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THE TWO FRANCOISES.
Madame de Montespan had retired to rest, easy in her mind, after receiving the message from her brother. She knew Louis as few others knew him, and she was well aware of that obstinacy in trifles which was one of his characteristics. If he had said that he would be married by the archbishop, then the archbishop it must be; to-night, at least, there should be no marriage. To-morrow was a new day, and if it did not shake the king's plans, then indeed she must have lost her wit as well as her beauty.
She dressed herself with care in the morning, putting on her powder, her little touch of rouge, her one patch near the dimple of her cheek, her loose robe of violet velvet, and her casconet of pearls with all the solicitude of a warrior, who is bracing on his arms for a life and death contest. No news had come to her of the great event of the previous night, although the court already rang with it, for her haughtiness and her bitter tongue had left her without a friend or intimate. She rose, therefore, in the best of spirits, with her mind set on the one question as to how best she could gain an audience with the king.
She was still in her boudoir putting the last touches to her toilet when her page announced to her that the king was waiting in her _salon_. Madame de Montespan could hardly believe in such good fortune. She had racked her brain all morning as to how she should win her way to him, and here he was waiting for her. With a last glance at the mirror, she hastened to meet him.
He was standing with his back turned, looking up at one of Snyders's paintings, when she entered; but as she closed the door, he turned and took two steps towards her. She had run forward with a pretty little cry of joy, her white arms outstretched, and love shining on her face; but he put out his hand, gently and yet with decision, with a gesture which checked her approach. Her hands dropped to her side, her lip trembled, and she stood looking at him with her grief and her fears all speaking loudly from her eyes. There was a look upon his features which she had never seen before, and already something was whispering at the back of her soul that to-day at least his spirit was stronger than her own.
"You are angry with me again," she cried.
He had come with every intention of beginning the interview by telling her bluntly of his marriage; but now, as he looked upon her beauty and her love, he felt that it would have been less brutal to strike her down at his feet. Let some one else tell her, then. She would know soon enough. Besides, there would be less chance then of a scene, which was a thing abhorrent to his soul. His task was, in any case, quite difficult enough. All this ran swiftly through his mind, and she as swiftly read it off in the brown eyes which gazed at her.
"You have something you came to say, and now you have not the heart to say it. God bless the kindly heart which checks the cruel tongue."
"No, no, madame," said Louis; "I would not be cruel. I cannot forget that my life has been brightened and my court made brilliant during all these years by your wit and your beauty. But times change, madame, and I owe a duty to the world which overrides my own personal inclinations. For every reason I think that it is best that we should arrange in the way which we discussed the other day, and that you should withdraw yourself from the court."
"Withdraw, sire! For how long?"
"It must be a permanent withdrawal, madame."
She stood with clenched hands and a pale face staring at him.
"I need not say that I shall make your retirement a happy one as far as in me lies. Your allowance shall be fixed by yourself; a palace shall be erected for you in whatever part of France you may prefer, provided that it is twenty miles from Paris. An estate also--"
"Oh, sire, how can you think that such things as these would compensate me for the loss of your love?" Her heart had turned to lead within her breast. Had he spoken hotly and angrily she might have hoped to turn him as she had done before; but this gentle and yet firm bearing was new to him, and she felt that all her arts were vain against it. His coolness enraged her, and yet she strove to choke down her passion and to preserve the humble attitude which was least natural to her haughty and vehement spirit; but soon the effort became too much for her.
"Madame," said he, "I have thought well over this matter, and it must be as I say. There is no other way at all. Since we must part, the parting had best be short and sharp. Believe me, it is no pleasant matter for me either. I have ordered your brother to have his carriage at the postern at nine o'clock, for I thought that perhaps you would wish to retire after nightfall."
"To hide my shame from a laughing court! It was thoughtful of you, sire. And yet, perhaps, this too was a duty, since we hear so much of duties nowadays, for who was it but you--"
"I know, madame, I know. I confess it. I have wronged you deeply. Believe me that every atonement which is in my power shall be made. Nay, do not look so angrily at me, I beg. Let our last sight of each other be one which may leave a pleasant memory behind it."
"A pleasant memory!" All the gentleness and humility had fallen from her now, and her voice had the hard ring of contempt and of anger. "A pleasant memory! It may well be pleasant to you, who are released from the woman whom you ruined, who can turn now to another without any pale face to be seen within the _salons_ of your court to remind you of your perfidy. But to me, pining in some lonely country house, spurned by my husband, despised by my family, the scorn and jest of France, far from all which gave a charm to life, far from the man for whose love I have sacrificed everything--this will be a very pleasant memory to me, you may be sure!"
The king's eyes had caught the angry gleam which shot from hers, and yet he strove hard to set a curb upon his temper. When such a matter had to be discussed between the proudest man and the haughtiest woman in all France, one or the other must yield a point. He felt that it was for him to do so, and yet it did not come kindly to his imperious nature.
"There is nothing to be gained, madame," said he, "by using words which are neither seemly for your tongue nor for my ears. You will do me the justice to confess that where I might command I am now entreating, and that instead of ordering you as my subject, I am persuading you as my friend."
"Oh, you show too much consideration, sire! Our relations of twenty years or so can scarce suffice to explain such forbearance from you. I should indeed be grateful that you have not set your archers of the guard upon me, or marched me from the palace between a file of your musketeers. Sire, how can I thank you for this forbearance?" She curtsied low, with her face set in a mocking smile.
"Your words are bitter, madame."
"My heart is bitter, sire."
"Nay, Francoise, be reasonable, I implore you. We have both left our youth behind."
"The allusion to my years comes gratefully from your lips."
"Ah, you distort my words. Then I shall say no more. You may not see me again, madame. Is there no question which you would wish to ask me before I go?"
"Good God!" she cried; "is this a man? Has it a heart? Are these the lips which have told me so often that he loved me? Are these the eyes which have looked so fondly into mine? Can you then thrust away a woman whose life has been yours as you put away the St. Germain palace when a more showy one was ready for you? And this is the end of all those vows, those sweet whispers, those persuasions, those promises--This!"
"Nay, madame, this is painful to both of us."
"Pain! Where is the pain in your face? I see anger in it because I have dared to speak truth; I see joy in it because you feel that your vile task is done. But where is the pain? Ah, when I am gone all will be so easy to you--will it not? You can go back then to your governess--"
"Yes, yes, you cannot frighten me! What do I care for all that you can do! But I know all. Do not think that I am blind. And so you would even have married her! You, the descendant of St. Louis, and she the Scarron widow, the poor drudge whom in charity I took into my household! Ah, how your courtiers will smile! how the little poets will scribble! how the wits will whisper! You do not hear of these things, of course, but they are a little painful for your friends."
"My patience can bear no more," cried the king furiously. "I leave you, madame, and forever."
But her fury had swept all fear and discretion from her mind. She stepped between the door and him, her face flushed, her eyes blazing, her face thrust a little forward, one small white satin slipper tapping upon the carpet.
"You are in haste, sire! She is waiting for you, doubtless."
"Let me pass, madame."
"But it was a disappointment last night, was it not, my poor sire? Ah, and for the governess, what a blow! Great heaven, what a blow! No archbishop! No marriage! All the pretty plan gone wrong! Was it not cruel?"
Louis gazed at the beautiful furious face in bewilderment, and it flashed across his mind that perhaps her grief had turned her brain. What else could be the meaning of this wild talk of the archbishop and the disappointment? It would be unworthy of him to speak harshly to one who was so afflicted. He must soothe her, and, above all, he must get away from her.
"You have had the keeping of a good many of my family jewels," said he. "I beg that you will still retain them as a small sign of my regard."
He had hoped to please her and to calm her, but in an instant she was over at her treasure-cupboard hurling double handfuls of precious stones down at his feet. They clinked and rattled, the little pellets of red and yellow and green, rolling, glinting over the floor and rapping up against the oak panels at the base of the walls.
"They will do for the governess if the archbishop comes at last," she cried.
He was more convinced than ever that she had lost her wits. A thought struck him by which he might appeal to all that was softer and more gentle in her nature. He stepped swiftly to the door, pushed it half open, and gave a whispered order. A youth with long golden hair waving down over his black velvet doublet entered the room. It was her youngest son, the Count of Toulouse.
"I thought that you would wish to bid him farewell," said Louis.
She stood staring as though unable to realise the significance of his words. Then it was borne suddenly in upon her that her children as well as her lover were to be taken from her, that this other woman should see them and speak with them and win their love while she was far away. All that was evil and bitter in the woman flashed suddenly up in her, until for the instant she was what the king had thought her. If her son was not for her, then he should be for none. A jewelled knife lay among her treasures, ready to her hand. She caught it up and rushed at the cowering lad. Louis screamed and ran forward to stop her; but another had been swifter than he. A woman had darted through the open door, and had caught the upraised wrist. There was a moment's struggle, two queenly figures swayed and strained, and the knife dropped between their feet. The frightened Louis caught it up, and seizing his little son by the wrist, he rushed from the apartment. Francoise de Montespan staggered back against the ottoman to find herself confronted by the steady eyes and set face of that other Francoise, the woman whose presence fell like a shadow at every turn of her life.
"I have saved you, madame, from doing that which you would have been the first to bewail."
"Saved me! It is you who have driven me to this!"
The fallen favourite leaned against the high back of the ottoman, her hands resting behind her upon the curve of the velvet. Her lids were half closed on her flashing eyes, and her lips just parted to show a gleam of her white teeth. Here was the true Francoise de Montespan, a feline creature crouching for a spring, very far from that humble and soft-spoken Francoise who had won the king back by her gentle words. Madame de Maintenon's hand had been cut in the struggle, and the blood was dripping down from the end of her fingers, but neither woman had time to spare a thought upon that. Her firm gray eyes were fixed upon her former rival as one fixes them upon some weak and treacherous creature who may be dominated by a stronger will.
"Yes, it is you who have driven me to this--you, whom I picked up when you were hard pressed for a crust of bread or a cup of sour wine. What had you? You had nothing--nothing except a name which was a laughing-stock. And what did I give you? I gave you everything. You know that I gave you everything. Money, position, the entrance to the court. You had them all from me. And now you mock me!"
"Madame, I do not mock you. I pity you from the bottom of my heart."
"Pity? Ha! ha! A Mortemart is pitied by the widow Scarron! Your pity may go where your gratitude is, and where your character is. We shall be troubled with it no longer then."
"Your words do not pain me."
"I can believe that you are not sensitive."
"Not when my conscience is at ease."
"Ah! it has not troubled you, then?"
"Not upon this point, madame."
"My God! How terrible must those other points have been!"
"I have never had an evil thought towards you."
"None towards me? Oh, woman, woman!"
"What have I done, then? The king came to my room to see the children taught. He stayed. He talked. He asked my opinion on this and that. Could I be silent? or could I say other than what I thought?"
"You turned him against me!"
"I should be proud indeed if I thought that I had turned him to virtue."
"The word comes well from your lips."
"I would that I heard it upon yours."
"And so, by your own confession, you stole the king's love from me, most virtuous of widows!"
"I had all gratitude and kindly thought for you. You have, as you have so often reminded me, been my benefactress. It was not necessary for you to say it, for I had never for an instant forgotten it. Yet if the king has asked me what I thought, I will not deny to you that I have said that sin is sin, and that he would be a worthier man if he shook off the guilty bonds which held him."
"Or exchanged them for others."
"For those of duty."
"Pah! Your hypocrisy sickens me! If you pretend to be a nun, why are you not where the nuns are? You would have the best of two worlds-- would you not?--have all that the court can give, and yet ape the manners of the cloister. But you need not do it with me! I know you as your inmost heart knows you. I was honest, and what I did, I did before the world. You, behind your priests and your directors and your _prie-dieus_ and your missals--do you think that you deceive me, as you deceive others?"
Her antagonist's gray eyes sparkled for the first time, and she took a quick step forward, with one white hand half lifted in rebuke.
"You may speak as you will of me," said she. "To me it is no more than the foolish paroquet that chatters in your ante-room. But do not touch upon things which are sacred. Ah, if you would but raise your own thoughts to such things--if you would but turn them inwards, and see, before it is too late, how vile and foul is this life which you have led! What might you not have done? His soul was in your hands like clay for the potter. If you had raised him up, if you had led him on the higher path, if you had brought out all that was noble and good within him, how your name would have been loved and blessed, from the chateau to the cottage! But no; you dragged him down; you wasted his youth; you drew him from his wife; you marred his manhood. A crime in one so high begets a thousand others in those who look to him for an example; and all, all are upon your soul. Take heed, madame, for God's sake take heed ere it be too late! For all your beauty, there can be for you, as for me, a few short years of life. Then, when that brown hair is white, when that white cheek is sunken, when that bright eye is dimmed--ah, then God pity the sin-stained soul of Francoise de Montespan!"
Her rival had sunk her head for the moment before the solemn words and the beautiful eyes. For an instant she stood silent, cowed for the first time in all her life; but then the mocking, defiant spirit came back to her, and she glanced up with a curling lip.
"I am already provided with a spiritual director, thank you," said she. "Oh, madame, you must not think to throw dust in my eyes! I know you, and know you well!"
"On the contrary, you seem to know less than I had expected. If you know me so well, pray what am I?"
All her rival's bitterness and hatred rang in the tones of her answer. "You are," said she, "the governess of my children, and the secret mistress of the king."
"You are mistaken," answered Madame de Maintenon serenely. "I am the governess of your children, and I am the king's wife."
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