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THE HOLDING OF THE DOOR.
Whilst Louis had been affording his court that which he had openly stated to be the highest of human pleasures--the sight of the royal face--the young officer of the guard outside had been very busy passing on the titles of the numerous applicants for admission, and exchanging usually a smile or a few words of greeting with them, for his frank, handsome face was a well-known one at the court. With his merry eyes and his brisk bearing, he looked like a man who was on good terms with Fortune. Indeed, he had good cause to be so, for she had used him well. Three years ago he had been an unknown subaltern bush-fighting with Algonquins and Iroquois in the wilds of Canada. An exchange had brought him back to France and into the regiment of Picardy, but the lucky chance of having seized the bridle of the king's horse one winter's day in Fontainebleau when the creature was plunging within a few yards of a deep gravel-pit had done for him what ten campaigns might have failed to accomplish. Now as a trusted officer of the king's guard, young, gallant, and popular, his lot was indeed an enviable one. And yet, with the strange perversity of human nature, he was already surfeited with the dull if magnificent routine of the king's household, and looked back with regret to the rougher and freer days of his early service. Even there at the royal door his mind had turned away from the frescoed passage and the groups of courtiers to the wild ravines and foaming rivers of the West, when suddenly his eyes lit upon a face which he had last seen among those very scenes.
"Ah, Monsieur de Frontenac!" he cried. "You cannot have forgotten me."
"What! De Catinat! Ah, it is a joy indeed to see a face from over the water! But there is a long step between a subaltern in the Carignan and a captain in the guards. You have risen rapidly."
"Yes; and yet I may be none the happier for it. There are times when I would give it all to be dancing down the Lachine Rapids in a birch canoe, or to see the red and the yellow on those hill-sides once more at the fall of the leaf."
"Ay," sighed De Frontenac. "You know that my fortunes have sunk as yours have risen. I have been recalled, and De la Barre is in my place. But there will be a storm there which such a man as he can never stand against. With the Iroquois all dancing the scalp-dance, and Dongan behind them in New York to whoop them on, they will need me, and they will find me waiting when they send. I will see the king now, and try if I cannot rouse him to play the great monarch there as well as here. Had I but his power in my hands, I should change the world's history."
"Hush! No treason to the captain of the guard," cried De Catinat, laughing, while the stern old soldier strode past him into the king's presence.
A gentleman very richly dressed in black and silver had come up during this short conversation, and advanced, as the door opened, with the assured air of a man whose rights are beyond dispute. Captain de Catinat, however, took a quick step forward, and barred him off from the door.
"I am very sorry, Monsieur de Vivonne," said he, "but you are forbidden the presence."
"Forbidden the presence! I? You are mad!" He stepped back with gray face and staring eyes, one shaking hand half raised in protest,
"I assure you that it is his order."
"But it is incredible. It is a mistake."
"Then you will let me past."
"My orders leave me no discretion."
"If I could have one word with the king."
"Unfortunately, monsieur, it is impossible."
"Only one word."
"It really does not rest with me, monsieur."
The angry nobleman stamped his foot, and stared at the door as though he had some thoughts of forcing a passage. Then turning on his heel, he hastened away down the corridor with the air of a man who has come to a decision.
"There, now," grumbled De Catinat to himself, as he pulled at his thick dark moustache, "he is off to make some fresh mischief. I'll have his sister here presently, as like as not, and a pleasant little choice between breaking my orders and making an enemy of her for life. I'd rather hold Fort Richelieu against the Iroquois than the king's door against an angry woman. By my faith, here _is_ a lady, as I feared! Ah, Heaven be praised! it is a friend, and not a foe. Good-morning, Mademoiselle Nanon."
"Good-morning, Captain de Catinat."
The new-comer was a tall, graceful brunette, her fresh face and sparkling black eyes the brighter in contrast with her plain dress.
"I am on guard, you see. I cannot talk with you."
"I cannot remember having asked monsieur to talk with me."
"Ah, but you must not pout in that pretty way, or else I cannot help talking to you," whispered the captain. "What is this in your hand, then?"
"A note from Madame de Maintenon to the king. You will hand it to him, will you not?"
"Certainly, mademoiselle. And how is Madame, your mistress?"
"Oh, her director has been with her all the morning, and his talk is very, very good; but it is also very, very sad. We are not very cheerful when Monsieur Godet has been to see us. But I forget monsieur is a Huguenot, and knows nothing of directors."
"Oh, but I do not trouble about such differences. I let the Sorbonne and Geneva fight it out between them. Yet a man must stand by his family, you know."
"Ah! if Monsieur could talk to Madame de Maintenon a little! She would convert him."
"I would rather talk to Mademoiselle Nanon, but if--"
"Oh!" There was an exclamation, a whisk of dark skirts, and the soubrette had disappeared down a side passage.
Along the broad, lighted corridor was gliding a very stately and beautiful lady, tall, graceful, and exceedingly haughty. She was richly clad in a bodice of gold-coloured camlet and a skirt of gray silk trimmed with gold and silver lace. A handkerchief of priceless Genoa point half hid and half revealed her beautiful throat, and was fastened in front by a cluster of pearls, while a rope of the same, each one worth a bourgeois' income, was coiled in and out through her luxuriant hair. The lady was past her first youth, it is true, but the magnificent curves of her queenly figure, the purity of her complexion, the brightness of her deep-lashed blue eyes and the clear regularity of her features enabled her still to claim to be the most handsome as well as the most sharp-tongued woman in the court of France. So beautiful was her bearing, the carriage of her dainty head upon her proud white neck, and the sweep of her stately walk, that the young officer's fears were overpowered in his admiration, and he found it hard, as he raised his hand in salute, to retain the firm countenance which his duties demanded.
"Ah, it is Captain de Catinat," said Madame de Montespan, with a smile which was more embarrassing to him than any frown could have been.
"Your humble servant, marquise."
"I am fortunate in finding a friend here, for there has been some ridiculous mistake this morning."
"I am concerned to hear it."
"It was about my brother, Monsieur de Vivonne. It is almost too laughable to mention, but he was actually refused admission to the _lever_."
"It was my misfortune to have to refuse him, madame."
"You, Captain de Catinat? And by what right?" She had drawn up her superb figure, and her large blue eyes were blazing with indignant astonishment.
"The king's order, madame."
"The king! Is it likely that the king would cast a public slight upon my family? From whom had you this preposterous order?"
"Direct from the king through Bontems."
"Absurd! Do you think that the king would venture to exclude a Mortemart through the mouth of a valet? You have been dreaming, captain."
"I trust that it may prove so, madame."
"But such dreams are not very fortunate to the dreamer. Go, tell the king that I am here, and would have a word with him."
"I have been forbidden to carry a message."
"To carry any message?"
"Any from you, madame."
"Come, captain, you improve. It only needed this insult to make the thing complete. You may carry a message to the king from any adventuress, from any decayed governess"--she laughed shrilly at her description of her rival--"but none from Francoise de Mortemart, Marquise de Montespan?"
"Such are my orders, madame. It pains me deeply to be compelled to carry them out."
"You may spare your protestations, captain. You may yet find that you have every reason to be deeply pained. For the last time, do you refuse to carry my message to the king?"
"I must, madame."
"Then I carry it myself."
She sprang forward at the door, but he slipped in front of her with outstretched arms.
"For God's sake, consider yourself, madame!" he entreated. "Other eyes are upon you."
"Pah! Canaille!" She glanced at the knot of Switzers, whose sergeant had drawn them off a few paces, and who stood open-eyed, staring at the scene.
"I tell you that I _will_ see the king."
"No lady has ever been at the morning _lever_."
"Then I shall be the first."
"You will ruin me if you pass."
"And none the less, I shall do so."
The matter looked serious. De Catinat was a man of resource, but for once he was at his wits' end. Madame de Montespan's resolution, as it was called in her presence, or effrontery, as it was termed behind her back, was proverbial. If she attempted to force her way, would he venture to use violence upon one who only yesterday had held the fortunes of the whole court in the hollow of her hand, and who, with her beauty, her wit, and her energy, might very well be in the same position to-morrow? If she passed him, then his future was ruined with the king, who never brooked the smallest deviation from his orders. On the other hand, if he thrust her back, he did that which could never be forgiven, and which would entail some deadly vengeance should she return to power. It was an unpleasant dilemma. But a happy thought flashed into his mind at the very moment when she, with clenched hand and flashing eyes, was on the point of making a fresh attempt to pass him.
"If madame would deign to wait," said he soothingly, "the king will be on his way to the chapel in an instant."
"It is not yet time."
"I think the hour has just gone."
"And why should I wait, like a lackey?"
"It is but a moment, madame."
"No, I shall not wait." She took a step forward towards the door.
But the guardsman's quick ear had caught the sound of moving feet from within, and he knew that he was master of the situation.
"I will take Madame's message," said he.
"Ah, you have recovered your senses! Go, tell the king that I wish to speak with him."
He must gain a little time yet. "Shall I say it through the lord in waiting?"
"No, no; for his private ear."
"Shall I give a reason for your request?"
"Oh, you madden me! Say what I have told you, and at once."
But the young officer's dilemma was happily over.
At that instant the double doors were swung open, and Louis appeared in the opening, strutting forwards on his high-heeled shoes, his stick tapping, his broad skirts flapping, and his courtiers spreading out behind him. He stopped as he came out, and turned to the captain of the guard.
"You have a note for me?"
The monarch slipped it into the pocket of his scarlet undervest, and was advancing once more when his eyes fell upon Madame de Montespan standing very stiff and erect in the middle of the passage. A dark flush of anger shot to his brow, and he walked swiftly past her without a word; but she turned and kept pace with him down the corridor.
"I had not expected this honour, madame," said he.
"Nor had I expected this insult, sire."
"An insult, madame? You forget yourself."
"No; it is you who have forgotten me, sire."
"You intrude upon me."
"I wished to hear my fate from your own lips," she whispered. "I can bear to be struck myself, sire, even by him who has my heart. But it is hard to hear that one's brother has been wounded through the mouths of valets and Huguenot soldiers for no fault of his, save that his sister has loved too fondly."
"It is no time to speak of such things."
"When can I see you, then, sire?"
"In your chamber."
"At what hour?"
"Then I shall trouble your Majesty no further." She swept him one of the graceful courtesies for which she was famous, and turned away down a side passage with triumph shining in her eyes. Her beauty and her spirit had never failed her yet, and now that she had the monarch's promise of an interview she never doubted that she could do as she had done before, and win back the heart of the man, however much against the conscience of the king.
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