well, mademoiselle, are you about to take M. Fouquet’s part?” said Louis, impatiently.

“No, sire; I will only ask whether you are well informed. Your majesty has more than once learned the value of accusations made at court.”

Louis XIV. made a sign for Colbert to approach. “Speak, Monsieur Colbert,” said the young prince, “for I almost believe that Mademoiselle de la Valliere has need of your assistance before she can put any faith in the king’s word. Tell mademoiselle what M. Fouquet has done; and you, mademoiselle, will perhaps have the kindness to listen. It will not be long.”

Why did Louis XIV. insist upon it in such a manner? A very simple reason—his heart was not at rest, his mind was not thoroughly convinced; he imagined there lay some dark, hidden, tortuous intrigue behind these thirteen millions of francs; and he wished that the pure heart of La Valliere, which had revolted at the idea of theft or robbery, should approve—even were it only by a single word—the resolution he had taken, and which, nevertheless, he hesitated before carrying into execution.

“Speak, monsieur,” said La Valliere to Colbert, who had advanced; “speak, since the king wishes me to listen to you. Tell me, what is the crime with which M. Fouquet is charged?”

“Oh! not very heinous, mademoiselle,” he returned, “a mere abuse of confidence.”

“Speak, speak, Colbert; and when you have related it, leave us, and go and inform M. d’Artagnan that I have certain orders to give him.”

“M. d’Artagnan, sire!” exclaimed La Valliere; “but why send for M. d’Artagnan? I entreat you to tell me.”

“Pardieu! in order to arrest this haughty, arrogant Titan who, true to his menace, threatens to scale my heaven.”

“Arrest M. Fouquet, do you say?”

“Ah! does that surprise you?”

“In his own house!”

“Why not? If he be guilty, he is as guilty in his own house as anywhere else.”

“M. Fouquet, who at this moment is ruining himself for his sovereign.”

“In plain truth, mademoiselle, it seems as if you were defending this traitor.”

Colbert began to chuckle silently. The king turned round at the sound of this suppressed mirth.

“Sire,” said La Valliere, “it is not M. Fouquet I am defending; it is yourself.”

“Me! you are defending me?”

“Sire, you would dishonor yourself if you were to give such an order.”

“Dishonor myself!” murmured the king, turning pale with anger. “In plain truth, mademoiselle, you show a strange persistence in what you say.”

“If I do, sire, my only motive is that of serving your majesty,” replied the noble-hearted girl: “for that I would risk, I would sacrifice my very life, without the least reserve.”

Colbert seemed inclined to grumble and complain. La Valliere, that timid, gentle lamb, turned round upon him, and with a glance like lightning imposed silence upon him. “Monsieur,” she said, “when the king acts well, whether, in doing so, he does either myself or those who belong to me an injury, I have nothing to say; but were the king to confer a benefit either upon me or mine, and if he acted badly, I should tell him so.”

“But it appears to me, mademoiselle,” Colbert ventured to say, “that I too love the king.”

“Yes, monseigneur, we both love him, but each in a different manner,” replied La Valliere, with such an accent that the heart of the young king was powerfully affected by it. “I love him so deeply, that the whole world is aware of it; so purely, that the king himself does not doubt my affection. He is my king and my master; I am the least of all his servants. But whoso touches his honor assails my life. Therefore, I repeat, that they dishonor the king who advise him to arrest M. Fouquet under his own roof.”

Colbert hung down his head, for he felt that the king had abandoned him. However, as he bent his head, he murmured, “Mademoiselle, I have only one word to say.”

“Do not say it, then, monsieur; for I would not listen to it. Besides, what could you have to tell me? That M. Fouquet has been guilty of certain crimes? I believe he has, because the king has said so; and, from the moment the king said, ‘I think so,’ I have no occasion for other lips to say, ‘I affirm it.’ But, were M. Fouquet the vilest of men, I should say aloud, ‘M. Fouquet’s person is sacred to the king because he is the guest of M. Fouquet. Were his house a den of thieves, were Vaux a cave of coiners or robbers, his home is sacred, his palace is inviolable, since his wife is living in it; and that is an asylum which even executioners would not dare to violate.’”

La Valliere paused, and was silent. In spite of himself the king could not but admire her; he was overpowered by the passionate energy of her voice; by the nobleness of the cause she advocated. Colbert yielded, overcome by the inequality of the struggle. At last the king breathed again more freely, shook his head, and held out his hand to La Valliere. “Mademoiselle,” he said, gently, “why do you decide against me? Do you know what this wretched fellow will do, if I give him time to breathe again?”

“Is he not a prey which will always be within your grasp?”

“Should he escape, and take to flight?” exclaimed Colbert.

“Well, monsieur, it will always remain on record, to the king’s eternal honor, that he allowed M. Fouquet to flee; and the more guilty he may have been, the greater will the king’s honor and glory appear, compared with such unnecessary misery and shame.”

Louis kissed La Valliere’s hand, as he knelt before her.

“I am lost,” thought Colbert; then suddenly his face brightened up again. “Oh! no, no, aha, old fox!—not yet,” he said to himself.

And while the king, protected from observation by the thick covert of an enormous lime, pressed La Valliere to his breast, with all the ardor of ineffable affection, Colbert tranquilly fumbled among the papers in his pocket-book and drew out of it a paper folded in the form of a letter, somewhat yellow, perhaps, but one that must have been most precious, since the intendant smiled as he looked at it; he then bent a look, full of hatred, upon the charming group which the young girl and the king formed together—a group revealed but for a moment, as the light of the approaching torches shone upon it. Louis noticed the light reflected upon La Valliere’s white dress. “Leave me, Louise,” he said, “for some one is coming.”

“Mademoiselle, mademoiselle, some one is coming,” cried Colbert, to expedite the young girl’s departure.

Louise disappeared rapidly among the trees; and then, as the king, who had been on his knees before the young girl, was rising from his humble posture, Colbert exclaimed, “Ah! Mademoiselle de la Valliere has let something fall.”

“What is it?” inquired the king.

“A paper—a letter—something white; look there, sire.”

The king stooped down immediately and picked up the letter, crumpling it in his hand, as he did so; and at the same moment the torches arrived, inundating the blackness of the scene with a flood of light as bight as day.