“Well?” asked Louis XIV, who, on perceiving him, threw on the table covered with papers a large green cloth.
“The order is executed, Sire.”
“Monsieur the Superintendent follows me,” replied d’Artagnan.
“In ten minutes let him be introduced,” said the King, dismissing d’Artagnan with a gesture. The latter retired, but had scarcely reached the corridor at the extremity of which Fouquet was waiting for him, when he was recalled by the King’s bell.
“Did he not appear astonished?” asked the King.
“Fouquet,” repeated the King, without saying “Monsieur,” a trifle which confirmed the captain of the Musketeers in his suspicions.
“No, Sire,” replied he.
“That’s well!” and a second time Louis dismissed d’Artagnan.
Fouquet had not quitted the terrace where he had been left by his guide. He reperused his note, conceived thus:
”Something is being contrived against you. Perhaps they will not dare to carry it out at the castle; it will be on your return home. The house is already surrounded by musketeers. Do not enter. A white horse is in waiting for you behind the esplanade!”
Fouquet recognized the writing and the zeal of Gourville. Not being willing that if any evil happened to himself this paper should compromise a faithful friend, the superintendent was busy tearing it into a thousand morsels, spread about by the wind from the balustrade of the terrace. D’Artagnan found him watching the flight of the last scraps into space.
“Monsieur,” said he, “the King waits for you.”
Fouquet walked with a deliberate step into the little corridor, where Messieurs de Brienne and Rose were at work, while the Duc de Saint-Aignan, seated on a chair, likewise in the corridor, appeared to be waiting for orders with feverish impatience, his sword between his legs. It appeared strange to Fouquet that Messieurs de Brienne, Rose, and de Saint-Aignan, in general so attentive and obsequious, should scarcely take the least notice as he, the superintendent, passed. But how could he expect to find it otherwise among courtiers, he whom the King now called “Fouquet”? He raised his head, determined to meet with brave front whatever might happen, and entered the King’s apartment, where a little bell, which we already know, had announced him to his Majesty.
The King, without rising, nodded to him, and with interest, “Well, how are you, M. Fouquet?” said he.
“I am in a high fever,” replied the superintendent; “but I am at the King’s service.”
“That is well; the States assemble tomorrow. Have you a speech ready?”
Fouquet looked at the King with astonishment. “I have not, Sire,” replied he; “but I will improvise one. I am too well acquainted with affairs to feel any embarrassment. I have only one question if your Majesty will permit me?”
“Certainly; ask it.”
“Why has your Majesty not done his first minister the honor to give him notice of this in Paris?”
“You were ill; I was not willing to fatigue you.”
“Never did a labor, never did an explanation, fatigue me, Sire; and since the moment is come for me to demand an explanation of my King-”
“Oh, M. Fouquet, an explanation upon what?”
“Upon your Majesty’s intentions with respect to myself.”
The King blushed. “I have been calumniated,” continued Fouquet, warmly; “and I feel called upon to incite the justice of the King to make inquiries.”
“You say this to me very uselessly, M. Fouquet; I know what I know.”
“Your Majesty can only know things as they have been told to you; and I, on my part, have said nothing to you, while others have spoken many and many times-”
“What do you wish to say?” said the King, impatient to put an end to this embarrassing conversation.
“I will go straight to the fact, Sire; and I accuse a man of having injured me in your Majesty’s opinion.”
“Nobody has injured you, M. Fouquet.”
“That reply proves to me, Sire, that I am right.”
“M. Fouquet, I do not like that one should accuse.”
“Not when one is accused?”
“We have already spoken too much about this affair.”
“Your Majesty will not allow me to justify myself?”
“I repeat that I do not accuse you.”
Fouquet, with a half-bow, made a step backwards. “It is certain,” thought he, “that he has made up his mind; he alone who cannot go back can show such obstinacy. Not to see the danger now would be to be blind indeed; not to shun it would be stupid.” He resumed aloud, “Did your Majesty send for me for any business?”
“No, M. Fouquet, but for some advice I have to give you.”
“I respectfully await it, Sire.”
“Rest yourself, M. Fouquet; do not throw away your strength. The session of the States will be short; and when my secretaries shall have closed it, I do not wish business to be talked of in France for a fortnight.”
“Has the King nothing to say to me on the subject of this assembly of the States?”
“No, M. Fouquet.”
“Not to me, the Superintendent of the Finances?”
“Rest yourself, I beg you; that is all I have to say to you.”
Fouquet bit his lips and hung down his head. He was evidently busy with some uneasy thought. This uneasiness struck the King. “Are you troubled at having to rest yourself, M. Fouquet?” said he.
“Yes, Sire; I am not accustomed to take rest.”
“But you are ill; you must take care of yourself.”
“Your Majesty spoke just now of a speech to be pronounced to-morrow.”
His Majesty made no reply; this unexpected stroke embarrassed him. Fouquet felt the weight of this hesitation. He thought he could read a danger in the eyes of the young King which his fear would precipitate. “If I appear frightened, I am lost,” thought he.
The King, on his part, was only uneasy at the alarm of Fouquet. “Has he a suspicion of anything?” murmured he.
“If his first word is severe,” again thought Fouquet,- “if he becomes angry, or feigns to be angry, for the sake of a pretext,- how shall I extricate myself? Let us smooth the declivity a little. Gourville was right.”
“Sire,” said he, suddenly, “since the goodness of the King watches over my health to the point of dispensing with my labor, may I not be allowed to be absent from the council of to-morrow? I could pass the day in bed, and will entreat the King to grant me his physician, that we may endeavor to find a remedy against this cursed fever.”
“So be it, M. Fouquet, as you desire; you shall have a holiday to-morrow, you shall have the physician, and shall be restored to health.”
“Thanks,” said Fouquet, bowing. Then, opening his game, “Shall I not have the happiness of conducting your Majesty to my residence of Belle-Isle?” And he looked Louis full in the face to judge of the effect of such a proposal.
The King blushed again, “Do you know,” replied he, endeavoring to smile, “that you have just said, ‘My residence of Belle-Isle’?”
“Well, do you not remember,” continued the King, in the same cheerful tone, “that you gave me Belle-Isle?”
“That is true again, Sire; only, as you have not taken it, you will come with me and take possession of it.”
“I mean to do so.”
“That was, then, your Majesty’s intention as well as mine; and I cannot express to your Majesty how happy and proud I have been at seeing all the King’s military household come from Paris for this taking possession.”
The King stammered out that he did not bring the Musketeers for that purpose alone.
“Oh, I am convinced of that!” said Fouquet, warmly; “your Majesty knows very well that you have nothing to do but to come alone with a cane in your hand to bring to the ground all the fortifications of Belle-Isle.”
“Peste!” cried the King; “I do not wish that those fine fortifications, whose erection cost so much, should fall at all. No,- let them stand against the Dutch and the English. You would not guess what I want to see at Belle-Isle, M. Fouquet; it is the pretty peasants and women of the lands on the sea-shore, who dance so well and are so seducing with their scarlet petticoats! I have heard great boast of your vassals, Monsieur the Superintendent; well, let me have a sight of them.”
“Whenever your Majesty pleases.”
“Have you any means of transport? It shall be to-morrow, if you like.”
The superintendent felt this stroke, which was not adroit, and replied, “No, Sire; I was ignorant of your Majesty’s wish. Above all, I was ignorant of your haste to see Belle-Isle; and I am prepared with nothing.”
“You have a boat of your own, nevertheless?”
“I have five; but they are all in the port or at Paimboeuf, and to join them or bring them hither we should require at least twenty-four hours. Have I any occasion to send a courier? Must I do so?”
“Wait a little; put an end to the fever,- wait till to-morrow.”
“That is true; who knows but that by to-morrow we may not have a hundred other ideas?” replied Fouquet, now perfectly convinced and very pale.
The King started and stretched his hand out towards his little bell, but Fouquet prevented his ringing. “Sire,” said he, “I have an ague,- I am trembling with cold. If I remain a moment longer, I shall most likely faint. I request your Majesty’s permission to go and conceal myself beneath the bed-clothes.”
“Indeed, you are all in a shiver; it is painful to behold! Go, M. Fouquet, go. I will send to inquire after you.”
“Your Majesty overwhelms me with kindness. In an hour I shall be better.”
“I will call some one to reconduct you,” said the King.
“As you please, Sire; I would gladly take some one’s arm.”
“M. d’Artagnan!” cried the King, ringing his little bell.
“Oh, Sire!” interrupted Fouquet, smiling in such a manner as made the King feel cold, “would you give me the captain of your Musketeers to take me to my lodgings? A very equivocal kind of honor that, Sire! A simple footman, I beg.”
“And why, M. Fouquet? M. d’Artagnan conducts me often and well!”
“Yes, but when he conducts you, Sire, it is to obey you; while I-”
“If I am obliged to return home supported by the leader of the Musketeers, it would be everywhere said you had had me arrested.”
“Arrested!” replied the King, who became paler than Fouquet himself- “arrested! oh!”
“And why would they not say so?” continued Fouquet, still smiling; “and I would lay a wager there would be people found wicked enough to laugh at it.” This sally disconcerted the monarch. Fouquet was skillful enough, or fortunate enough, to make Louis XIV recoil before the appearance of the fact he meditated. M. d’Artagnan, when he appeared, received an order to desire a musketeer to accompany the superintendent.
“Quite unnecessary,” said the latter; “sword for sword, I prefer Gourville, who is waiting for me below. But that will not prevent my enjoying the society of M. d’Artagnan. I am glad he will see Belle-Isle, he who is so good a judge of fortifications.”
D’Artagnan bowed, without at all comprehending what was going on. Fouquet bowed again and left the apartment, affecting all the slowness of a man who walks with difficulty. When once out of the castle, “I am saved!” said he. “Oh, yes, disloyal King! you shall see Belle-Isle, but it shall be when I am no longer there!”
He disappeared, leaving d’Artagnan with the King.
“Captain,” said the King, “you will follow M. Fouquet at the distance of a hundred paces.”
“He is going to his lodgings again. You will go with him.”
“You will arrest him in my name, and will shut him up in a carriage.”
“In a carriage. Well, Sire?”
“In such a fashion that he may not, on the road, either converse with any one, or throw notes to people he may meet.”
“That will be rather difficult, Sire.”
“Not at all.”
“Pardon me, Sire, I cannot stifle M. Fouquet; and if he asks for liberty to breathe, I cannot prevent him by shutting up glasses and blinds. He will throw out at the doors all the cries and notes possible.”
“The case is provided for, M. d’Artagnan; and a carriage with a trellis will obviate both the difficulties you point out.”
“A carriage with an iron trellis!” cried d’Artagnan; “but a carriage with an iron trellis is not made in half an hour, and your Majesty commands me to go immediately to M. Fouquet’s lodgings.”
“Therefore, the carriage in question is already made.”
“Ah, that is quite a different thing,” said the captain; “if the carriage is ready made, very well, then, we have only to set it going.”
“It is ready with the horses harnessed to it.”
“And the coachman, with the outriders, are waiting in the lower court of the castle.”
D’Artagnan bowed. “There only remains for me to ask your Majesty to what place I shall conduct M. Fouquet.”
“To the Castle of Angers at first.”
“Very well, Sire.”
“Afterwards we will see.”
“M. d’Artagnan, one last word: you have remarked that for making this capture of M. Fouquet, I have not employed my Guards, on which account M. de Gesvres will be furious.”
“Your Majesty does not employ your Guards,” said the captain, a little humiliated, “because you mistrust M. de Gesvres, that is all.”
“That is to say, Monsieur, that I have confidence in you.”
“I know that very well, Sire; and it is of no use to make so much of it.”
“It is only for the sake of arriving at this, Monsieur, that if from this moment it should happen that by any chance,- any chance whatever,- M. Fouquet should escape- such chances have been, Monsieur-”
“Oh, very often, Sire; but for others, not for me.”
“And why not for you?”
“Because I, Sire, have for an instant wished to save M. Fouquet.”
The King started. “Because,” continued the captain, “I had then a right to do so, having guessed your Majesty’s plan without your having spoken to me of it, and because I took an interest in M. Fouquet. Then, I was at liberty to show my interest in this man.”
“In truth, Monsieur, you do not reassure me with regard to your services.”
“If I had saved him then, I should have been perfectly innocent; I will say more, I should have done well, for M. Fouquet is not a bad man. But he was not willing; his destiny prevailed; he let the hour of liberty slip by. So much the worse! Now I have orders I will obey them, and M. Fouquet you may consider as a man arrested. He is at the Castle of Angers, is M. Fouquet.”
“Oh, you have not got him yet, Captain.”
“That concerns me; every one to his trade, Sire. Only, once more, reflect! Do you seriously give me orders to arrest M. Fouquet, Sire?”
“Yes, a thousand times, yes!”
“Write it, then.”
“Here is the letter.”
D’Artagnan read it, bowed to the King, and left the room. From the height of the terrace he perceived Gourville, who went by with a joyous air towards the lodgings of M. Fouquet.
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