Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 17

Chapter XVII
High Treason
The ungovernable fury which took possession of the King at the sight and at the perusal of Fouquet’s letter to La Valliere by degrees subsided into a feeling of painful weariness. Youth, full of health and life, and requiring that what it loses should be immediately restored,- youth knows not those endless, sleepless nights which realize to the unhappy the fable of the liver of Prometheus, unceasingly renewed. In instances where the man of middle life in his acquired strength of will and purpose, and the old man in his state of exhaustion find an incessant renewal of their sorrow, a young man, surprised by the sudden appearance of a misfortune, weakens himself in sighs and groans and tears, in direct struggles with it, and is thereby far sooner overthrown by the inflexible enemy with whom he is engaged. Once overthrown, his sufferings cease. Louis was conquered in a quarter of an hour. Then he ceased to clinch his hands, and to burn with his looks the invisible objects of his hatred; he ceased to attack with violent imprecations M. Fouquet and La Valliere: from fury he subsided into despair, and from despair to prostration. After he had thrown himself for a few minutes to and fro convulsively on his bed, his nerveless arms fell quietly down, his head lay languidly on his pillow; his limbs, exhausted by his excessive emotions, still trembled occasionally, agitated by slight muscular contractions; and from his breast only faint and unfrequent sighs still issued.

Morpheus, the tutelary deity of the apartment which bore his name, towards whom Louis raised his eyes, wearied by his anger and reddened by his tears, showered down upon him copiously the sleep-inducing poppies, so that the King gently closed his eyes and fell asleep. Then it seemed to him, as it often happens in that first sleep, so light and gentle, which raises the body above the couch, the soul above the earth,- it seemed to him as if the god Morpheus, painted on the ceiling, looked at him with eyes quite human; that something shone brightly, and moved to and fro in the dome above the sleeper; that the crowd of terrible dreams, moving off for an instant, left uncovered a human face, with a hand resting against the mouth, and in an attitude of deep and absorbed meditation. And strange enough, too, this man bore so wonderful a resemblance to the King himself, that Louis fancied he was looking at his own face reflected in a mirror; only, that face was saddened by a feeling of the profoundest pity. Then it seemed to him as if the dome gradually retired, escaping from his gaze, and that the figures and attributes painted by Lebrun became darker and darker as the distance became more and more remote. A gentle, easy movement, as regular as that by which a vessel plunges beneath the waves, had succeeded to the immovableness of the bed. Doubtless the King was dreaming; and in this dream the crown of gold which fastened the curtains together seemed to recede from his vision, just as the dome, to which it remained suspended, had done; so that the winged genius which with both its hands supported the crown seemed, though vainly so, to call upon the King, who was fast disappearing from it.

The bed still sank. Louis, with his eyes open, could not resist the deception of this cruel hallucination. At last, as the light of the royal chamber faded away into darkness and gloom, something cold, gloomy, and inexplicable seemed to infect the air. No paintings, nor gold, nor velvet hangings were visible any longer,- nothing but walls of a dull gray color, which the increasing gloom made darker every moment. And yet the bed still continued to descend; and after a minute, which seemed in its duration almost an age to the King, it reached a stratum of air black and still as death, and then it stopped. The King could no longer see the light in his room, except as from the bottom of a well we can see the light of day. “I am under the influence of a terrible dream,” he thought. “It is time to arouse myself. Come, let us wake up!”

Every one has experienced what the above remark conveys; there is no one who in the midst of a suffocating nightmare has not said to himself, by the help of that light which still burns in the brain when every human light is extinguished, “It is nothing but a dream, after all.” This was precisely what Louis XIV said to himself. But when he said, “Let us wake up,” he perceived that not only was he already awake, but still more, that he had his eyes open also. He then looked around him. On his right hand and on his left two armed men stood silently, each wrapped in a huge cloak, and the face covered with a mask; one of them held a small lamp in his hand, whose glimmering light revealed the saddest picture a king could look upon.

Louis said to himself that his dream still lasted, and that all he had to do to cause it to disappear was to move his arms or to say something aloud. He darted from his bed, and found himself upon the damp ground. Then, addressing himself to the man who held the lamp in his hand, he said, “What is this, Monsieur, and what is the meaning of this jest?”

“It is no jest,” replied, in a deep voice, the masked figure that held the lantern.

“Do you belong to M. Fouquet?” inquired the King, greatly astonished at his situation.

“It matters very little to whom we belong,” said the phantom. “We are your masters; that is sufficient.”

The King, more impatient than intimidated, turned to the other masked figure. “If this is a comedy,” he said, “you will tell M. Fouquet that I find it unseemly, and that I desire it should cease.”

The second masked person to whom the King had addressed himself was a man of huge stature and vast circumference. He held himself erect and motionless as a block of marble.

“Well,” added the King, stamping his foot, “you do not answer!”

“We do not answer you, my good monsieur,” said the giant, in a stentorian voice, “because there is nothing to answer, except that you are the chief facheux, and that M. Coquelin de Voliere forgot to include you in the number of his.”

“At least, tell me what you want!” exclaimed Louis, folding his arms with a passionate gesture.

“You will know by and by,” replied the man who held the lamp.

“In the meantime tell me where I am.”

“Look!”

Louis looked all round him; but by the light of the lamp which the masked figure raised for the purpose, he could perceive nothing but the damp walls, which glistened here and there with the slimy traces of the snail. “Oh! oh! a dungeon,” said the King.

“No, a subterranean passage.”

“Which leads-”

“Will you be good enough to follow us?”

“I shall not stir from hence!” cried the King.

“If you are obstinate, my dear young friend,” replied the taller and stouter of the two, “I will lift you up in my arms, will roll you up in a cloak, and if you are stifled there, why, so much the worse for you!” and as he said this he disengaged from beneath the cloak with which he had threatened the King a hand of which Milo of Crotona would have envied him the possession on the day when he had that unhappy idea of rending his last oak.

The King dreaded violence; for he could well believe that the two men into whose power he had fallen had not gone so far with any idea of drawing back, and that they would consequently be ready to proceed to extremities if necessary. He shook his head, and said: “It seems I have fallen into the hands of a couple of assassins. Move on, then!”

Neither of the men answered a word to this remark. The one who carried the lantern walked first, the King followed him, while the second masked figure closed the procession. In this manner they passed along a winding gallery of some length, with as many staircases leading out of it as are to be found in the mysterious and gloomy palace of Ann Radcliffe. All these windings, throughout which the King heard the sound of falling water over his head, ended at last in a long corridor closed by an iron door. The figure with the lamp opened the door with one of the keys he wore suspended at his girdle, where during the whole of the time the King had heard them rattle. As soon as the door was opened and admitted the air, Louis recognized the balmy odors which the trees exhale after a hot summer’s day. He paused hesitatingly for a moment or two; but his huge companion who followed him thrust him out of the subterranean passage.

“Another blow!” said the King, turning towards the one who had just had the audacity to touch his sovereign; “what do you intend to do with the King of France?”

“Try to forget that word,” replied the man with the lamp, in a tone which as little admitted of reply as one of the famous decrees of Minos.

“You deserve to be broken on the wheel for the word you have just made use of,” said the giant, as he extinguished the lamp his companion handed to him; “but the King is too kind-hearted.”

Louis, at that threat, made so sudden a movement that it seemed as if he meditated flight; but the giant’s hand was placed on his shoulder, and fixed him motionless where he stood. “But tell me, at least, where we are going,” said the King.

“Come!” replied the former of the two men, with a kind of respect in his manner, and leading his prisoner towards a carriage which seemed to be in waiting.

The carriage was completely concealed amid the trees. Two horses, with their feet fettered, were fastened by a halter to the lower branches of a large oak.

“Get in,” said the same man, opening the carriage door and letting down the step. The King obeyed, seated himself at the back of the carriage, the padded door of which was shut and locked immediately upon him and his guide. As for the giant, he cut the fastenings by which the horses were bound, harnessed them himself, and mounted on the box of the carriage, which was unoccupied. The carriage set off immediately at a quick trot, turned into the road to Paris, and in the forest of Senart found a relay of horses fastened to the trees in the same manner in which the first horses had been, and without a postilion. The man on the box changed the horses, and continued to follow the road towards Paris with the same rapidity, and entered the city about three o’clock in the morning. The carriage proceeded along the Faubourg St. Antoine, and after having called out to the sentinel, “By the King’s order!” the driver conducted the horses into the circular enclosure of the Bastille, looking out upon the courtyard called La Cour du Gouvernement. There the horses drew up, reeking with sweat, at the flight of steps, and a sergeant of the guard ran forward.

“Go and wake the governor!” said the coachman, in a voice of thunder.

With the exception of this voice, which might have been heard at the entrance of the Faubourg St. Antoine, everything remained as calm in the carriage as in the prison. Ten minutes afterwards, M. de Baisemeaux appeared in his dressing-gown on the threshold of the door. “What is the matter now?” he asked; “and whom have you brought me there?”

The man with the lantern opened the carriage door, and said two or three words to the one who acted as driver, who immediately got down from his seat, took up a short musket which he kept under his feet, and placed its muzzle on the prisoner’s chest.

“Fire at once if he speaks!” added, aloud, the man who alighted from the carriage.

“Very good!” replied his companion, without any other remark.

With this recommendation, the person who had accompanied the King in the carriage ascended the flight of steps, at the top of which the governor was awaiting him. “M. d’Herblay!” said the latter.

“Hush!” said Aramis; “Let us go into your room.”

“Good heavens! what brings you here at this hour?”

“A mistake, my dear M. de Baisemeaux,” Aramis replied quietly. “It appears that you were right the other day.”

“What about?” inquired the governor.

“About the order of release, my dear friend.”

“Tell me what you mean, Monsieur,- no, Monseigneur,” said the governor, almost suffocated by surprise and terror.

“It is a very simple affair. You remember, dear M. de Baisemeaux, that an order of release was sent to you?”

“Yes, for Marchiali.”

“Very good! we both thought that it was for Marchiali?”

“Certainly. You will recollect, however, that I did not believe it; that I was unwilling; that you compelled me.”

“Oh, Baisemeaux, my good fellow, what a word to make use of!- advised, that was all.”

“Advised,- yes, advised me to give him up to you; and that you carried him off with you in your carriage.”

“Well, my dear M. de Baisemeaux, it was a mistake. It was discovered at the Ministry; so that I now bring you an order from the King to set at liberty Seldon,- that poor devil of a Scotchman, you know.”

“Seldon! are you sure this time?”

“Well, read it yourself,” added Aramis, handing him the order.

“Why,” said Baisemeaux, “this order is the very same that has already passed through my hands.”

“Indeed?”

“It is the very one I assured you I saw the other evening. Parbleu! I recognize it by the blot of ink.”

“I do not know whether it is that; but, at any rate, it is the one I bring you.”

“But, then, about the other?”

“What other?”

“Marchiali?”

“I have him here with me.”

“But that is not enough for me. I require a new order to take him back again.”

“Don’t talk such nonsense, my dear Baisemeaux; you talk like a child! Where is the order you received respecting Marchiali?”

Baisemeaux ran to his iron chest and took it out. Aramis seized hold of it, coolly tore it in four pieces, held them to the lamp, and burned them.

“Good heavens! what are you doing?” exclaimed Baisemeaux, in an extremity of terror.

“Look at your position a little, my dear governor,” said Aramis, with his imperturbable self-possession, “and you will see that it is very simple. You no longer possess any order justifying Marchiali’s release.”

“I am a lost man!”

“Far from it, my good fellow, since I have brought Marchiali back to you, and it is just the same as if he had never left.”

“Ah!” said the governor, completely overcome by terror.

“Plain enough, you see; and you will go and shut him up immediately.”

“I should think so, indeed.”

“And you will hand over to me this Seldon, whose liberation is authorized by this order. In this way you square your conduct; do you understand?”

“I- I-”

“You do understand, I see,” said Aramis. “Very good!”

Baisemeaux clasped his hands together.

“But why, at all events, after having taken Marchiali away from me, do you bring him back again?” cried the unhappy governor, in a paroxysm of terror and completely dumfounded.

“For a friend such as you are,” said Aramis, “for so devoted a servant, I have no secrets”; and he put his mouth close to Baisemeaux’s ear, as he said in a low tone of voice, “you know the resemblance between that unfortunate fellow and-”

“And the King?- yes.”

“Very good; the very first use that Marchiali made of his liberty was to pretend- Can you guess what?”

“How is it likely I should guess?”

“To pretend that he was the King of France.”

“Oh, the wretch!” cried Baisemeaux.

“To dress himself up in clothes like those of the King, and attempt to play the role of usurper.”

“Gracious heavens!”

“That is the reason why I have brought him back again, my dear friend. He is mad, and lets every one see how mad he is.”

“What is to be done, then?”

“That is very simple; let no one hold any communication with him. You understand that when his peculiar style of madness came to the King’s ears, the King, who had pitied his terrible affliction, and saw how his kindness of heart had been repaid by such black ingratitude, became perfectly furious; so that now,- and remember this very distinctly, dear M. de Baisemeaux, for it concerns you most closely,- so that there is now, I repeat, sentence of death pronounced against all those who may allow him to communicate with any one else save me or the King himself. You understand, Baisemeaux,- sentence of death!”

“Do I understand? Morbleu!”

“And now go down and conduct this poor devil back to his dungeon again, unless you prefer he should come up here.”

“What would be the good of that?”

“It would be better, perhaps, to enter his name in the prison-book at once!”

“Pardieu!”

“Well, then, have him up!”

Baisemeaux ordered the drums to be beaten and the bell to be rung, as a warning to every one to retire in order to avoid meeting a mysterious prisoner. Then, when the passages were free, he went to take the prisoner from the carriage, at whose breast Porthos, faithful to the directions which had been given him, still kept his musket levelled. “Ah! is that you, miserable wretch?” cried the governor, as soon as he perceived the King. “Very good, very good!” and immediately, making the King get out of the carriage, he led him, still accompanied by Porthos, who had not taken off his mask, and Aramis, who again resumed his, up the stairs, to the second Bertaudiere, and opened the door of the room in which Philippe for six long years had bemoaned his existence. The King entered the cell without pronouncing a single word; he was pale and haggard.

Baisemeaux shut the door upon him, turned the key twice in the lock, and then returned to Aramis. “It is quite true,” he said in a low tone, “that he has a rather strong resemblance to the King, but still less so than you said.”

“So that,” said Aramis, “you would not have been deceived by the substitution of the one for the other.”

“What a question!” “You are a most valuable fellow, Baisemeaux,” said Aramis; “and now, set Seldon free!”

“Oh, yes; I was going to forget that. I will go and give orders at once.”

“Bah! to-morrow will be time enough.”

“To-morrow!- oh, no! This very minute!”

“Well, go off to your affairs! I shall go away to mine. But it is quite understood, is it not?”

“What is ‘quite understood’?”

“That no one is to enter the prisoner’s cell, except with an order from the King,- an order which I will myself bring.”

“That is understood. Adieu, Monseigneur!” Aramis returned to his companion. “Now, Porthos, my good fellow, back again to Vaux, and as fast as possible!”

“A man is light when he has faithfully served his King, and in serving him saved his country,” said Porthos. “The horses will have nothing to draw. Let us be off!” and the carriage, lightened of a prisoner who in fact seemed to Aramis very heavy, passed across the drawbridge of the Bastille, which was raised again immediately behind it.

Alexandre Dumas pere