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IN THE KING'S CABINET.
On the night upon which such strange chances had befallen his messengers, the king sat alone in his cabinet. Over his head a perfumed lamp, held up by four little flying Cupids of crystal, who dangled by golden chains from the painted ceiling, cast a brilliant light upon the chamber, which was flashed back twenty-fold by the mirrors upon the wall. The ebony and silver furniture, the dainty carpet of La Savonniere, the silks of Tours, the tapestries of the Gobelins, the gold-work and the delicate chinaware of Sevres--the best of all that France could produce was centred between these four walls. Nothing had ever passed through that door which was not a masterpiece of its kind. And amid all this brilliance the master of it sat, his chin resting upon his hands, his elbows upon the table, with eyes which stared vacantly at the wall, a moody and a solemn man.
But though his dark eyes were fixed upon the wall, they saw nothing of it. They looked rather down the long vista of his own life, away to those early years when what we dream and what we do shade so mistily into one another. Was it a dream or was it a fact, those two men who used to stoop over his baby crib, the one with the dark coat and the star upon his breast, whom he had been taught to call father, and the other one with the long red gown and the little twinkling eyes? Even now, after more than forty years, that wicked, astute, powerful face flashed up, and he saw once more old Richelieu, the great unanointed king of France. And then the other cardinal, the long lean one who had taken his pocket-money, and had grudged him his food, and had dressed him in old clothes. How well he could recall the day when Mazarin had rouged himself for the last time, and how the court had danced with joy at the news that he was no more! And his mother, too, how beautiful she was, and how masterful! Could he not remember how bravely she had borne herself during that war in which the power of the great nobles had been broken, and how she had at last lain down to die, imploring the priests not to stain her cap-strings with their holy oils! And then he thought of what he had done himself, how he had shorn down his great subjects until, instead of being like a tree among saplings, he had been alone, far above all others, with his shadow covering the whole land. Then there were his wars and his laws and his treaties. Under his care France had overflowed her frontiers both on the north and on the east, and yet had been so welded together internally that she had but one voice, with which she spoke through him. And then there was that line of beautiful faces which wavered up in front of him. There was Olympe de Mancini, whose Italian eyes had first taught him that there is a power which can rule over a king; her sister, too, Marie de Mancini; his wife, with her dark little sun-browned face; Henrietta of England, whose death had first shown him the horrors which lie in life; La Valliere, Montespan, Fontanges. Some were dead; some were in convents. Some who had been wicked and beautiful were now only wicked. And what had been the outcome of all this troubled, striving life of his? He was already at the outer verge of his middle years; he had lost his taste for the pleasures of his youth; gout and vertigo were ever at his foot and at his head to remind him that between them lay a kingdom which he could not hope to govern. And after all these years he had not won a single true friend, not one, in his family, in his court, in his country, save only this woman whom he was to wed that night. And she, how patient she was, how good, how lofty! With her he might hope to wipe off by the true glory of his remaining years all the sin and the folly of the past. Would that the archbishop might come, that he might feel that she was indeed his, that he held her with hooks of steel which would bind them as long as life should last!
There came a tap at the door. He sprang up eagerly, thinking that the ecclesiastic might have arrived. It was, however, only his personal attendant, to say that Louvois would crave an interview. Close at his heels came the minister himself, high-nosed and heavy-chinned. Two leather bags were dangling from his hand.
"Sire," said he, when Bontems had retired, "I trust that I do not intrude upon you."
"No, no, Louvois. My thoughts were in truth beginning to be very indifferent company, and I am glad to be rid of them."
"Your Majesty's thoughts can never, I am sure, be anything but pleasant," said the courtier. "But I have brought you here something which I trust may make them even more so."
"Ah! What is that?"
"When so many of our young nobles went into Germany and Hungary, you were pleased in your wisdom to say that you would like well to see what reports they sent home to their friends; also what news was sent out from the court to them."
"I have them here--all that the courier has brought in, and all that are gathered to go out, each in its own bag. The wax has been softened in spirit, the fastenings have been steamed, and they are now open."
The king took out a handful of the letters and glanced at the addresses.
"I should indeed like to read the hearts of these people," said he. "Thus only can I tell the true thoughts of those who bow and simper before my face. I suppose," with a sudden flash of suspicion from his eyes, "that you have not yourself looked into these?"
"Oh, sire, I had rather die!"
"You swear it?"
"As I hope for salvation!"
"Hum! There is one among these which I see is from your own son."
Louvois changed colour, and stammered as he looked at the envelope. "Your Majesty will find that he is as loyal out of your presence as in it, else he is no son of mine," said he.
"Then we shall begin with his. Ha! it is but ten lines long. 'Dearest Achille, how I long for you to come back! The court is as dull as a cloister now that you are gone. My ridiculous father still struts about like a turkey-cock, as if all his medals and crosses could cover the fact that he is but a head lackey, with no more real power than I have. He wheedles a good deal out of the king, but what he does with it I cannot imagine, for little comes my way. I still owe those ten thousand livres to the man in the Rue Orfevre. Unless I have some luck at lansquenet, I shall have to come out soon and join you.' Hem! I did you an injustice, Louvois. I see that you have _not_ looked over these letters."
The minister had sat with a face which was the colour of beetroot, and eyes which projected from his head, while this epistle was being read. It was with relief that he came to the end of it, for at least there was nothing which compromised him seriously with the king; but every nerve in his great body tingled with rage as he thought of the way in which his young scape-grace had alluded to him. "The viper!" he cried. "Oh, the foul snake in the grass! I will make him curse the day that he was born."
"Tut, tut, Louvois!" said the king. "You are a man who has seen much of life, and you should be a philosopher. Hot-headed youth says ever more than it means. Think no more of the matter. But what have we here? A letter from my dearest girl to her husband, the Prince de Conti. I would pick her writing out of a thousand. Ah, dear soul, she little thought that my eyes would see her artless prattle! Why should I read it, since I already know every thought of her innocent heart?" He unfolded the sheet of pink scented paper with a fond smile upon his face, but it faded away as his eyes glanced down the page, and he Sprang to his feet with a snarl of anger, his hand over his heart and his eyes still glued to the paper. "Minx!" he cried, in a choking voice. "Impertinent, heartless minx! Louvois, you know what I have done for the princess. You know she has been the apple of my eye. What have I ever grudged her? What have I ever denied her?"
"You have been goodness itself, sire," said Louvois, whose own wounds smarted less now that he saw his master writhing.
"Hear what she says of me: 'Old Father Grumpy is much as usual, save that he gives a little at the knees. You remember how we used to laugh at his airs and graces! Well, he has given up all that, and though he still struts about on great high heels, like a Landes peasant on his stilts, he has no brightness at all in his clothes. Of course, all the court follow his example, so you can imagine what a nightmare place this is. Then this woman still keeps in favour, and her frocks are as dismal as Grumpy's coats; so when you come back we shall go into the country together, and you shall dress in red velvet, and I shall wear blue silk, and we shall have a little coloured court of our own in spite of my majestic papa.'"
Louis sank his face in his hands.
"You hear how she speaks of me, Louvois."
"It is infamous, sire; infamous!"
"She calls me names--_me_, Louvois!"
"And my knees! one would think that I was an old man!"
"Scandalous. But, sire, I would beg to say that it is a case in which your Majesty's philosophy may well soften your anger. Youth is ever hot-headed, and says more than it means. Think no more of the matter."
"You speak like a fool, Louvois. The child that I have loved turns upon me, and you ask me to think no more of it. Ah, it is one more lesson that a king can trust least of all those who have his own blood in their veins. What writing is this? It is the good Cardinal de Bouillon. One may not have faith in one's own kin, but this sainted man loves me, not only because I have placed him where he is, but because it is his nature to look up to and love those whom God has placed above him. I will read you his letter, Louvois, to show you that there is still such a thing as loyalty and gratitude in France. 'My dear Prince de la Roche-sur-Yon.' Ah, it is to him he writes. 'I promised when you left that I would let you know from time to time how things were going at court, as you consulted me about bringing your daughter up from Anjou, in the hope that she might catch the king's fancy.' What! What! Louvois! What villainy is this? 'The sultan goes from bad to worse. The Fontanges was at least the prettiest woman in France, though between ourselves there was just a shade too much of the red in her hair--an excellent colour in a cardinal's gown, my dear duke, but nothing brighter than chestnut is permissible in a lady. The Montespan, too, was a fine woman in her day, but fancy his picking up now with a widow who is older than himself, a woman, too, who does not even try to make herself attractive, but kneels at her _prie-dieu_ or works at her tapestry from morning to night. They say that December and May make a bad match, but my own opinion is that two Novembers make an even worse one.' Louvois! Louvois! I can read no more! Have you a _lettre de cachet_?"
"There is one here, sire."
"For the Bastille?"
"No; for Vincennes."
"That will do very well. Fill it up, Louvois! Put this villain's name in it! Let him be arrested to-night, and taken there in his own caleche. The shameless, ungrateful, foul-mouthed villain! Why did you bring me these letters, Louvois? Oh, why did you yield to my foolish whim? My God, is there no truth, or honour, or loyalty in the world?" He stamped his feet, and shook his clenched hands in the air in the frenzy of his anger and disappointment.
"Shall I, then, put back the others?" asked Louvois eagerly. He had been on thorns since the king had begun to read them, not knowing what disclosures might come next.
"Put them back, but keep the bag."
"Ah! I had forgot the other one. Perhaps if I have hypocrites around me, I have at least some honest subjects at a distance. Let us take one haphazard. Who is this from? Ah! it is from the Duc de la Rochefoucauld. He has ever seemed to be a modest and dutiful young man. What has he to say? The Danube--Belgrade--the grand vizier--Ah!" He gave a cry as if he had been stabbed.
"What, then, sire?" The minister had taken a step forward, for he was frightened by the expression upon the king's face.
"Take them away, Louvois! Take them away!" he cried, pushing the pile of papers away from him. "I would that I had never seen them! I will look at them no more! He gibes even at my courage, I who was in the trenches when he was in his cradle! 'This war would not suit the king,' he says. 'For there are battles, and none of the nice little safe sieges which are so dear to him.' By God, he shall pay to me with his head for that jest! Ay, Louvois, it will be a dear gibe to him. But take them away. I have seen as much as I can bear."
The minister was thrusting them back into the bag when suddenly his eye caught the bold, clear writing of Madame de Maintenon upon one of the letters. Some demon whispered to him that here was a weapon which had been placed in his hands, with which he might strike one whose very name filled him with jealousy and hatred. Had she been guilty of some indiscretion in this note, then he might even now, at this last hour, turn the king's heart against her. He was an astute man, and in an instant he had seen his chance and grasped it.
"Ha!" said he, "it was hardly necessary to open this one."
"Which, Louvois? Whose is it?"
The minister pushed forward the letter, and Louis started as his eyes fell upon it.
"Madame's writing!" he gasped.
"Yes; it is to her nephew in Germany."
Louis took it in his hand. Then, with a sudden motion, he threw it down among the others, and then yet again his hand stole towards it. His face was gray and haggard, and beads of moisture had broken out upon his brow. If this too were to prove to be as the others! He was shaken to the soul at the very thought. Twice he tried to pluck it out, and twice his trembling fingers fumbled with the paper. Then he tossed it over to Louvois. "Read it to me," said he.
The minister opened the letter out and flattened it upon the table, with a malicious light dancing in his eyes, which might have cost him his position had the king but read it aright.
"'My dear nephew,'" he read, "'what you ask me in your last is absolutely impossible. I have never abused the king's favour so far as to ask for any profit for myself, and I should be equally sorry to solicit any advance for my relatives. No one would rejoice more than I to see you rise to be major in your regiment, but your valour and your loyalty must be the cause, and you must not hope to do it through any word of mine. To serve such a man as the king is its own reward, and I am sure that whether you remain a cornet or rise to some higher rank, you will be equally zealous in his cause. He is surrounded, unhappily, by many base parasites. Some of these are mere fools, like Lauzun; others are knaves, like the late Fouquet; and some seem to be both fools and knaves, like Louvois, the minister of war.'" Here the reader choked with rage, and sat gurgling and drumming his fingers upon the table.
"Go on, Louvois, go on," said Louis, smiling up at the ceiling.
"'These are the clouds which surround the sun, my dear nephew; but the sun is, believe me, shining brightly behind them. For years I have known that noble nature as few others can know it, and I can tell you that his virtues are his own, but that if ever his glory is for an instant dimmed over, it is because his kindness of heart has allowed him to be swayed by those who are about him. We hope soon to see you back at Versailles, staggering under the weight of your laurels. Meanwhile accept my love and every wish for your speedy promotion, although it cannot be obtained in the way which you suggest.'"
"Ah," cried the king, his love shining in his eyes, "how could I for an instant doubt her! And yet I had been so shaken by the others! Francoise is as true as steel. Was it not a beautiful letter, Louvois?"
"Madame is a very clever woman," said the minister evasively.
"And such a reader of hearts! Has she not seen my character aright?"
"At least she has not read mine, sire."
There was a tap at the door, and Bontems peeped in. "The archbishop has arrived, sire."
"Very well, Bontems. Ask madame to be so good as to step this way. And order the witnesses to assemble in the ante-room."
As the valet hastened away, Louis turned to his minister: "I wish you to be one of the witnesses, Louvois."
"To what, sire?"
"To my marriage."
The minister started. "What, sire! Already?"
"Now, Louvois; within five minutes."
"Very good, sire." The unhappy courtier strove hard to assume a more festive manner; but the night had been full of vexation to him, and to be condemned to assist in making this woman the king's wife was the most bitter drop of all.
"Put these letters away, Louvois. The last one has made up for all the rest. But these rascals shall smart for it, all the same. By-the-way, there is that young nephew to whom madame wrote. Gerard d'Aubigny is his name, is it not?"
"Make him out a colonel's commission, and give him the next vacancy, Louvois."
"A colonel, sire! Why, he is not yet twenty."
"Ay, Louvois. Pray, am I the chief of the army, or are you? Take care, Louvois! I have warned you once before. I tell you, man, that if I choose to promote one of my jack-boots to be the head of a brigade, you shall not hesitate to make out the papers. Now go into the ante-room, and wait with the other witnesses until you are wanted."
There had meanwhile been busy goings-on in the small room where the red lamp burned in front of the Virgin. Francoise de Maintenon stood in the centre, a little flush of excitement on her cheeks, and an unwonted light in her placid gray eyes. She was clad in a dress of shining white brocade, trimmed and slashed with silver serge, and fringed at the throat and arms with costly point lace. Three women, grouped around her, rose and stooped and swayed, putting a touch here and a touch there, gathering in, looping up, and altering until all was to their taste.
"There!" said the head dressmaker, giving a final pat to a rosette of gray silk; "I think that will do, your Majes--that is to say, madame."
The lady smiled at the adroit slip of the courtier dressmaker.
"My tastes lean little towards dress," said she, "yet I would fain look as he would wish me to look."
"Ah, it is easy to dress madame. Madame has a figure. Madame has a carriage. What costume would not look well with such a neck and waist and arm to set it off? But, ah, madame, what are we to do when we have to make the figure as well as the dress? There was the Princess Charlotte Elizabeth. It was but yesterday that we cut her gown. She was short, madame, but thick. Oh, it is incredible how thick she was! She uses more cloth than madame, though she is two hand-breadths shorter. Ah, I am sure that the good God never meant people to be as thick as that. But then, of course, she is Bavarian and not French."
But madame was paying little heed to the gossip of the dressmaker. Her eyes were fixed upon the statue in the corner, and her lips were moving in prayer--prayer that she might be worthy of this great destiny which had come so suddenly upon her, a poor governess; that she might walk straight among the pitfalls which surrounded her upon every side; that this night's work might bring a blessing upon France and upon the man whom she loved. There came a discreet tap at the door to break in upon her prayer.
"It is Bontems, madame," said Mademoiselle Nanon. "He says that the king is ready."
"Then we shall not keep him waiting. Come, mademoiselle, and may God shed His blessing upon what we are about to do!"
The little party assembled in the king's ante-room, and started from there to the private chapel. In front walked the portly bishop, clad in a green vestment, puffed out with the importance of the function, his missal in his hand, and his fingers between the pages at the service _de matrimoniis_. Beside him strode his almoner, and two little servitors of the court in crimson cassocks bearing lighted torches. The king and Madame de Maintenon walked side by side, she quiet and composed, with gentle bearing and downcast eyes, he with a flush on his dark cheeks, and a nervous, furtive look in his eyes, like a man who knows that he is in the midst of one of the great crises of his life. Behind them, in solemn silence, followed a little group of chosen witnesses, the lean, silent Pere la Chaise, Louvois, scowling heavily at the bride, the Marquis de Charmarante, Bontems, and Mademoiselle Nanon.
The torches shed a strong yellow light upon this small band as they advanced slowly through the corridors and _salons_ which led to the chapel, and they threw a garish glare upon the painted walls and ceilings, flashing back from gold-work and from mirror, but leaving long trailing shadows in the corners. The king glanced nervously at these black recesses, and at the portraits of his ancestors and relations which lined the walls. As he passed that of his late queen, Maria Theresa, he started and gasped with horror.
"My God!" he whispered; "she frowned and spat at me!"
Madame laid her cool hand upon his wrist. "It is nothing, sire," she murmured, in her soothing voice. "It was but the light flickering over the picture."
Her words had their usual effect upon him. The startled look died away from his eyes, and taking her hand in his he walked resolutely forwards. A minute later they were before the altar, and the words were being read which should bind them forever together. As they turned away again, her new ring blazing upon her finger, there was a buzz of congratulation around her. The king only said nothing, but he looked at her, and she had no wish that he should say more. She was still calm and pale, but the blood throbbed in her temples. "You are Queen of France now," it seemed to be humming--"queen, queen, queen!"
But a sudden shadow had fallen across her, and a low voice was in her ear. "Remember your promise to the Church," it whispered. She started, and turned to see the pale, eager face of the Jesuit beside her.
"Your hand has turned cold, Francoise," said Louis. "Let us go, dearest. We have been too long in this dismal church."
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