Full of preoccupation after the scene of the previous evening, and hardly recovered from the effects of the poison which Colbert had then administered to him, the King during the whole of the day, so brilliant in its effects, so full of unexpected and startling novelties, in which all the wonders of the “Arabian Nights’ Entertainments” seemed to be reproduced for his especial amusement,- the King, we say, showed himself cold, reserved, and taciturn. Nothing could smooth the frowns upon his face; every one who observed him noticed that a deep feeling of resentment, of remote origin, increased by slow degrees, as the source becomes a river, thanks to the thousand threads of water which increase its body, was keenly alive in the depths of the King’s heart. Towards the middle of the day only did he begin to resume a little serenity of manner, by that time he had, in all probability, made up his mind. Aramis, who followed him step by step in his thoughts as in his walk, concluded that the event which he was expecting would soon occur.
This time Colbert seemed to walk in concert with the Bishop of Vannes; and had he received for every annoyance which he inflicted on the King a word of direction from Aramis, he could not have done better. During the whole of the day the King, who in all probability wished to free himself from some of the thoughts which disturbed his mind, seemed to seek La Valliere’s society as actively as he sought to avoid that of M. Colbert or M. Fouquet.
The evening came. The King had expressed a wish not to walk in the park until after cards in the evening. In the interval between supper and the promenade, cards and dice were introduced. The King won a thousand pistoles, and having won them put them in his pocket, and then rose, saying, “And now, gentlemen, to the park.” He found the ladies of the court already there. The King, we have before observed, had won a thousand pistoles, and had put them in his pocket. But M. Fouquet had somehow contrived to lose ten thousand; so that among the courtiers there was still left a hundred and ninety thousand livres’ profit to divide,- a circumstance which made the countenances of the courtiers and the officers of the King’s household the most joyous in the world. It was not the same, however, with the King’s face; for notwithstanding his success at play, to which he was by no means insensible, there still remained a slight shade of dissatisfaction.
Colbert was waiting for him at the corner of one of the avenues; he was most probably waiting there by appointment, as Louis XIV, who had avoided him or who had seemed to avoid him, suddenly made him a sign, and they then struck into the depths of the park together.
But La Valliere, too, had observed the King’s gloomy aspect and kindling glances. She had remarked this: and as nothing which lay hidden or smouldering in his heart was impenetrable to her affection, she understood that this repressed wrath menaced some one. She put herself upon the road of vengeance, like an angel of mercy. Overcome by sadness, nervously agitated, deeply distressed at having been so long separated from her lover, disturbed at the sight of that emotion which she had divined, she presented herself to the King with an embarrassed aspect, which in his evil mood the King interpreted unfavorably. Then, as they were alone, or nearly alone,- inasmuch as Colbert, as soon as he perceived the young girl approaching, had stopped and drawn back a dozen paces,- the King advanced towards La Valliere and took her by the hand. “Mademoiselle,” he said to her, “should I be guilty of an indiscretion if I were to inquire if you are indisposed? You seem to breathe as if you were distressed, and your eyes are filled with tears.”
“Oh, Sire, if I am distressed, and if my eyes are full of tears, it is for the sadness of your Majesty.”
“My sadness? You are mistaken, Mademoiselle; no, it is not sadness I experience.”
“What is it, then, Sire?”
“Humiliation? Oh, Sire, what a word for you to use!”
“I mean, Mademoiselle, that wherever I may happen to be, no one else ought to be the master. Well, then, look round you on every side, and judge whether I am not eclipsed- I, the King of France- before the king of these wide domains. Oh!” he continued, clinching his hands and teeth, “when I think that this king-”
“Well, Sire?” said Louise, terrified.
“That this king is a faithless, unworthy servant, who becomes proud with my stolen property- And therefore am I about to change this impudent minister’s fête into a sorrow and mourning of which the nymph of Vaux, as the poets say, shall not soon lose the remembrance.”
“Oh! your Majesty-”
“Well, Mademoiselle, are you about to take M. Fouquet’s part?” said Louis, impatiently.
“No, Sire; I will only ask whether you are well informed. Your Majesty has more than once learned the value of accusations made at court.”
Louis XIV made a sign for Colbert to approach. “Speak, M. Colbert,” said the young King; “for I almost believe that Mademoiselle de la Valliere has need of your assurance before she can put any faith in the King’s word. Tell Mademoiselle what M. Fouquet has done; and you, Mademoiselle, will perhaps have the kindness to listen. It will not be long.”
Why did Louis XIV insist upon it in such a manner? For a very simple reason,- his heart was not at rest; his mind was not thoroughly convinced; he imagined there was some dark, hidden, tortuous intrigue concealed beneath these thirteen million livres; and he wished that the pure heart of La Valliere, which had revolted at the idea of a theft or robbery, should approve, even were it only by a single word, the resolution which he had taken, and which, nevertheless, he hesitated about carrying into execution.
“Speak, Monsieur,” said La Valliere to Colbert, who had advanced; “speak, since the King wishes me to listen to you. Tell me, what is the crime with which M. Fouquet is charged?”
“Oh, not very heinous, Mademoiselle,” he returned,- “a simple abuse of confidence.”
“Speak, speak, Colbert; and when you shall have related it, leave us, and go and inform M. d’Artagnan that I have orders to give him.”
“M. d’Artagnan, Sire!” exclaimed La Valliere; “but why send for M. d’Artagnan? I entreat you to tell me.”
“Pardieu! in order to arrest this haughty Titan, who, true to his motto, threatens to scale my heaven.”
“Arrest M. Fouquet, do you say?”
“Ah! does that surprise you?”
“In his own house?”
“Why not? If he be guilty, he is guilty in his own house as anywhere else.”
“M. Fouquet, who at this moment is ruining himself for his sovereign!”
“I believe, Mademoiselle, you are defending this traitor!”
Colbert began to chuckle silently. The King turned round at the sound of this suppressed mirth.
“Sire,” said La Valliere, “it is not M. Fouquet I am defending; it is yourself.”
“Me! you defend me?”
“Sire, you would be dishonoring yourself if you were to give such an order.”
“Dishonor myself?” murmured the King, turning pale with anger. “In truth, Mademoiselle, you put a strange eagerness into what you say.”
“I put eagerness not into what I say, but into serving your Majesty,” replied the noble-hearted girl; “in that I would lay down my life, were it needed, and with the same eagerness, Sire.”
Colbert seemed inclined to grumble. La Valliere, that gentle lamb, turned round upon him, and with a glance like lightning imposed silence upon him. “Monsieur,” she said, “when the King acts well, if in doing so he does either myself or those who belong to me an injury, I have nothing to say; but were the King to confer a benefit either upon me or mine, and if he acted badly, I should tell him so.”
“But it appears to me, Mademoiselle,” Colbert ventured to say, “that I too love the King.”
“Yes, Monsieur, we both love him, but each in a different manner,” replied La Valliere, with such an accent that the heart of the young King was powerfully affected by it. “I love him so deeply that the whole world is aware of it, so purely that the King himself does not doubt my love. He is my King and my master; I am the humblest of his servants. But he who touches his honor touches my life. Now, I repeat that they dishonor the King who advise him to arrest M. Fouquet under his own roof.”
Colbert hung down his head, for he felt that the King had abandoned him. However, as he bent his head, he murmured, “Mademoiselle, I have only one word to say.”
“Do not say it, then, Monsieur; for I would not listen to it. Besides, what could you have to tell me? That M. Fouquet has been guilty of certain crimes? I know he has, because the King has said so; and from the moment the King said, ‘I believe,’ I have no occasion for other lips to say, ‘I affirm.’ But were M. Fouquet the vilest of men, I should say aloud, ‘M. Fouquet’s person is sacred to the King because he is the King’s host. Were his house a den of thieves, were Vaux a cave of coiners or robbers, his home is sacred, his palace is inviolable, since his wife is living in it; and it is an asylum which even executioners would not dare to violate.’”
La Valliere paused, and was silent. In spite of himself, the King could not but admire her; he was overpowered by the passionate energy of her voice, by the nobleness of the cause she advocated. Colbert yielded, overcome by the inequality of the struggle. At last the King breathed again more freely, shook his head, and held out his hand to La Valliere. “Mademoiselle,” he said gently, “why do you decide against me? Do you know what this wretched fellow will do, if I give him time to breathe again?”
“Is he not a prey which will always be within your grasp?”
“And if he escapes, and takes to flight?” exclaimed Colbert.
“Well, Monsieur, it will always remain on record, to the King’s eternal honor, that he allowed M. Fouquet to flee; and the more guilty he may have been, the greater will the King’s honor and glory appear, when compared with such misery and such shame.”
Louis kissed La Valliere’s hand, as he knelt before her.
“I am lost!” thought Colbert; then suddenly his face brightened up again. “Oh, no, no, not yet!” he said to himself.
And while the King, protected from observation by the thick covert of an enormous lime, pressed La Valliere to his breast with all the ardor of ineffable affection, Colbert tranquilly looked among the papers in his pocketbook, and drew out of it a paper folded in the form of a letter, slightly yellow, perhaps, but which must have been very precious, since the intendant smiled as he looked at it; he then bent a look full of hatred upon the charming group which the young girl and the King formed together,- a group which was revealed for a moment as the light of the approaching torches shone upon it.
Louis noticed the light reflected upon La Valliere’s white dress. “Leave me, Louise,” he said, “some one is coming.”
“Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle, some one is coming,” cried Colbert, to expedite the young girl’s departure.
Louise disappeared rapidly among the trees; and then, as the King, who had been on his knees before the young girl, was rising from his humble posture, Colbert exclaimed, “Ah! Mademoiselle de la Valliere has let something fall.”
“What is it?” inquired the King.
“A paper,- a letter,- something white; look there, Sire!”
“The King stooped down immediately, and picked up the letter, crumpling it in his hand as he did so; and at the same moment the torches arrived, inundating the darkness of the scene with a flood of light as bright as day.
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