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THE LAST CARD.
Madame de Montespan still kept to her rooms, uneasy in mind at the king's disappearance, but unwilling to show her anxiety to the court by appearing among them or by making any inquiry as to what had occurred. While she thus remained in ignorance of the sudden and complete collapse of her fortunes, she had one active and energetic agent who had lost no incident of what had occurred, and who watched her interests with as much zeal as if they were his own. And indeed they were his own; for her brother, Monsieur de Vivonne, had gained everything for which he yearned, money, lands, and preferment, through his sister's notoriety, and he well knew that the fall of her fortunes must be very rapidly followed by that of his own. By nature bold, unscrupulous, and resourceful, he was not a man to lose the game without playing it out to the very end with all the energy and cunning of which he was capable. Keenly alert to all that passed, he had, from the time that he first heard the rumour of the king's intention, haunted the antechamber and drawn his own conclusions from what he had seen. Nothing had escaped him--the disconsolate faces of monsieur and of the dauphin, the visit of Pere la Chaise and Bossuet to the lady's room, her return, the triumph which shone in her eyes as she came away from the interview. He had seen Bontems hurry off and summon the guardsman and his friend. He had heard them order their horses to be brought out in a couple of hours' time, and finally, from a spy whom he employed among the servants, he learned that an unwonted bustle was going forward in Madame de Maintenon's room, that Mademoiselle Nanon was half wild with excitement, and that two court milliners had been hastily summoned to madame's apartment. It was only, however, when he heard from the same servant that a chamber was to be prepared for the reception that night of the Archbishop of Paris that he understood how urgent was the danger.
Madame de Montespan had spent the evening stretched upon a sofa, in the worst possible humour with everyone around her. She had read, but had tossed aside the book. She had written, but had torn up the paper. A thousand fears and suspicions chased each other through her head. What had become of the king, then? He had seemed cold yesterday, and his eyes had been for ever sliding round to the clock. And to-day he had not come at all. Was it his gout, perhaps? Or was it possible that she was again losing her hold upon him? Surely it could not be that! She turned upon her couch and faced the mirror which flanked the door. The candles had just been lit in her chamber, two score of them, each with silver backs which reflected their light until the room was as bright as day. There in the mirror was the brilliant chamber, the deep red ottoman, and the single figure in its gauzy dress of white and silver. She leaned upon her elbow, admiring the deep tint of her own eyes with their long dark lashes, the white curve of her throat, and the perfect oval of her face. She examined it all carefully, keenly, as though it were her rival that lay before her, but nowhere could she see a scratch of Time's malicious nails. She still had her beauty, then. And if it had once won the king, why should it not suffice to hold him? Of course it would do so. She reproached herself for her fears. Doubtless he was indisposed, or perhaps he would come still. Ha! there was the sound of an opening door and of a quick step in her ante-room. Was it he, or at least his messenger with a note from him?
But no, it was her brother, with the haggard eyes and drawn face of a man who is weighed down with his own evil tidings. He turned as he entered, fastened the door, and then striding across the room, locked the other one which led to her boudoir.
"We are safe from interruption," he panted. "I have hastened here, for every second may be invaluable. Have you heard anything from the king?"
"Nothing." She had sprung to her feet, and was gazing at him with a face which was as pale as his own.
"The hour has come for action, Francoise. It is the hour at which the Mortemarts have always shown at their best. Do not yield to the blow, then, but gather yourself to meet it."
"What is it?" She tried to speak in her natural tone, but only a whisper came to her dry lips.
"The king is about to marry Madame de Maintenon."
"The _gouvernante_! The widow Scarron! It is impossible!"
"It is certain."
"To marry? Did you say to marry?"
"Yes, he will marry her."
The woman flung out her hands in a gesture of contempt, and laughed loud and bitterly.
"You are easily frightened, brother," said she. "Ah, you do not know your little sister. Perchance if you were not my brother you might rate my powers more highly. Give me a day, only one little day, and you will see Louis, the proud Louis, down at the hem of my dress to ask my pardon for this slight. I tell you that he cannot break the bonds that hold him. One day is all I ask to bring him back."
"But you cannot have it."
"The marriage is to-night."
"You are mad, Charles."
"I am certain of it." In a few broken sentences he shot out all that he had seen and heard. She listened with a grim face, and hands which closed ever tighter and tighter as he proceeded. But he had said the truth about the Mortemarts. They came of a contentious blood, and were ever at their best at a moment of action. Hate rather than dismay filled her heart as she listened, and the whole energy of her nature gathered and quickened to meet the crisis.
"I shall go and see him," she cried, sweeping towards the door.
"No, no, Francoise. Believe me, you will ruin everything if you do. Strict orders have been given to the guard to admit no one to the king."
"But I shall insist upon passing them."
"Believe me, sister, it is worse than useless. I have spoken with the officer of the guard, and the command is a stringent one."
"Ah, I shall manage."
"No, you shall not." He put his back against the door. "I know that it is useless, and I will not have my sister make herself the laughing-stock of the court, trying to force her way into the room of a man who repulses her."
His sister's cheeks flushed at the words, and she paused irresolute.
"Had I only a day, Charles, I am sure that I could bring him back to me. There has been some other influence here, that meddlesome Jesuit or the pompous Bossuet, perhaps. Only one day to counteract their wiles! Can I not see them waving hell-fire before his foolish eyes, as one swings a torch before a bull to turn it? Oh, if I could but baulk them to-night! That woman! that cursed woman! The foul viper which I nursed in my bosom! Oh, I had rather see Louis in his grave than married to her! Charles, Charles, it must be stopped; I say it must be stopped! I will give anything, everything, to prevent it!"
"What will you give, my sister?"
She looked at him aghast. "What! you do not wish me to buy you?" she said.
"No; but I wish to buy others."
"Ha! You see a chance, then?"
"One, and one only. But time presses. I want money."
"I cannot have too much. All that you can spare."
With hands which trembled with eagerness she unlocked a secret cupboard in the wall in which she concealed her valuables. A blaze of jewellery met her brother's eyes as he peered over her shoulder. Great rubies, costly emeralds, deep ruddy beryls, glimmering diamonds, were scattered there in one brilliant shimmering many-coloured heap, the harvest which she had reaped from the king's generosity during more than fifteen years. At one side were three drawers, the one over the other. She drew out the lowest one. It was full to the brim of glittering _louis d'ors_.
"Take what you will!" she said. "And now your plan! Quick!"
He stuffed the money in handfuls into the side pockets of his coat. Coins slipped between his fingers and tinkled and wheeled over the floor, but neither cast a glance at them.
"Your plan?" she repeated.
"We must prevent the Archbishop from arriving here. Then the marriage would be postponed until to-morrow night, and you would have time to act."
"But how prevent it?"
"There are a dozen good rapiers about the court which are to be bought for less than I carry in one pocket. There is De la Touche, young Turberville, old Major Despard, Raymond de Carnac, and the four Latours. I will gather them together, and wait on the road."
"And waylay the archbishop?"
"No; the messengers."
"Oh, excellent! You are a prince of brothers! If no message reaches Paris, we are saved. Go; go; do not lose a moment, my dear Charles."
"It is very well, Francoise; but what are we to do with them when we get them? We may lose our heads over the matter, it seems to me. After all, they are the king's messengers, and we can scarce pass our swords through them."
"There would be no forgiveness for that."
"But consider that before the matter is looked into I shall have regained my influence with the king."
"All very fine, my little sister, but how long is your influence to last? A pleasant life for us if at every change of favour we have to fly the country! No, no, Francoise; the most that we can do is to detain the messengers."
"Where can you detain them?"
"I have an idea. There is the castle of the Marquis de Montespan at Portillac."
"Of my husband!"
"Of my most bitter enemy! Oh, Charles, you are not serious."
"On the contrary, I was never more so. The marquis was away in Paris yesterday, and has not yet returned. Where is the ring with his arms?"
She hunted among her jewels and picked out a gold ring with a broad engraved face.
"This will be our key. When good Marceau, the steward, sees it, every dungeon in the castle will be at our disposal. It is that or nothing. There is no other place where we can hold them safe."
"But when my husband returns?"
"Ah, he may be a little puzzled as to his captives. And the complaisant Marceau may have an evil quarter of an hour. But that may not be for a week, and by that time, my little sister, I have confidence enough in you to think that you really may have finished the campaign. Not another word, for every moment is of value. Adieu, Francoise! We shall not be conquered without a struggle. I will send a message to you to-night to let you know how fortune uses us." He took her fondly in his arms, kissed her, and then hurried from the room.
For hours after his departure she paced up and down with noiseless steps upon the deep soft carpet, her hand still clenched, her eyes flaming, her whole soul wrapped and consumed with jealousy and hatred of her rival. Ten struck, and eleven, and midnight, but still she waited, fierce and eager, straining her ears for every foot-fall which might be the herald of news. At last it came. She heard the quick step in the passage, the tap at the ante-room door, and the whispering of her black page. Quivering with impatience, she rushed in and took the note herself from the dusty cavalier who had brought it. It was but six words scrawled roughly upon a wisp of dirty paper, but it brought the colour back to her cheeks and the smile to her lips. It was her brother's writing, and it ran: "The archbishop will not come to-night."
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