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Chapter 40

Chapter XL:
The Nymphs of the Park of Fontainebleau.

The king remained for a moment to enjoy a triumph as complete as it could
possibly be. He then turned towards Madame, for the purpose of admiring
her also a little in her turn. Young persons love with more vivacity,
perhaps with greater ardor and deeper passion, than others more advanced
in years; but all the other feelings are at the same time developed in
proportion to their youth and vigor: so that vanity being with them
almost always the equivalent of love, the latter feeling, according to
the laws of equipoise, never attains that degree of perfection which it
acquires in men and women from thirty to five and thirty years of age.
Louis thought of Madame, but only after he had studiously thought of
himself; and Madame carefully thought of herself, without bestowing a
single thought upon the king. The victim, however, of all these royal
affections and affectations, was poor De Guiche. Every one could observe
his agitation and prostration - a prostration which was, indeed, the more
remarkable since people were not accustomed to see him with his arms
hanging listlessly by his side, his head bewildered, and his eyes with
all their bright intelligence bedimmed. It rarely happened that any
uneasiness was excited on his account, whenever a question of elegance or
taste was under discussion; and De Guiche's defeat was accordingly
attributed by the greater number present to his courtier-like tact and
ability. But there were others - keen-sighted observers are always to
be met with at court - who remarked his paleness and his altered looks;
which he could neither feign nor conceal, and their conclusion was that
De Guiche was not acting the part of a flatterer. All these sufferings,
successes, and remarks were blended, confounded, and lost in the uproar
of applause. When, however, the queens expressed their satisfaction and
the spectators their enthusiasm, when the king had retired to his
dressing-room to change his costume, and whilst Monsieur, dressed as a
woman, as he delighted to be, was in his turn dancing about, De Guiche,
who had now recovered himself, approached Madame, who, seated at the back
of the theater, was waiting for the second part, and had quitted the
others for the purpose of creating a sort of solitude for herself in the
midst of the crowd, to meditate, as it were, beforehand, upon
chorographic effects; and it will be perfectly understood that, absorbed
in deep meditation, she did not see, or rather pretended not to notice,
anything that was passing around her. De Guiche, observing that she was
alone, near a thicket constructed of painted cloth, approached her. Two
of her maids of honor, dressed as hamadryads, seeing De Guiche advance,
drew back out of respect., whereupon De Guiche proceeded towards the
middle of the circle and saluted her royal highness; but, whether she did
or did not observe his salutations, the princess did not even turn her
head. A cold shiver passed through poor De Guiche; he was unprepared for
such utter indifference, for he had neither seen nor been told of
anything that had taken place, and consequently could guess nothing.
Remarking, therefore, that his obeisance obtained him no acknowledgement,
he advanced one step further, and in a voice which he tried, though
vainly, to render calm, said: "I have the honor to present my most humble
respects to your royal highness."

Upon this Madame deigned to turn her eyes languishingly towards the
comte, observing. "Ah! M. de Guiche, is that you? good day!"

The comte's patience almost forsook him, as he continued, - "Your royal
highness danced just now most charmingly."

"Do you think so?" she replied with indifference.

"Yes; the character which your royal highness assumed is in perfect
harmony with your own."

Madame again turned round, and, looking De Guiche full in the face with a
bright and steady gaze, said, - "Why so?"

"Oh! there can be no doubt of it."

"Explain yourself?"

"You represented a divinity, beautiful, disdainful, inconstant."

"You mean Pomona, comte?"

"I allude to the goddess."

Madame remained silent for a moment, with her lips compressed, and then
observed, - "But, comte, you, too, are an excellent dancer."

"Nay, Madame, I am only one of those who are never noticed, or who are
soon forgotten if they ever happen to be noticed."

With this remark, accompanied by one of those deep sighs which affect the
remotest fibers of one's being, his heart burdened with sorrow and
throbbing fast, his head on fire, and his gaze wandering, he bowed
breathlessly, and withdrew behind the thicket. The only reply Madame
condescended to make was by slightly raising her shoulders, and, as her
ladies of honor had discreetly retired while the conversation lasted, she
recalled them by a look. The ladies were Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente
and Mademoiselle de Montalais.

"Did you hear what the Comte de Guiche said?" the princess inquired.

"No."

"It really is very singular," she continued, in a compassionate tone,
"how exile has affected poor M. de Guiche's wit." And then, in a louder
voice, fearful lest her unhappy victim might lose a syllable, she said,
- "In the first place he danced badly, and afterwards his remarks were
very silly."

She then rose, humming the air to which she was presently going to
dance. De Guiche had overheard everything. The arrow pierced his heart
and wounded him mortally. Then, at the risk of interrupting the progress
of the _fete_ by his annoyance, he fled from the scene, tearing his
beautiful costume of Autumn in pieces, and scattering, as he went along,
the branches of vines, mulberry and almond trees, with all the other
artificial attributes of his assumed divinity. A quarter of an hour
afterwards he returned to the theater; but it will be readily believed
that it was only a powerful effort of reason over his great excitement
that enabled him to go back; or perhaps, for love is thus strangely
constituted, he found it impossible even to remain much longer separated
from the presence of one who had broken his heart. Madame was finishing
her figure. She saw, but did not look at De Guiche, who, irritated and
revengeful, turned his back upon her as she passed him, escorted by her
nymphs, and followed by a hundred flatterers. During this time, at the
other end of the theater, near the lake, a young woman was seated, with
her eyes fixed upon one of the windows of the theater, from which were
issuing streams of light - the window in question being that of the royal
box. As De Guiche quitted the theater for the purpose of getting into
the fresh air he so much needed, he passed close to this figure and
saluted her. When she perceived the young man, she rose, like a woman
surprised in the midst of ideas she was desirous of concealing from
herself. De Guiche stopped as he recognized her, and said hurriedly, -
"Good evening, Mademoiselle de la Valliere; I am indeed fortunate in
meeting you."

"I, also, M. de Guiche, am glad of this accidental meeting," said the
young girl, as she was about to withdraw.

"Pray do not leave me," said De Guiche, stretching out his hand towards
her, "for you would be contradicting the kind words you have just
pronounced. Remain, I implore you: the evening is most lovely. You wish
to escape from the merry tumult, and prefer your own society. Well, I
can understand it; all women who are possessed of any feeling do, and one
never finds them dull or lonely when removed from the giddy vortex of
these exciting amusements. Oh! Heaven!" he exclaimed, suddenly.

"What is the matter, monsieur le comte?" inquired La Valliere, with some
anxiety. "You seem agitated."

"I! oh, no!"

"Will you allow me, M. de Guiche, to return you the thanks I had proposed
to offer you on the very first opportunity? It is to your
recommendation, I am aware, that I owe my admission among the number of
Madame's maids of honor."

"Indeed! Ah! I remember now, and I congratulate myself. Do you love
any one?"

"I!" exclaimed La Valliere.

"Forgive me, I hardly know what I am saying; a thousand times forgive me;
Madame was right, quite right, this brutal exile has completely turned my
brain."

"And yet it seemed to me that the king received you with kindness."

"Do you think so? Received me with kindness - perhaps so - yes - "

"There cannot be a doubt he received you kindly, for, in fact, you
returned without his permission."

"Quite true, and I believe you are right. But have you not seen M. de
Bragelonne here?"

La Valliere started at the name. "Why do you ask?" she inquired.

"Have I offended you again?" said De Guiche. "In that case I am indeed
unhappy, and greatly to be pitied."

"Yes, very unhappy, and very much to be pitied, Monsieur de Guiche, for
you seem to be suffering terribly."

"Oh! mademoiselle, why have I not a devoted sister, or a true friend,
such as yourself?"

"You have friends, Monsieur de Guiche, and the Vicomte de Bragelonne, of
whom you spoke just now, is, I believe, one of the most devoted."

"Yes, yes, you are right, he is one of my best friends. Farewell,
Mademoiselle de la Valliere, farewell." And he fled, like one possessed,
along the banks of the lake. His dark shadow glided, lengthening as it
disappeared, among the illumined yews and glittering undulations of the
water. La Valliere looked after him, saying, - "Yes, yes, he, too, is
suffering, and I begin to understand why."

She had hardly finished when her companions, Mademoiselle de Montalais
and Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, ran forward. They were released
from their attendance, and had changed their costumes of nymphs;
delighted with the beautiful night, and the success of the evening, they
returned to look after their companion.

"What, already here!" they said to her. "We thought we should be first
at the rendezvous."

"I have been here this quarter of an hour," replied La Valliere.

"Did not the dancing amuse you?"

"No."

"But surely the enchanting spectacle?"

"No more than the dancing. As far as beauty is concerned, I much prefer
that which these dark woods present, in whose depths can be seen, now in
one direction and again in another, a light passing by, as though it were
an eye, in color like a midnight rainbow, sometimes open, at others
closed."

"La Valliere is quite a poetess," said Tonnay-Charente.

"In other words," said Montalais, "she is insupportable. Whenever there
is a question of laughing a little or of amusing ourselves, La Valliere
begins to cry; whenever we girls have reason to cry, because, perhaps, we
have mislaid our dresses, or because our vanity as been wounded, or our
costume fails to produce an effect, La Valliere laughs."

"As far as I am concerned, that is not my character," said Mademoiselle
de Tonnay-Charente. "I am a woman; and there are few like me; whoever
loves me, flatters me; whoever flatters me, pleases me; and whoever
pleases - "

"Well!" said Montalais, "you do not finish."

"It is too difficult," replied Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, laughing
loudly. "Do you, who are so clever, finish for me."

"And you, Louise?" said Montalais, "does any one please you?"

"That is a matter that concerns no one but myself," replied the young
girl, rising from the mossy bank on which she had been reclining during
the whole time the ballet lasted. "Now, mesdemoiselles, we have agreed
to amuse ourselves to-night without any one to overlook us, and without
any escort. We are three in number, we like one another, and the night
is lovely. Look yonder, do you not see the moon slowly rising, silvering
the topmost branches of the chestnuts and the oaks. Oh, beautiful walk!
sweet liberty! exquisite soft turf of the woods, the happiness which your
friendship confers upon me! let us walk arm in arm towards those large
trees. Out yonder all are at this moment seated at table and fully
occupied, or preparing to adorn themselves for a set and formal
promenade; horses are being saddled, or harnessed to the carriages - the
queen's mules or Madame's four white ponies. As for ourselves, we shall
soon reach some retired spot where no eyes can see us and no step follow
ours. Do you not remember, Montalais, the woods of Cheverny and of
Chambord, the innumerable rustling poplars of Blois, where we exchanged
our mutual hopes?"

"And confidences too?"

"Yes."

"Well," said Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, "I also think a good deal;
but I take care - "

"To say nothing," said Montalais, "so that when Mademoiselle de Tonnay-
Charente thinks, Athenais is the only one who knows it."

"Hush!" said Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, "I hear steps approaching
from this side."

"Quick, quick, then, among the high reed-grass," said Montalais; "stoop,
Athenais, you are so tall."

Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente stooped as she was told, and, almost at
the same moment, they saw two gentlemen approaching, their heads bent
down, walking arm in arm, on the fine gravel walk running parallel with
the bank. The young girls had, indeed, made themselves small - indeed
invisible.

"It is Monsieur de Guiche," whispered Montalais in Mademoiselle de Tonnay-
Charente's ear.

"It is Monsieur de Bragelonne," whispered the latter to La Valliere.

The two young men approached still closer, conversing in animated tones.
"She was here just now," said the count. "If I had only seen her, I
should have declared it to be a vision, but I spoke to her."

"You are positive, then?"

"Yes; but perhaps I frightened her."

"In what way?"

"Oh! I was still half crazy at you know what; so that she could hardly
have understood what I was saying, and must have grown alarmed."

"Oh!" said Bragelonne, "do not make yourself uneasy: she is all kindness,
and will excuse you; she is clear-sighted, and will understand."

"Yes, but if she should have understood, and understood too well, she may
talk."

"You do not know Louise, count," said Raoul. "Louise possesses every
virtue, and has not a single fault." And the two young men passed on,
and, as they proceeded, their voices were soon lost in the distance.

"How is it, La Valliere," said Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, "that the
Vicomte de Bragelonne spoke of you as Louise?"

"We were brought up together," replied Louise, blushing; "M. de
Bragelonne has honored me by asking my hand in marriage, but - "

"Well?"

"It seems the king will not consent to it."

"Eh! Why the king? and what has the king to do with it?" exclaimed Aure,
sharply. "Good gracious! has the king any right to interfere in matters
of that kind? Politics are politics, as M. de Mazarin used to say; but
love is love. If, therefore, you love M. de Bragelonne, marry him. _I_
give _my_ consent."

Athenais began to laugh.

"Oh! I am speaking seriously," replied Montalais, "and my opinion in
this case is quite as good as the king's, I suppose; is it not, Louise?"

"Come," said La Valliere, "these gentlemen have passed; let us take
advantage of our being alone to cross the open ground and so take refuge
in the woods."

"So much the better," said Athenais, "because I see the torches setting
out from the chateau and the theater, and they seem as if they were
preceding some person of distinction."

"Let us run, then," said all three. And, gracefully lifting up the long
skirts of their silk dresses, they lightly ran across the open space
between the lake and the thickest covert of the park. Montalais agile as
a deer, Athenais eager as a young wolf, bounded through the dry grass,
and, now and then, some bold Acteon might, by the aid of the faint light,
have perceived their straight and well-formed limbs somewhat displayed
beneath the heavy folds of their satin petticoats. La Valliere, more
refined and more bashful, allowed her dress to flow around her; retarded
also by the lameness of her foot, it was not long before she called out
to her companions to halt, and, left behind, she obliged them both to
wait for her. At this moment, a man, concealed in a dry ditch planted
with young willow saplings, scrambled quickly up its shelving side, and
ran off in the direction of the chateau. The three young girls, on their
side, reached the outskirts of the park, every path of which they well
knew. The ditches were bordered by high hedges full of flowers, which on
that side protected the foot-passengers from being intruded upon by the
horses and carriages. In fact, the sound of Madame's and the queen's
carriages could be heard in the distance upon the hard dry ground of the
roads, followed by the mounted cavaliers. Distant music reached them in
response, and when the soft notes died away, the nightingale, with throat
of pride, poured forth his melodious chants, and his most complicated,
learned, and sweetest compositions to those who had met beneath the thick
covert of the woods. Near the songster, in the dark background of the
large trees, could be seen the glistening eyes of an owl, attracted by
the harmony. In this way the _fete_ of the whole court was a _fete_ also
for the mysterious inhabitants of the forest; for certainly the deer in
the brake, the pheasant on the branch, the fox in its hole, were all
listening. One could realize the life led by this nocturnal and
invisible population from the restless movements that suddenly took place
among the leaves. Our sylvan nymphs uttered a slight cry, but, reassured
immediately afterwards, they laughed, and resumed their walk. In this
manner they reached the royal oak, the venerable relic of a tree which in
its prime has listened to the sighs of Henry II. for the beautiful Diana
of Poitiers, and later still to those of Henry IV. for the lovely
Gabrielle d'Estrees. Beneath this oak the gardeners had piled up the
moss and turf in such a manner that never had a seat more luxuriously
rested the wearied limbs of man or monarch. The trunk, somewhat rough to
recline against, was sufficiently large to accommodate the three young
girls, whose voices were lost among the branches, which stretched upwards
to the sky.

Alexandre Dumas pere