“I listen,” repeated the young Prince, decidedly, “without either eagerly seeking or fearing anything you are about to say to me”; and he sank still deeper in the thick cushions of the carriage, trying to deprive his companion not only of the sight of him, but even of the very idea of his presence.
Black was the darkness which fell wide and dense from the summits of the intertwining trees. The carriage, covered in by this vast roof, would not have received a particle of light, not even if a ray could have struggled through the wreaths of mist which were rising in the avenue of the wood.
“Monseigneur,” resumed Aramis, “you know the history of the government which to-day controls France. The King issued from an infancy imprisoned like yours, obscure as yours, and confined as yours; only, instead of enduring, like yourself, this slavery in a prison, this obscurity in solitude, these straitened circumstances in concealment, he has borne all these miseries, humiliations, and distresses in full daylight, under the pitiless sun of royalty,- on an elevation so flooded with light, where every stain appears a miserable blemish, and every glory a stain. The King has suffered; it rankles in his mind, and he will avenge himself. He will be a bad King. I say not that he will pour out blood, like Louis XI or Charles IX, for he has no mortal injuries to avenge; but he will devour the means and substance of his people, for he has himself suffered injuriously as to his own welfare and possessions. In the first place, then, I quite acquit my conscience, when I consider openly the merits and faults of this Prince; and if I condemn him, my conscience absolves me.”
Aramis paused. It was not to ascertain if the silence of the forest remained undisturbed, but it was to gather up his thoughts from the very bottom of his soul, and to leave the thoughts he had uttered sufficient time to eat deeply into the mind of his companion.
“All that God does, he does well,” continued the Bishop of Vannes; “and I am so persuaded of it that I have long been thankful to have been chosen depositary of the secret which I have aided you to discover. To a just Providence was necessary an instrument, at once penetrating, persevering, and convinced, to accomplish a great work. I am this instrument. I possess penetration, perseverance, conviction; I govern a mysterious people, who has taken for its motto the motto of God, Patiens quia aeternus.” The Prince moved. “I divine, Monseigneur, why you raise your head, and that my having rule over a people astonishes you. You did not know you were dealing with a king: oh, Monseigneur, king of a people very humble, very poor,- humble, because they have no force save when creeping; poor, because never, almost never in this world, do my people reap the harvest they sow, or eat the fruit they cultivate. They labor for an abstract idea; they heap together all the atoms of their power to form one man; and round this man, with the sweat of their labor, they create a misty halo which his genius shall, in turn, render a glory gilded with the rays of all the crowns in Christendom. Such is the man you have beside you, Monseigneur. He has drawn you from the abyss for a great purpose, and he desires, in furtherance of this sublime purpose, to raise you above the powers of the earth,- above himself.”
The Prince lightly touched Aramis’s arm. “You speak to me,” he said, “of that religious order whose chief you are. For me the result of your words is, that the day you desire to hurl down the man you shall have raised, the event will be accomplished; and that you will keep under your hand your creature of to-day.”
“Undeceive yourself, Monseigneur,” replied the bishop. “I should not take the trouble to play this terrible game with your royal Highness, if I had not a double interest in winning. The day you are elevated, you are elevated forever; you will overturn the footstool, as you rise, and will send it rolling so far that not even the sight of it will ever again recall to you its right to your remembrance.”
“Your movement, Monseigneur, arises from an excellent disposition. I thank you. Be well assured, I aspire to more than gratitude! I am convinced that when arrived at the summit you will judge me still more worthy to be your friend; and then, Monseigneur, we two will do such great deeds that ages hereafter shall speak of them.”
“Tell me plainly, Monsieur,- tell me without disguise,- what I am today, and what you aim at my being tomorrow.”
“You are the son of King Louis XIII, brother of Louis XIV; you are the natural and legitimate heir to the throne of France. In keeping you near him, as Monsieur has been kept,- Monsieur, your younger brother,- the King would reserve to himself the right of being legitimate sovereign. The doctors only and God could dispute his legitimacy. But the doctors always prefer the King who is to the King who is not. God has wrought against himself in wronging a Prince who is an honest man. But God has willed that you should be persecuted; and this persecution to-day consecrates you King of France. You had then a right to reign, seeing that it is disputed; you had a right to be proclaimed, seeing that you have been concealed; you are of kingly blood, since no one has dared to shed your blood as your servants’ has been shed. Now see what He has done for you,- this God whom you so often accused of having in every way thwarted you! He has given you the features, figure, age, and voice of your brother; and the very causes of your persecution are about to become those of your triumphant restoration. To-morrow, after to-morrow,- from the very first, regal phantom, living shade of Louis XIV, you will sit upon his throne, whence the will of Heaven, confided in execution to the arm of man, will have hurled him without hope of return.”
“I understand,” said the Prince; “my brother’s blood will not be shed, then.”
“You will be sole arbiter of his fate.”
“The secret of which they made an evil use against me?”
“You will employ it against him. What did he do to conceal it? He concealed you. Living image of himself, you will defeat the conspiracy of Mazarin and Anne of Austria. You, my Prince, will have the same interest in concealing him, who will as a prisoner resemble you, as you will resemble him as King.”
“I return to what I was saying to you. Who will guard him?”
“Who guarded you?”
“You know this secret,- you have made use of it with regard to myself. Who else knows it?”
“The Queen-Mother and Madame de Chevreuse.”
“What will they do?”
“Nothing, if you choose.”
“How is that?”
“How can they recognize you, if you act so that no one can recognize you?”
“’Tis true; but there are grave difficulties.”
“State them, Prince.”
“My brother is married; I cannot take my brother’s wife.”
“I will cause Spain to consent to a divorce: it is in the interest of your new policy; it is human morality. All that is really noble and really useful in this world will find its account therein.”
“The imprisoned King will speak.”
“To whom do you think he should speak,- to the walls?”
“You mean, by walls, the men in whom you put confidence.”
“If need be, yes. And besides, your royal Highness-”
“I was going to say, that the designs of Providence do not stop on such a fair road. Every scheme of this calibre is completed by its results, like a geometrical calculation. The King in prison will not be for you the cause of embarrassment that you have been for the King enthroned. His soul is naturally proud and impatient; it is, moreover, disarmed and enfeebled by being accustomed to honors, and by the license of supreme power. God, who has willed that the concluding step in the geometrical calculation I have had the honor of describing to your royal Highness should be your accession to the throne and the destruction of him who is hurtful to you, has also determined that the conquered one shall soon end both his own and your sufferings. Therefore his soul and body have been adapted for but a brief agony. Put into prison as a private individual, left alone with your doubts, deprived of everything, you have met all with the force of uninterrupted custom. But your brother, a captive, forgotten, and in bonds, will not long endure the calamity, and Heaven will resume his soul at the appointed time,- that is to say, soon.”
At this point in Aramis’s gloomy analysis a bird of night uttered from the depths of the forest that prolonged and plaintive cry which makes every creature tremble.
“I will exile the deposed King,” said Philippe, shuddering; “’twill be more humane.”
“The King’s good pleasure will decide the point,” said Aramis. “But has the problem been well put? Have I brought out the solution according to the wishes or the foresight of your royal Highness?”
“Yes, Monsieur, yes; you have forgotten nothing,- except, indeed, two things.”
“Let us speak of it at once, with the same frankness we have already used. Let us speak of the causes which may bring about the ruin of all the hopes we have conceived. Let us speak of the dangers we incur.”
“They would be immense, infinite, terrific, insurmountable, if, as I have said, all things did not concur in rendering them absolutely of no account. There is no danger either for you or for me, if the constancy and intrepidity of your royal Highness are equal to that perfection of resemblance to your brother which Nature has bestowed upon you. I repeat it, there are no dangers,- only obstacles; a word, indeed, which I find in all languages, but have always ill understood, and, were I King, would have obliterated as useless and absurd.”
“Yes, indeed, Monsieur; there is a very serious obstacle, an insurmountable danger, which you are forgetting.”
“Ah!” said Aramis.
“There is conscience, which cries aloud; remorse, which lacerates.”
“Oh! that is true,” said the bishop; “there is a weakness of heart of which you remind me. Oh! you are right; that, indeed, is an immense obstacle. The horse afraid of the ditch leaps into the middle of it, and is killed! The man who trembling crosses his sword with that of another leaves loopholes by which death enters!”
“Have you a brother?” said the young man to Aramis.
“I am alone in the world,” said the latter, with a hard, dry voice.
“But surely there is some one in the world whom you love?” added Philippe.
“No one!- Yes, I love you.”
The young man sank into so profound a silence that the sound of his breathing seemed to Aramis like a roaring tumult. “Monseigneur,” he resumed, “I have not said all I had to say to your royal Highness; I have not offered you all the salutary counsels and useful resources which I have at my disposal. It is useless to flash bright visions before the eyes of one who loves darkness; useless, too, is it to let the grand roar of the cannon sound in the ears of one who loves repose and the quiet of the country. Monseigneur, I have your happiness spread out before me in my thoughts. I will let it fall from my lips; take it up carefully for yourself, who look with such tender regard upon the bright heavens, the verdant meadows, the pure air. I know a country full of delights, an unknown Paradise, a corner of the world where alone, unfettered, and unknown, in the woods, amidst flowers, and streams of rippling water, you will forget all the misery that human folly has so recently allotted you. Oh, listen to me, my Prince! I do not jest. I have a soul, and can read to the depths of your own. I will not take you, unready for your task, in order to cast you into the crucible of my own desires or my caprice or my ambition. Everything or nothing! You are chilled, sick at heart, almost overcome by the excess of emotion which but one hour’s liberty has produced in you. For me, that is a certain and unmistakable sign that you do not wish for large and long respiration. Let us choose, then, a life more humble, better suited to our strength. Heaven is my witness that I wish your happiness to be the result of the trial to which I have exposed you.”
“Speak, speak!” said the Prince, with a vivacity which did not escape Aramis.
“I know,” resumed the prelate, “in the Bas-Poitou, a canton of which no one in France suspects the existence. Twenty leagues of country,- it is immense, is it not? Twenty leagues, Monseigneur, all covered with water and herbage and reeds; the whole studded with islands covered with woods. These large marshes, covered with reeds as with a thick mantle, sleep silently and calmly under the smiling sun. A few fishermen with their families pass their lives away there, with their large rafts of poplars and alders, the flooring formed of reeds, and the roof woven out of thick rushes. These barks, these floating houses, are wafted to and fro by the changing winds. Whenever they touch a bank, it is but by chance; and so gently, too, that the sleeping fisherman is not awakened by the shock. Should he wish to land, it is because he has seen a large flight of landrails or plovers, of wild ducks, teal, widgeon, or woodcocks, which fall an easy prey to his nets or his gun. Silver shad, eels, greedy pike, red and gray mullet, fall in masses into his nets; he has but to choose the finest and largest, and return the others to the waters. Never yet has the foot of man, be he soldier or simple citizen,- never has any one, indeed, penetrated into that district. The sun’s rays there are soft and tempered; in plots of solid earth, whose soil is rich and fertile, grows the vine, which nourishes with its generous juice its black and white grapes. Once a week a boat is sent to fetch the bread which has been baked at an oven,- the common property of all. There, like the seigneurs of early days,- powerful because of your dogs, your fishing-lines, your guns, and your beautiful reed-built house,- would you live, rich in the produce of the chase, in the plenitude of security. There would years of your life roll away, at the end of which, unrecognizable, transformed, you will have compelled Heaven to reshape your destiny. There are a thousand pistoles in this bag, Monseigneur,- more than sufficient to purchase the whole marsh of which I have spoken; more than enough to live there as many years as you have days to live; more than enough to constitute you the richest, the freest, and the happiest man in the country. Accept it, as I offer it to you,- sincerely, cheerfully. Forthwith, from the carriage here we will unharness two of the horses; the mute, my servant, shall conduct you- travelling by night, sleeping by day- to the locality I have mentioned; and I shall at least have the satisfaction of knowing that I have rendered to my Prince the service that he himself preferred. I shall have made one man happy; and Heaven for that will hold me in better account than if I had made one man powerful,- for that is far more difficult. And now, Monseigneur, your answer to this proposition? Here is the money. Nay, do not hesitate! At Poitou you can risk nothing, except the chance of catching the fevers prevalent there; and even of them, the so-called wizards of the country may cure you for your pistoles. If you play the other game, you run the chance of being assassinated on a throne or of being strangled in a prison. Upon my soul, I assure you, now I compare them together, upon my life, I should hesitate.”
“Monsieur,” replied the young Prince, “before I determine, let me alight from this carriage, walk on the ground, and consult that voice by which God speaks in unsullied Nature. Ten minutes, and I will answer.”
“As you please, Monseigneur,” said Aramis, bending before him with respect,- so solemn and august in its tone and address had been the voice which had just spoken.
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