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LE ROI S'AMUSE.
Captain de Catinat had hardly vanished through the one door before the other was thrown open by Mademoiselle Nanon, and the king entered the room. Madame de Maintenon rose with a pleasant smile and curtsied deeply, but there was no answering light upon her visitor's face, and he threw himself down upon the vacant arm-chair with a pouting lip and a frown upon his forehead.
"Nay, now this is a very bad compliment," she cried, with the gaiety which she could assume whenever it was necessary to draw the king from his blacker humours. "My poor little dark room has already cast a shadow over you."
"Nay; it is Father la Chaise and the Bishop of Meaux who have been after me all day like two hounds on a stag, with talk of my duty and my position and my sins, with judgment and hell-fire ever at the end of their exhortations."
"And what would they have your Majesty do?"
"Break the promise which I made when I came upon the throne, and which my grandfather made before me. They wish me to recall the Edict of Nantes, and drive the Huguenots from the kingdom."
"Oh, but your Majesty must not trouble your mind about such matters."
"You would not have me do it, madame?"
"Not if it is to be a grief to your Majesty."
"You have, perchance, some soft feeling for the religion of your youth?"
"Nay, sire; I have nothing but hatred for heresy."
"And yet you would not have them thrust out?"
"Bethink you, sire, that the Almighty can Himself incline their hearts to better things if He is so minded, even as mine was inclined. May you not leave it in His hands?"
"On my word," said Louis, brightening, "it is well put. I shall see if Father la Chaise can find an answer to that. It is hard to be threatened with eternal flames because one will not ruin one's kingdom. Eternal torment! I have seen the face of a man who had been in the Bastille, for fifteen years. It was like a dreadful book, with a scar or a wrinkle to mark every hour of that death in life. But Eternity!" He shuddered, and his eyes were filled with the horror of his thought. The higher motives had but little power over his soul, as those about him had long discovered, but he was ever ready to wince at the image of the terrors to come.
"Why should you think of such things, sire?" said the lady, in her rich, soothing voice. "What have you to fear, you who have been the first son of the Church?"
"You think that I am safe, then?"
"But I have erred, and erred deeply. You have yourself said as much."
"But that is all over, sire. Who is there who is without stain? You have turned away from temptation. Surely, then, you have earned your forgiveness."
"I would that the queen were living once more. She would find me a better man."
"I would that she were, sire."
"And she should know that it was to you that she owed the change. Oh, Francoise, you are surely my guardian angel, who has taken bodily form! How can I thank you for what you have done for me?" He leaned forward and took her hand, but at the touch a sudden fire sprang into his eyes, and he would have passed his other arm round her had she not risen hurriedly to avoid the embrace.
"Sire!" said she, with a rigid face and one finger upraised.
"You are right, you are right, Francoise. Sit down, and I will control myself. Still at the same tapestry, then! My workers at the Gobelins must look to their laurels." He raised one border of the glossy roll, while she, having reseated herself, though not without a quick questioning glance at her companion, took the other end into her lap and continued her work.
"Yes, sire. It is a hunting scene in your forests at Fontainebleau. A stag of ten tines, you see, and the hounds in full cry, and a gallant band of cavaliers and ladies. Has your Majesty ridden to-day?"
"No. How is it, Francoise, that you have such a heart of ice?"
"I would it were so, sire. Perhaps you have hawked, then?"
"No. But surely no man's love has ever stirred you! And yet you have been a wife."
"A nurse, sire, but never a wife. See the lady in the park! It is surely mademoiselle. I did not know that she had come up from Choisy."
But the king was not to be distracted from his subject.
"You did not love this Scarron, then?" he persisted. "He was old, I have heard, and as lame as some of his verses."
"Do not speak lightly of him, sire. I was grateful to him; I honoured him; I liked him."
"But you did not love him."
"Why should you seek to read the secrets of a woman's heart?"
"You did not love him, Francoise?"
"At least I did my duty towards him."
"Has that nun's heart never yet been touched by love then?"
"Sire, do not question me."
"Has it never--"
"Spare me, sire, I beg of you!"
"But I must ask, for my own peace hangs upon your answer."
"Your words pain me to the soul."
"Have you never, Francoise, felt in your heart some little flicker of the love which glows in mine?" He rose with his hands outstretched, a pleading monarch, but she, with half-turned bead, still shrank away from him.
"Be assured of one thing, sire," said she, "that even if I loved you as no woman ever loved a man yet, I should rather spring from that window on to the stone terraces beneath than ever by word or sign confess as much to you."
"And why, Francoise?"
"Because, sire, it is my highest hope upon earth that I have been chosen to lift up your mind towards loftier things--that mind the greatness and nobility of which none know more than I."
"And is my love so base, then?"
"You have wasted too much of your life and of your thoughts upon woman's love. And now, sire, the years steal on and the day is coming when even you will be called upon to give an account of your actions, and of the innermost thoughts of your heart. I would see you spend the time that is left to you, sire, in building up the Church, in showing a noble example to your subjects, and in repairing any evil which that example may have done in the past."
The king sank back into his chair with a groan. "Forever the same," said he. "Why, you are worse than Father la Chaise and Bossuet."
"Nay, nay," said she gaily, with the quick tact in which she never failed. "I have wearied you, when you have stooped to honour my little room with your presence. That is indeed ingratitude, and it were a just punishment if you were to leave me in solitude to-morrow, and so cut off all the light of my day. But tell me, sire, how go the works at Marly? I am all on fire to know whether the great fountain will work."
"Yes, the fountain plays well, but Mansard has thrown the right wing too far back. I have made him a good architect, but I have still much to teach him. I showed him his fault on the plan this morning, and he promised to amend it."
"And what will the change cost, sire?"
"Some millions of livres, but then the view will be much improved from the south side. I have taken in another mile of ground in that direction, for there were a number of poor folk living there, and their hovels were far from pretty."
"And why have you not ridden to-day, sire?"
"Pah! it brings me no pleasure. There was a time when my blood was stirred by the blare of the horn and the rush of the hoofs, but now it is all wearisome to me."
"And hawking too?"
"Yes; I shall hawk no more."
"But, sire, you must have amusement."
"What is so dull as an amusement which has ceased to amuse? I know not how it is. When I was but a lad, and my mother and I were driven from place to place, with the Fronde at war with us and Paris in revolt, with our throne and even our lives in danger, all life seemed to be so bright, so new, and so full of interest. Now that there is no shadow, and that my voice is the first in France, as France's is in Europe, all is dull and lacking in flavour. What use is it to have all pleasure before me, when it turns to wormwood when it is tasted?"
"True pleasure, sire, lies rather in the inward life, the serene mind, the easy conscience. And then, as we grow older, is it not natural that our minds should take a graver bent? We might well reproach ourselves if it were not so, for it would show that we had not learned the lesson of life."
"It may be so, and yet it is sad and weary when nothing amuses. But who is there?"
"It is my companion knocking. What is it, mademoiselle?"
"Monsieur Corneille, to read to the king," said the young lady, opening the door.
"Ah, yes, sire; I know how foolish is a woman's tongue, and so I have brought a wiser one than mine here to charm you. Monsieur Racine was to have come, but I hear that he has had a fall from his horse, and he sends his friend in his place. Shall I admit him?"
"Oh, as you like, madame, as you like," said the king listlessly. At a sign from Mademoiselle Nanon a little peaky man with a shrewd petulant face, and long gray hair falling back over his shoulders, entered the room. He bowed profoundly three times, and then seated himself nervously on the very edge of the stool, from which the lady had removed her work-basket. She smiled and nodded to encourage the poet, while the monarch leaned back in his chair with an air of resignation.
"Shall it be a comedy, or a tragedy, or a burlesque pastoral?" Corneille asked timidly.
"Not the burlesque pastoral," said the king with decision. "Such things may be played, but cannot be read, since they are for the eye rather than the ear."
The poet bowed his acquiescence.
"And not the tragedy, monsieur," said Madame de Maintenon, glancing up from her tapestry. "The king has enough that is serious in his graver hours, and so I trust that you will use your talent to amuse him."
"Ay, let it be a comedy," said Louis; "I have not had a good laugh since poor Moliere passed away."
"Ah, your Majesty has indeed a fine taste," cried the courtier poet. "Had you condescended to turn your own attention to poetry, where should we all have been then?"
Louis smiled, for no flattery was too gross to please him.
"Even as you have taught our generals war and our builders art, so you would have set your poor singers a loftier strain. But Mars would hardly deign to share the humbler laurels of Apollo."
"I have sometimes thought that I had some such power," answered the king complacently; "though amid my toils and the burdens of state I have had, as you say, little time for the softer arts."
"But you have encouraged others to do what you could so well have done yourself, sire. You have brought out poets as the sun brings out flowers. How many have we not seen--Moliere, Boileau, Racine, one greater than the other? And the others, too, the smaller ones--Scarron, so scurrilous and yet so witty--Oh, holy Virgin! what have I said?"
Madame had laid down her tapestry, and was staring in intense indignation at the poet, who writhed on his stool under the stern rebuke of those cold gray eyes.
"I think, Monsieur Corneille, that you had better go on with your reading," said the king dryly.
"Assuredly, sire. Shall I read my play about Darius?"
"And who was Darius?" asked the king, whose education had been so neglected by the crafty policy of Cardinal Mazarin that he was ignorant of everything save what had come under his own personal observation.
"Darius was King of Persia, sire."
"And where is Persia?"
"It is a kingdom of Asia."
"Is Darius still king there?"
"Nay, sire; he fought against Alexander the Great."
"Ah, I have heard of Alexander. He was a famous king and general, was he not?"
"Like your Majesty, he both ruled wisely and led his armies victoriously."
"And was King of Persia, you say?"
"No, sire; of Macedonia. It was Darius who was King of Persia."
The king frowned, for the slightest correction was offensive to him.
"You do not seem very clear about the matter, and I confess that it does not interest me deeply," said he. "Pray turn to something else."
"There is my _Pretended Astrologer_."
"Yes, that will do."
Corneille commenced to read his comedy, while Madame de Maintenon's white and delicate fingers picked among the many-coloured silks which she was weaving into her tapestry. From time to time she glanced across, first at the clock and then at the king, who was leaning back, with his lace handkerchief thrown over his face. It was twenty minutes to four now, but she knew that she had put it back half an hour, and that the true time was ten minutes past.
"Tut! tut!" cried the king suddenly. "There is something amiss there. The second last line has a limp in it, surely." It was one of his foibles to pose as a critic, and the wise poet would fall in with his corrections, however unreasonable they might be.
"Which line, sire? It is indeed an advantage to have one's faults made clear."
"Read the passage again."
"Et si, quand je lui dis le secret de mon ame, Avec moins de rigueur elle eut traite ma flamme, Dans ma fayon de vivre, et suivant mon humeur, Une autre eut bientot le present de mon coeur.""Yes, the third line has a foot too many. Do you not remark it, madame?"
"No; but I fear that I should make a poor critic."
"Your Majesty is perfectly right," said Corneille unblushingly. "I shall mark the passage, and see that it is corrected."
"I thought that it was wrong. If I do not write myself, you can see that I have at least got the correct ear. A false quantity jars upon me. It is the same in music. Although I know little of the matter, I can tell a discord where Lully himself would miss it. I have often shown him errors of the sort in his operas, and I have always convinced him that I was right."
"I can readily believe it, your Majesty." Corneille had picked up his book again, and was about to resume his reading when there came a sharp tap at the door.
"It is his Highness the minister, Monsieur de Louvois," said Mademoiselle Nanon.
"Admit him," answered Louis. "Monsieur Corneille, I am obliged to you for what you have read, and I regret that an affair of state will now interrupt your comedy. Some other day perhaps I may have the pleasure of hearing the rest of it." He smiled in the gracious fashion which made all who came within his personal influence forget his faults and remember him only as the impersonation of dignity and of courtesy.
The poet, with his book under his arm, slipped out, while the famous minister, tall, heavily wigged, eagle-nosed, and commanding, came bowing into the little room. His manner was that of exaggerated politeness, but his haughty face marked only too plainly his contempt for such a chamber and for the lady who dwelt there. She was well aware of the feeling with which he regarded her, but her perfect self-command prevented her from ever by word or look returning his dislike.
"My apartments are indeed honoured to-day," said she, rising with outstretched hand. "Can monsieur condescend to a stool, since I have no fitter seat to offer you in this little doll's house? But perhaps I am in the way, if you wish to talk of state affairs to the king. I can easily withdraw into my boudoir."
"No, no, nothing of the kind, madame," cried Louis. "It is my wish that you should remain here. What is it, Louvois?"
"A messenger arrived from England with despatches, your Majesty," answered the minister, his ponderous figure balanced upon the three-legged stool. "There is very ill feeling there, and there is some talk of a rising. The letter from Lord Sunderland wished to know whether, in case the Dutch took the side of the malcontents, the king might look to France for help. Of course, knowing your Majesty's mind, I answered unhesitatingly that he might."
"You did what?"
"I answered, sire, that he might."
King Louis flushed with anger, and he caught up the tongs from the grate with a motion as though he would have struck his minister with them. Madame sprang from her chair, and laid her hand upon his arm with a soothing gesture. He threw down the tongs again, but his eyes still flashed with passion as he turned them upon Louvois.
"How dared you?" he cried.
"How dared you, I say? What! You venture to answer such a message without consulting me! How often am I to tell you that I am the state-- I alone; that all is to come from me; and that I am answerable to God only? What are you? My instrument! my tool! And you venture to act without my authority!"
"I thought that I knew your wishes, sire," stammered Louvois, whose haughty manner had quite deserted him, and whose face was as white as the ruffles of his shirt.
"You are not there to think about my wishes, sir. You are there to consult them and to obey them. Why is it that I have turned away from my old nobility, and have committed the affairs of my kingdom to men whose names have never been heard of in the history of France, such men as Colbert and yourself? I have been blamed for it. There was the Duc de St. Simon, who said, the last time that he was at the court, that it was a bourgeois government. So it is. But I wished it to be so, because I knew that the nobles have a way of thinking for themselves, and I ask for no thought but mine in the governing of France. But if my bourgeois are to receive messages and give answers to embassies, then indeed I am to be pitied. I have marked you of late, Louvois. You have grown beyond your station. You take too much upon yourself. See to it that I have not again to complain to you upon this matter."
The humiliated minister sat as one crushed, with his chin sunk upon his breast. The king muttered and frowned for a few minutes, but the cloud cleared gradually from his face, for his fits of anger were usually as short as they were fierce and sudden.
"You will detain that messenger, Louvois," he said at last, in a calm voice.
"And we shall see at the council meeting to-morrow that a fitting reply be sent to Lord Sunderland. It would be best perhaps not to be too free with our promises in the matter. These English have ever been a thorn in our sides. If we could leave them among their own fogs with such a quarrel as would keep them busy for a few years, then indeed we might crush this Dutch prince at our leisure. Their last civil war lasted ten years, and their next may do as much. We could carry our frontier to the Rhine long ere that. Eh, Louvois?"
"Your armies are ready, sire, on the day that you give the word."
"But war is a costly business. I do not wish to have to sell the court plate, as we did the other day. How are the public funds?"
"We are not very rich, sire. But there is one way in which money may very readily be gained. There was some talk this morning about the Huguenots, and whether they should dwell any longer in this Catholic kingdom. Now, if they are driven out, and if their property were taken by the state, then indeed your Majesty would at once become the richest monarch in Christendom."
"But you were against it this morning, Louvois?"
"I had not had time to think of it, sire."
"You mean that Father la Chaise and the bishop had not had time to get at you," said Louis sharply. "Ah, Louvois, I have not lived with a court round me all these years without learning how things are done. It is a word to him, and so on to another, and so to a third, and so to the king. When my good fathers of the Church have set themselves to bring anything to pass, I see traces of them at every turn, as one traces a mole by the dirt which it has thrown up. But I will not be moved against my own reason to do wrong to those who, however mistaken they may be, are still the subjects whom God has given me."
"I would not have you do so, sire," cried Louvois in confusion. The king's accusation had been so true that he had been unable at the moment even to protest.
"I know but one person," continued Louis, glancing across at Madame de Maintenon, "who has no ambitions, who desires neither wealth nor preferment, and who can therefore never be bribed to sacrifice my interests. That is why I value that person's opinion so highly." He smiled at the lady as he spoke, while his minister cast a glance at her which showed the jealousy which ate into his soul.
"It was my duty to point this out to you, sire, not as a suggestion, but as a possibility," said he, rising. "I fear that I have already taken up too much of your Majesty's time, and I shall now withdraw." Bowing slightly to the lady, and profoundly to the monarch, he walked from the room.
"Louvois grows intolerable," said the king. "I know not where his insolence will end. Were it not that he is an excellent servant, I should have sent him from the court before this. He has his own opinions upon everything. It was but the other day that he would have it that I was wrong when I said that one of the windows in the Trianon was smaller than any of the others. It was the same size, said he. I brought Le Metre with his measures, and of course the window was, as I had said, too small. But I see by your clock that it is four o'clock. I must go."
"My clock, sire, is half an hour slow."
"Half an hour!" The king looked dismayed for an instant, and then began to laugh. "Nay, in that case," said he, "I had best remain where I am, for it is too late to go, and I can say with a clear conscience that it was the clock's fault rather than mine."
"I trust that it was nothing of very great importance, sire," said the lady, with a look of demure triumph in her eyes.
"By no means."
"No state affair?"
"No, no; it was only that it was the hour at which I had intended to rebuke the conduct of a presumptuous person. But perhaps it is better as it is. My absence will in itself convey my message, and in such a sort that I trust I may never see that person's face more at my court. But, ah, what is this?"
The door had been flung open, and Madame de Montespan, beautiful and furious, was standing before them.
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