The Refugees/Chapter X
Chapter X: An Eclipse at Versailles
Madame de Maintenon was a woman who was always full of self-restraint and of cool resource. She had risen in an instant, with an air as if she had at last seen the welcome guest for whom she had pined in vain. With a frank smile of greeting, she advanced with outstretched hand.
"This is indeed a pleasure," said she.
But Madame de Montespan was very angry, so angry that she was evidently making strong efforts to keep herself within control, and to avoid breaking into a furious outburst. Her face was very pale, her lips compressed, and her blue eyes had the set stare and the cold glitter of a furious woman. So for an instant they faced each other, the one frowning, the other smiling, two of the most beautiful and queenly women in France. Then De Montespan, disregarding her rival's outstretched hand, turned towards the king, who had been looking at her with a darkening face.
"I fear that I intrude, sire."
"Your entrance, madame, is certainly somewhat abrupt."
"I must crave pardon if it is so. Since this lady has been the governess of my children I have been in the habit of coming into her room unannounced."
"As far as I am concerned, you are most welcome to do so," said her rival, with perfect composure.
"I confess that I had not even thought it necessary to ask your permission, madame," the other answered coldly.
"Then you shall certainly do so in the future, madame," said the king sternly. "It is my express order to you that every possible respect is to be shown in every way to this lady."
"Oh, to _this_ lady!" with a wave of her hand in her direction. "Your Majesty's commands are of course our laws. But I must remember that it _is_ this lady, for sometimes one may get confused as to which name it is that your Majesty has picked out for honour. To-day it is De Maintenon; yesterday it was Fontanges; to-morrow--Ah, well, who can say who it may be to-morrow?"
She was superb in her pride and her fearlessness as she stood, with her sparkling blue eyes and her heaving bosom, looking down upon her royal lover. Angry as he was, his gaze lost something of its sternness as it rested upon her round full throat and the delicate lines of her shapely shoulders. There was something very becoming in her passion, in the defiant pose of her dainty head, and the magnificent scorn with which she glanced at her rival.
"There is nothing to be gained, madame, by being insolent," said he.
"Nor is it my custom, sire."
"And yet I find your words so."
"Truth is always mistaken for insolence, sire, at the court of France."
"We have had enough of this."
"A very little truth is enough."
"You forget yourself, madame. I beg that you will leave the room."
"I must first remind your Majesty that I was so far honoured as to have an appointment this afternoon. At four o'clock I had your royal promise that you would come to me. I cannot doubt that your Majesty will keep that promise in spite of the fascinations which you may find here."
"I should have come, madame, but the clock, as you may observe, is half an hour slow, and the time had passed before I was aware of it."
I beg, sire, that you will not let that distress you. I am returning to my chamber, and five o'clock will suit me as well as four."
"I thank you, madame, but I have not found this interview so pleasant that I should seek another."
"Then your Majesty will not come?"
"I should prefer not."
"In spite of your promise!"
"You will break your word!"
"Silence, madame; this is intolerable."
"It is indeed intolerable!" cried the angry lady, throwing all discretion to the winds. "Oh, I am not afraid of you, sire. I have loved you, but I have never feared you. I leave you here. I leave you with your conscience and your--your lady confessor. But one word of truth you shall hear before I go. You have been false to your wife, and you have been false to your mistress, but it is only now that I find that you can be false also to your word." She swept him an indignant courtesy, and glided, with head erect, out of the room.
The king sprang from his chair as if he had been stung. Accustomed as he was to his gentle little wife, and the even gentler La Valliere, such language as this had never before intruded itself upon the royal ears. It was like a physical blow to him. He felt stunned, humiliated, bewildered, by so unwonted a sensation. What odour was this which mingled for the first time with the incense amid which he lived? And then his whole soul rose up in anger at her, at the woman who had dared to raise her voice against him. That she should be jealous of and insult another woman, that was excusable. It was, in fact, an indirect compliment to himself. But that she should turn upon him, as if they were merely man and woman, instead of monarch and subject, that was too much. He gave an inarticulate cry of rage, and rushed to the door.
"Sire!" Madame de Maintenon, who had watched keenly the swift play of his emotions over his expressive face, took two quick steps forward, and laid her hand upon his arm.
"I will go after her."
"And why, sire?"
To forbid her the court."
"You heard her! It is infamous! I shall go."
"But, sire, could you not write?"
"No, no; I shall see her." He pulled open the door.
"Oh, sire, be firm, then!" It was with an anxious face that she watched him start off, walking rapidly, with angry gestures, down the corridor. Then she turned back, and dropping upon her knees on the _prie-dieu_, bowed her head in prayer for the king, for herself, and for France.
De Catinat, the guardsman, had employed himself in showing his young friend from over the water all the wonders of the great palace, which the other had examined keenly, and had criticised or admired with an independence of judgment and a native correctness of taste natural to a man whose life had been spent in freedom amid the noblest works of nature. Grand as were the mighty fountains and the artificial cascades, they had no overwhelming effect on one who had travelled up from Erie to Ontario, and had seen the Niagara River hurl itself over its precipice, nor were the long level swards so very large to eyes which had rested upon the great plains of the Dakotas. The building itself, however, its extent, its height, and the beauty of its stone, filled him with astonishment.
"I must bring Ephraim Savage here," he kept repeating. "He Would never believe else that there was one house in the world which would weigh more than all Boston and New York put together."
De Catinat had arranged that the American should remain with his friend Major de Brissac, as the time had come round for his own second turn of guard. He had hardly stationed himself in the corridor when he was astonished to see the King, without escort or attendants, walking swiftly down the passage. His delicate face was disfigured with anger, and his mouth was set grimly, like that of a man who had taken a momentous resolution.
"Officer of the guard," said he shortly.
"What! You again, Captain de Catinat? You have not been on duty since morning?"
"No, sire. It is my second guard."
"Very good. I wish your assistance."
"I am at your command, sire."
"Is there a subaltern here?"
"Lieutenant de la Tremouille is at the side guard."
"Very well. You will place him in command."
"You will yourself go to Monsieur de Vivonne. You know his apartments?"
"If he is not there, you must go and seek him. Wherever he is, you must find him within the hour."
"You will give him an order from me. At six o'clock he is to be in his carriage at the east gate of the palace. His sister, Madame de Montespan, will await him there, and he is charged by me to drive her to the Chateau of Petit Bourg. You will tell him that he is answerable to me for her arrival there."
"Yes, sire." De Catinat raised his sword in salute, and started upon his mission.
The king passed on down the corridor, and opened a door which led him into a magnificent ante-room, all one blaze of mirrors and gold, furnished to a marvel with the most delicate ebony and silver suite, on a deep red carpet of Aleppo, as soft and yielding as the moss of a forest. In keeping with the furniture was the sole occupant of this stately chamber--a little negro boy in a livery of velvet picked out with silver tinsel, who stood as motionless as a small swart statuette against the door which faced that through which the king entered.
"Is your mistress there?"
"She has just returned, sire."
"I wish to see her."
"Pardon, sire, but she--"
"Is everyone to thwart me to-day?" snarled the king, and taking the little page by his velvet collar, he hurled him to the other side of the room. Then, without knocking, he opened the door, and passed on into the lady's boudoir.
It was a large and lofty room, very different to that from which he had just come. Three long windows from ceiling to floor took up one side, and through the delicate pink-tinted blinds the evening sun cast a subdued and dainty light. Great gold candelabra glittered between the mirrors upon the wall, and Le Brun had expended all his wealth of colouring upon the ceiling, where Louis himself, in the character of Jove, hurled down his thunder-bolts upon a writhing heap of Dutch and Palatine Titans. Pink was the prevailing tone in tapestry, carpet, and furniture, so that the whole room seemed to shine with the sweet tints of the inner side of a shell, and when lit up, as it was then, formed such a chamber as some fairy hero might have built up for his princess. At the further side, prone upon an ottoman, her face buried in the cushion, her beautiful white arms thrown over it, the rich coils of her brown hair hanging in disorder across the long curve of her ivory neck, lay, like a drooping flower, the woman whom he had come to discard.
At the sound of the closing door she had glanced up, and then, at the sight of the king, she sprang to her feet and ran towards him, her hands out, her blue eyes bedimmed with tears, her whole beautiful figure softening into womanliness and humility.
"Ah, sire," she cried, with a pretty little sunburst of joy through her tears, "then I have wronged you! I have wronged you cruelly! You have kept your promise. You were but trying my faith! Oh, how could I have said such words to you--how could I pain that noble heart! But you have come after me to tell me that you have forgiven me!" She put her arms forward with the trusting air of a pretty child who claims an embrace as her due, but the king stepped swiftly back from her, and warned her away from him with an angry gesture.
"All is over forever between us," he cried harshly. "Your brother will await you at the east gate at six o'clock, and it is my command that you wait there until you receive my further orders."
She staggered back as if he had struck her.
"Leave you!" she cried.
"You must leave the court."
"The court! Ay, willingly, this instant! But you! Ah, sire, you ask what is impossible."
"I do not ask, madame; I order. Since you have learned to abuse your position, your presence has become intolerable. The united kings of Europe have never dared to speak to me as you have spoken to-day. You have insulted me in my own palace--me, Louis, the king. Such things are not done twice, madame. Your insolence has carried you too far this time. You thought that because I was forbearing, I was therefore weak. It appeared to you that if you only humoured me one moment, you might treat me as if I were your equal the next, for that this poor puppet of a king could always be bent this way or that. You see your mistake now. At six o'clock you leave Versailles forever." His eyes flashed, and his small upright figure seemed to swell in the violence of his indignation, while she leaned away from him, one hand across her eyes and one thrown forward, as if to screen her from that angry gaze.
"Oh, I have been wicked!" she cried. "I know it, I know it!"
"I am glad, madame, that you have the grace to acknowledge it."
"How could I speak to you so! How could I! Oh, that some blight may come upon this unhappy tongue! I, who have had nothing but good from you! I to insult you, who are the author of all my happiness! Oh, sire, forgive me, forgive me! for pity's sake forgive me!"
Louis was by nature a kind-hearted man. His feelings were touched, and his pride also was flattered by the abasement of this beautiful and haughty woman. His other favourites had been amiable to all, but this one was so proud, so unyielding, until she felt his master-hand. His face softened somewhat in its expression as he glanced at her, but he shook his head, and his voice was as firm as ever as he answered.
"It is useless, madame," said he. "I have thought this matter over for a long time, and your madness to-day has only hurried what must in any case have taken place. You must leave the palace."
"I will leave the palace. Say only that you forgive me. Oh, sire, I cannot bear your anger. It crushes me down. I am not strong enough. It is not banishment, it is death to which you sentence me. Think of our long years of love, sire, and say that you forgive me. I have given up all for your sake--husband, honour, everything. Oh, will you not give your anger up for mine? My God, he weeps! Oh, I am saved, I am saved!"
"No, no, madame," cried the king, dashing his hand across his eyes. "You see the weakness of the man, but you shall also see the firmness of the king. As to your insults to-day, I forgive them freely, if that will make you more happy in your retirement. But I owe a duty to my subjects also, and that duty is to set them an example. We have thought too little of such things. But a time has come when it is necessary to review our past life, and to prepare for that which is to come."
"Ah, sire, you pain me. You are not yet in the prime of your years, and you speak as though old age were upon you. In a score of years from now it may be time for folk to say that age has made a change in your life."
The king winced. "Who says so?" he cried angrily.
"Oh, sire, it slipped from me unawares. Think no more of it. Nobody says so. Nobody."
"You are hiding something from me. Who is it who says this?"
"Oh, do not ask me, sire."
"You said that it was reported that I had changed my life not through religion, but through stress of years. Who said so?"
"Oh, sire, it was but foolish court gossip, all unworthy of your attention. It was but the empty common talk of cavaliers who had nothing else to say to gain a smile from their ladies."
"The common talk?" Louis flushed crimson.
"Have I, then, grown so aged? You have known me for nearly twenty years. Do you see such changes in me?"
"To me, sire, you are as pleasing and as gracious as when you first won the heart of Mademoiselle Tonnay-Charente."
The king smiled as he looked at the beautiful woman before him.
"In very truth," said he, "I can say that there has been no such great change in Mademoiselle Tonnay-Charente either. But still it is best that we should part, Francoise."
"If it will add aught to your happiness, sire, I shall go through it, be it to my death."
"Now that is the proper spirit."
"You have but to name the place, sire--Petit Bourg, Chargny, or my own convent of St. Joseph in the Faubourg St. Germain. What matter where the flower withers, when once the sun has forever turned from it? At least, the past is my own, and I shall live in the remembrance of the days when none had come between us, and when your sweet love was all my own. Be happy, sire, be happy, and think no more of what I said about the foolish gossip of the court. Your life lies in the future. Mine is in the past. Adieu, dear sire, adieu!" She threw forward her hands, her eyes dimmed over, and she would have fallen had Louis not sprung forward and caught her in his arms. Her beautiful head drooped upon his shoulder, her breath was warm upon his cheek, and the subtle scent of her hair was in his nostrils. His arm, as he held her, rose and fell with her bosom, and he felt her heart, beneath his hand, fluttering like a caged bird. Her broad white throat was thrown back, her eyes almost closed, her lips just parted enough to show the line of pearly teeth, her beautiful face not three inches from his own. And then suddenly the eyelids quivered, and the great blue eyes looked up at him, lovingly, appealingly, half deprecating, half challenging, her whole soul in a glance. Did he move? or was it she? Who could tell? But their lips had met in a long kiss, and then in another, and plans and resolutions were streaming away from Louis like autumn leaves in the west wind.
"Then I am not to go? You would not have the heart to send me away, would you?"
"No, no; but you must not annoy me, Francoise."
"I had rather die than cause you an instant of grief. Oh, sire, I have seen so little of you lately! And I love you so! It has maddened me. And then that dreadful woman--"
"Oh, I must not speak against her. I will be civil for your sake even to her, the widow of old Scarron."
"Yes, yes, you must be civil. I cannot have any unpleasantness."
"But you will stay with me, sire?" Her supple arms coiled themselves round his neck. Then she held him for an instant at arm's length to feast her eyes upon his face, and then drew him once more towards her. "You will not leave me, dear sire. It is so long since you have been here."
The sweet face, the pink glow in the room, the hush of the evening, all seemed to join in their sensuous influence. Louis sank down upon the settee.
"I will stay," said he.
"And that carriage, dear sire, at the east door?"
"I have been very harsh with you, Francoise. You will forgive me. Have you paper and pencil, that I may countermand the order?"
"They are here, sire, upon the side table. I have also a note which, if I may leave you for an instant, I will write in the anteroom."
She swept out with triumph in her eyes. It had been a terrible fight, but all the greater the credit of her victory. She took a little pink slip of paper from an inlaid desk, and dashed off a few words upon it. They were: "Should Madame de Maintenon have any message for his Majesty, he will be for the next few hours in the room of Madame de Montespan." This she addressed to her rival, and it was sent on the spot, together with the king's order, by the hands of the little black page.