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Chapter 53

Chapter LIII:
A Domiciliary Visit.

The princess, preceding Raoul, led him through the courtyard towards that
part of the building La Valliere inhabited, and, ascending the same
staircase which Raoul himself had ascended that very morning, she paused
at the door of the room in which the young man had been so strangely
received by Montalais. The opportunity was remarkably well chosen to
carry out the project Madame Henrietta had conceived, for the chateau was
empty. The king, the courtiers, and the ladies of the court, had set off
for Saint-Germain; Madame Henrietta was the only one who knew of
Bragelonne's return, and thinking over the advantages which might be
drawn from this return, she had feigned indisposition in order to remain
behind. Madame was therefore confident of finding La Valliere's room and
Saint-Aignan's apartment perfectly empty. She took a pass-key from her
pocket and opened the door of her maid of honor's apartment.
Bragelonne's gaze was immediately fixed upon the interior of the room,
which he recognized at once; and the impression which the sight of it
produced upon him was torture. The princess looked at him, and her
practiced eye at once detected what was passing in the young man's heart.

"You asked for proofs," she said; "do not be astonished, then, if I give
you them. But if you do not think you have courage enough to confront
them, there is still time to withdraw."

"I thank you, Madame," said Bragelonne; "but I came here to be
convinced. You promised to convince me, - do so."

"Enter, then," said Madame, "and shut the door behind you."

Bragelonne obeyed, and then turned towards the princess, whom he
interrogated by a look.

"You know where you are, I suppose?" inquired Madame Henrietta.

"Everything leads me to believe I am in Mademoiselle de la Valliere's
room."

"You are."

"But I would observe to your highness, that this room is a room, and is
not a proof."

"Wait," said the princess, as she walked to the foot of the bed, folded
up the screen into its several compartments, and stooped down towards the
floor. "Look here," she continued; "stoop down and lift up this trap-
door yourself."

"A trap-door!" said Raoul, astonished; for D'Artagnan's words began to
return to his memory, and he had an indistinct recollection that
D'Artagnan had made use of the same word. He looked, but uselessly, for
some cleft or crevice which might indicate an opening or a ring to assist
in lifting up the planking.

"Ah, I forgot," said Madame Henrietta, "I forgot the secret spring; the
fourth plank of the flooring, - press on the spot where you will observe
a knot in the wood. Those are the instructions; press, vicomte! press, I
say, yourself."

Raoul, pale as death, pressed his finger on the spot which had been
indicated to him; at the same moment the spring began to work, and the
trap rose of its own accord.

"It is ingenious enough, certainly," said the princess; "and one can see
that the architect foresaw that a woman's hand only would have to make
use of this spring, for see how easily the trap-door opened without
assistance."

"A staircase!" cried Raoul.

"Yes, and a very pretty one, too," said Madame Henrietta. "See, vicomte,
the staircase has a balustrade, intended to prevent the falling of timid
persons, who might be tempted to descend the staircase; and I will risk
myself on it accordingly. Come, vicomte, follow me!"

"But before following you, madame, may I ask where this staircase leads
to?"

"Ah, true; I forgot to tell you. You know, perhaps, that formerly M. de
Saint-Aignan lived in the very next apartment to the king?"

"Yes, Madame, I am aware of that; that was the arrangement, at least,
before I left; and more than once I had the honor of visiting his rooms."

"Well, he obtained the king's leave to change his former convenient and
beautiful apartment for the two rooms to which this staircase will
conduct us, and which together form a lodging for him half the size, and
at ten times greater the distance from the king, - a close proximity to
whom is by no means disdained, in general, by the gentlemen belonging to
the court."

"Very good, Madame," returned Raoul; "but go on, I beg, for I do not
understand yet."

"Well, then it accidentally happened," continued the princess, "that M.
de Saint-Aignan's apartment is situated underneath the apartments of my
maids of honor, and by a further coincidence, exactly underneath the room
of La Valliere."

"But what was the motive of this trap-door and this staircase?"

"That I cannot tell you. Would you like to go down to Monsieur de Saint-
Aignan's rooms? Perhaps we shall be able to find the solution of the
enigma there."

And Madame set the example by going down herself, while Raoul, sighing
deeply, followed her. At every step Bragelonne took, he advanced further
into that mysterious apartment which had witnessed La Valliere's sighs
and still retained the perfume of her presence. Bragelonne fancied he
perceived, as he inhaled the atmosphere, that the young girl must have
passed through. Then succeeded to these emanations of herself, which he
regarded as invisible though certain proofs, flowers she preferred to all
others - books of her own selection. If Raoul retained a single doubt on
the subject, it would have vanished at the secret harmony of tastes and
connection of the mind with the ordinary objects of life. La Valliere,
in Bragelonne's eyes, was present there in each article of furniture, in
the color of the hangings, in all that surrounded him. Dumb, and now
completely overwhelmed, there was nothing further for him now to learn,
and he followed his pitiless conductress as blindly as the culprit
follows the executioner; while Madame, as cruel as women of overstrung
temperaments generally are, did not spare him the slightest detail. But
it must be admitted that, notwithstanding the kind of apathy into which
he had fallen, none of these details, even had he been left alone, would
have escaped him. The happiness of the woman who loves, when that
happiness is derived from a rival, is a living torture for a jealous man;
but for a jealous man such as Raoul was, for one whose heart for the
first time in its existence was being steeped in gall and bitterness,
Louise's happiness was in reality an ignominious death, a death of body
and soul. He guessed all; he fancied he could see them, with their hands
clasped in each other's, their faces drawn close together, and reflected,
side by side, in loving proximity, and they gazed upon the mirrors around
them - so sweet an occupation for lovers, who, as they thus see
themselves twice over, imprint the picture still more deeply on their
memories. He could guess, too, the stolen kiss snatched as they
separated from each other's loved society. The luxury, the studied
elegance, eloquent of the perfection of indolence, of ease; the extreme
care shown, either to spare the loved object every annoyance, or to
occasion her a delightful surprise; that might and majesty of love
multiplied by the majesty and might of royalty itself, seemed like a
death-blow to Raoul. If there be anything which can in any way assuage
or mitigate the tortures of jealousy, it is the inferiority of the man
who is preferred to yourself; whilst, on the very contrary, if there be
one anguish more bitter than another, a misery for which language lacks a
word, it is the superiority of the man preferred to yourself, superior,
perhaps, in youth, beauty, grace. It is in such moments as these that
Heaven almost seems to have taken part against the disdained and rejected
lover.

One final pang was reserved for poor Raoul. Madame Henrietta lifted up a
silk curtain, and behind the canvas he perceived La Valliere's portrait.
Not only the portrait of La Valliere, but of La Valliere radiant with
youth, beauty, and happiness, inhaling life and enjoyment at every pore,
because at eighteen years of age love itself is life.

"Louise!" murmured Bragelonne, - "Louise! is it true, then? Oh, you have
never loved me, for never have you looked at me in that manner." And he
felt as if his heart were crushed within his bosom.

Madame Henrietta looked at him, almost envious of his extreme grief,
although she well knew there was nothing to envy in it, and that she
herself was as passionately loved by De Guiche as Louise by Bragelonne.
Raoul interpreted Madame Henrietta's look.

"Oh, forgive me, forgive me, Madame; in your presence I know I ought to
have greater self-control. But Heaven grant that you may never be struck
by similar misery to that which crushes me at this moment, for you are
but a woman, and would not be able to endure so terrible an affliction.
Forgive me, I again entreat you, Madame; I am but a man without rank or
position, while you belong to a race whose happiness knows no bounds,
whose power acknowledges no limit."

"Monsieur de Bragelonne," replied Henrietta, "a mind such as your merits
all the consideration and respect which a queen's heart even can bestow.
Regard me as your friend, monsieur; and as such, indeed, I would not
allow your whole life to be poisoned by perfidy, and covered with
ridicule. It was I, indeed, who, with more courage than any of your
pretended friends, - I except M. de Guiche, - was the cause of your
return from London; it is I, also, who now give you the melancholy
proofs, necessary, however, for your cure if you are a lover with courage
in his heart, and not a weeping Amadis. Do not thank me; pity me, even,
and do not serve the king less faithfully than you have done."

Raoul smiled bitterly. "Ah! true, true; I was forgetting that; the king
is my master."

"Your liberty, nay, your very life, is in danger."

A steady, penetrating look informed Madame Henrietta that she was
mistaken, and that her last argument was not a likely one to affect the
young man. "Take care, Monsieur de Bragelonne," she said, "for if you do
not weigh well all your actions, you might throw into an extravagance of
wrath a prince whose passions, once aroused, exceed the bounds of reason,
and you would thereby involve your friends and family in the deepest
distress; you must bend, you must submit, and you must cure yourself."

"I thank you, Madame; I appreciate the advice your royal highness is good
enough to give me, and I will endeavor to follow it; but one final word,
I beg."

"Name it."

"Should I be indiscreet in asking you the secret of this staircase, of
this trap-door; a secret, which, it seems, you have discovered?"

"Nothing more simple. For the purpose of exercising a surveillance over
the young girls who are attached to my service, I have duplicate keys of
their doors. It seemed very strange to me that M. de Saint-Aignan should
change his apartments. It seemed very strange that the king should come
to see M. de Saint-Aignan every day, and, finally, it seemed very strange
that so many things should be done during your absence, that the very
habits and customs of the court appeared changed. I do not wish to be
trifled with by the king, nor to serve as a cloak for his love affairs;
for after La Valliere, who weeps incessantly, he will take a fancy to
Montalais, who is always laughing; and then to Tonnay-Charente, who does
nothing but sing all day; to act such a part as that would be unworthy of
me. I thrust aside the scruples which my friendship for you suggested.
I discovered the secret. I have wounded your feelings, I know, and I
again entreat you to pardon me; but I had a duty to fulfil. I have
discharged it. You are now forewarned; the tempest will soon burst;
protect yourself accordingly."

"You naturally expect, however, that a result of some kind must follow,"
replied Bragelonne, with firmness; "for you do not suppose I shall
silently accept the shame thus thrust upon me, or the treachery which has
been practiced against me?"

"You will take whatever steps in the matter you please, Monsieur Raoul,
only do not betray the source whence you derived the truth. That is all
I have to ask, - the only price I require for the service I have rendered
you."

"Fear nothing, Madame," said Bragelonne, with a bitter smile.

"I bribed the locksmith, in whom the lovers confided. You can just as
well have done so as myself, can you not?"

"Yes, Madame. Your royal highness, however, has no other advice or
caution to give me, except that of not betraying you?"

"None."

"I am about, therefore, to beg your royal highness to allow me to remain
here for one moment."

"Without me?"

"Oh! no, Madame. It matters very little; for what I have to do can be
done in your presence. I only ask one moment to write a line to some
one."

"It is dangerous, Monsieur de Bragelonne. Take care."

"No one can possibly know that your royal highness has done me the honor
to conduct me here. Besides, I shall sign the letter I am going to
write."

"Do as you please, then."

Raoul drew out his tablet, and wrote rapidly on one of the leaves the
following words:

"MONSIEUR LE COMTE, - Do not be surprised to find this paper signed by
me; the friend I shall very shortly send to call on you will have the
honor to explain the object of my visit.
"VICOMTE RAOUL DE BRAGELONNE."

He rolled up the paper, slipped it into the lock of the door which
communicated with the room set apart for the two lovers, and satisfied
himself that the missive was so apparent that Saint-Aignan could not but
see it as he entered; he rejoined the princess, who had already reached
the top of the staircase. They then separated, Raoul pretending to thank
her highness; Henrietta pitying, or seeming to pity, with all her heart,
the wretched young man she had just condemned to such fearful torture.
"Oh!" she said, as she saw him disappear, pale as death, and his eyes
bursting with blood, "if I had foreseen this, I would have hid the truth
from that poor gentleman."

Alexandre Dumas pere