The Refugees/Chapter XII
Chapter XII: The King Receives
It may have been that Mademoiselle Nanon, the faithful _confidante_ of Madame de Maintenon, had learned something of this interview, or it may be that Pere la Chaise, with the shrewdness for which his Order is famous, had come to the conclusion that publicity was the best means of holding the king to his present intention; but whatever the source, it was known all over the court next day that the old favourite was again in disgrace, and that there was talk of a marriage between the king and the governess of his children. It was whispered at the _petit lever_, confirmed at the _grand entree_, and was common gossip by the time that the king had returned from chapel. Back into wardrobe and drawer went the flaring silks and the feathered hats, and out once more came the sombre coat and the matronly dress. Scudery and Calpernedi gave place to the missal and St. Thomas a Kempis, while Bourdaloue, after preaching for a week to empty benches, found his chapel packed to the last seat with weary gentlemen and taper-bearing ladies. By midday there was none in the court who had not heard the tidings, save only Madame de Montespan, who, alarmed by her lover's absence, had remained in haughty seclusion in her room, and knew nothing of what had passed. Many there were who would have loved to carry her the tidings; but the king's changes had been frequent of late, and who would dare to make a mortal enemy of one who might, ere many weeks were past, have the lives and fortunes of the whole court in the hollow of her hand?
Louis, in his innate selfishness, had been so accustomed to regard every event entirely from the side of how it would affect himself, that it had never struck him that his long-suffering family, who had always yielded to him the absolute obedience which he claimed as his right, would venture to offer any opposition to his new resolution. He was surprised, therefore, when his brother demanded a private interview that afternoon, and entered his presence without the complaisant smile and humble air with which he was wont to appear before him.
Monsieur was a curious travesty of his elder brother. He was shorter, but he wore enormously high boot-heels, which brought him to a fair stature. In figure he had none of that grace which marked the king, nor had he the elegant hand and foot which had been the delight of sculptors. He was fat, waddled somewhat in his walk, and wore an enormous black wig, which rolled down in rows and rows of curls over his shoulders. His face was longer and darker than the king's, and his nose more prominent, though he shared with his brother the large brown eyes which each had inherited from Anne of Austria. He had none of the simple and yet stately taste which marked the dress of the monarch, but his clothes were all tagged over with fluttering ribbons, which rustled behind him as he walked, and clustered so thickly over his feet as to conceal them from view. Crosses, stars, jewels, and insignia were scattered broadcast over his person, and the broad blue ribbon of the Order of the Holy Ghost was slashed across his coat, and was gathered at the end into a great bow, which formed the incongruous support of a diamond-hilted sword. Such was the figure which rolled towards the king, bearing in his right hand his many-feathered beaver, and appearing in his person, as he was in his mind, an absurd burlesque of the monarch.
"Why, monsieur, you seem less gay than usual to-day," said the king, with a smile. "Your dress, indeed, is bright, but your brow is clouded. I trust that all is well with Madame and with the Duc de Chartres?"
"Yes, sire, they are well; but they are sad like myself, and from the same cause."
"Indeed! and why?"
"Have I ever failed in my duty as your younger brother, sire?"
"Never, Philippe, never!" said the king, laying his hand affectionately upon the other's shoulder. "You have set an excellent example to my subjects."
"Then why set a slight upon me?"
"Yes, sire, I say it is a slight. We are of royal blood, and our wives are of royal blood also. You married the Princess of Spain; I married the Princess of Bavaria. It was a condescension, but still I did it. My first wife was the Princess of England. How can we admit into a house which has formed such alliances as these a woman who is the widow of a hunchback singer, a mere lampooner, a man whose name is a byword through Europe?"
The king had stared in amazement at his brother, but his anger now overcame his astonishment.
"Upon my word!" he cried; "upon my word! I have said just now that you have been an excellent brother, but I fear that I spoke a little prematurely. And so you take upon yourself to object to the lady whom I select as my wife!"
"I do, sire."
"And by what right?"
"By the right of the family honour, sire, which is as much mine as yours."
"Man," cried the king furiously, "have you not yet learned that within this kingdom I am the fountain of honour, and that whomsoever I may honour becomes by that very fact honourable? Were I to take a cinder-wench out of the Rue Poissonniere, I could at my will raise her up until the highest in France would be proud to bow down before her. Do you not know this?"
"No, I do not," cried his brother, with all the obstinacy of a weak man who has at last been driven to bay. "I look upon it as a slight upon me and a slight upon my wife."
"Your wife! I have every respect for Charlotte Elizabeth of Bavaria, but how is she superior to one whose grandfather was the dear friend and comrade in arms of Henry the Great? Enough! I will not condescend to argue such a matter with you! Begone, and do not return to my presence until you have learned not to interfere in my affairs."
"For all that, my wife shall not know her!" snarled monsieur; and then, as his brother took a fiery step or two towards him, he turned and scuttled out of the room as fast as his awkward gait and high heels would allow him.
But the king was to have no quiet that day. If Madame de Maintenon's friends had rallied to her yesterday, her enemies were active to-day. Monsieur had hardly disappeared before there rushed into the room a youth who bore upon his rich attire every sign of having just arrived from a dusty journey. He was pale-faced and auburn-haired, with features which would have been strikingly like the king's if it were not that his nose had been disfigured in his youth. The king's face had lighted up at the sight of him, but it darkened again as he hurried forward and threw himself down at his feet.
"Oh, sire," he cried, "spare us this grief--spare us this humiliation! I implore you to pause before you do what will bring dishonour upon yourself and upon us!"
The king started back from him, and paced angrily up and down the room.
"This is intolerable!" he cried. "It was bad from my brother, but worse from my son. You are in a conspiracy with him, Louis. Monsieur has told you to act this part."
The dauphin rose to his feet and looked steadfastly at his angry father.
"I have not seen my uncle," he said. "I was at Meudon when I heard this news--this dreadful news--and I sprang upon my horse, sire, and galloped over to implore you to think again before you drag our royal house so low."
"You are insolent, Louis."
"I do not mean to be so, sire. But consider, sire, that my mother was a queen, and that it would be strange indeed if for a step-mother I had a--"
The king raised his hand with a gesture of authority which checked the word upon his lips.
"Silence!" he cried, "or you may say that which would for ever set a gulf between us. Am I to be treated worse than my humblest subject, who is allowed to follow his own bent in his private affairs?"
"This is not your own private affair, sire; all that you do reflects upon your family. The great deeds of your reign have given a new glory to the name of Bourbon. Oh, do not mar it now, sire! I implore it of you upon my bended knees!"
"You talk like a fool!" cried his father roughly. "I propose to marry a virtuous and charming lady of one of the oldest noble families of France, and you talk as if I were doing something degrading and unheard of. What is your objection to this lady?"
"That she is the daughter of a man whose vices were well known, that her brother is of the worst repute, that she has led the life of an adventuress, is the widow of a deformed scribbler, and that she occupies a menial position in the palace."
The king had stamped with his foot upon the carpet more than once during this frank address, but his anger blazed into a fury at its conclusion.
"Do you dare," he cried, with flashing eyes, "to call the charge of my children a menial position? I say that there is no higher in the kingdom. Go back to Meudon, sir, this instant, and never dare to open your mouth again on the subject. Away, I say! When, in God's good time, you are king of this country, you may claim your own way, but until then do not venture to cross the plans of one who is both your parent and your monarch."
The young man bowed low, and walked with dignity from the chamber; but he turned with his hand upon the door.
"The Abbe Fenelon came with me, sire. Is it your pleasure to see him?"
"Away! away!" cried the king furiously, still striding up and down the room with angry face and flashing eyes. The dauphin left the cabinet, and was instantly succeeded by a tall thin priest, some forty years of age, strikingly handsome, with a pale refined face, large well-marked features, and the easy deferential bearing of one who has had a long training in courts. The king turned sharply upon him, and looked hard at him with a distrustful eye.
"Good-day, Abbe Fenelon," said he. "May I ask what the object of this interview is?"
"You have had the condescension, sire, on more than one occasion, to ask my humble advice, and even to express yourself afterwards as being pleased that you had acted upon it."
"Well? Well? Well?" growled the monarch.
"If rumour says truly, sire, you are now at a crisis when a word of impartial counsel might be of value to you. Need I say that it would--"
"Tut! tut! Why all these words?" cried the king. "You have been sent here by others to try and influence me against Madame de Maintenon."
"Sire, I have had nothing but kindness from that lady. I esteem and honour her more than any lady in France."
"In that case, abbe, you will, I am sure, be glad to hear that I am about to marry her. Good-day, abbe. I regret that I have not longer time to devote to this very interesting conversation."
"When my mind is in doubt, abbe, I value your advice very highly. On this occasion my mind is happily _not_ in doubt. I have the honour to wish you a very good-day."
The king's first hot anger had died away by now, and had left behind it a cold, bitter spirit which was even more formidable to his antagonists. The abbe, glib of tongue and fertile of resource as he was, felt himself to be silenced and overmatched. He walked backwards, with three long bows, as was the custom of the court, and departed.
But the king had little breathing space. His assailants knew that with persistence they had bent his will before, and they trusted that they might do so again. It was Louvois, the minister, now who entered the room, with his majestic port, his lofty bearing, his huge wig, and his aristocratic face, which, however, showed some signs of trepidation as it met the baleful eye of the king.
"Well, Louvois, what now?" he asked impatiently. "Has some new state matter arisen?"
"There is but one new state matter which has arisen, sire, but it is of such importance as to banish all others from our mind."
"Your marriage, sire."
"You disapprove of it?"
"Oh, sire, can I help it?"
"Out of my room, sir! Am I to be tormented to death by your importunities? What! You dare to linger when I order you to go!" The king advanced angrily upon the minister, but Louvois suddenly flashed out his rapier. Louis sprang back with alarm and amazement upon his face, but it was the hilt and not the point which was presented to him.
"Pass it through my heart, sire!" the minister cried, falling upon his knees, his whole great frame in a quiver with emotion. "I will not live to see your glory fade!"
"Great heaven!" shrieked Louis, throwing the sword down upon the ground, and raising his hands to his temples, "I believe that this is a conspiracy to drive me mad. Was ever a man so tormented in his life? This will be a private marriage, man, and it will not affect the state in the least degree. Do you hear me? Have you understood me? What more do you want?"
Louvois gathered himself up, and shot his rapier back into its sheath.
"Your Majesty is determined?" he asked.
"Then I say no more. I have done my duty." He bowed his head as one in deep dejection when he departed, but in truth his heart was lightened within him, for he had the king's assurance that the woman whom he hated would, even though his wife, not sit on the throne of the Queens of France.
These repeated attacks, if they had not shaken the king's resolution, had at least irritated and exasperated him to the utmost. Such a blast of opposition was a new thing to a man whose will had been the one law of the land. It left him ruffled and disturbed, and without regretting his resolution, he still, with unreasoning petulance, felt inclined to visit the inconvenience to which he had been put upon those whose advice he had followed. He wore accordingly no very cordial face when the usher in attendance admitted the venerable figure of Father la Chaise, his confessor.
"I wish you all happiness, sire," said the Jesuit, "and I congratulate you from my heart that you have taken the great step which must lead to content both in this world and the next."
"I have had neither happiness nor contentment yet, father," answered the king peevishly. "I have never been so pestered in my life. The whole court has been on its knees to me to entreat me to change my intention."
The Jesuit looked at him anxiously out of his keen gray eyes.
"Fortunately, your Majesty is a man of strong will," said he, "and not to be so easily swayed as they think."
"No, no, I did not give an inch. But still, it must be confessed that it is very unpleasant to have so many against one. I think that most men would have been shaken."
"Now is the time to stand firm, sire; Satan rages to see you passing out of his power, and he stirs up all his friends and sends all his emissaries to endeavour to detain you."
But the king was not in a humour to be easily consoled.
"Upon my word, father," said he, "you do not seem to have much respect for my family. My brother and my son, with the Abbe Fenelon and the Minister of War, are the emissaries to whom you allude."
"Then there is the more credit to your Majesty for having resisted them. You have done nobly, sire. You have earned the praise and blessing of Holy Church."
"I trust that what I have done is right, father," said the king gravely. "I should be glad to see you again later in the evening, but at present I desire a little leisure for solitary thought."
Father la Chaise left the cabinet with a deep distrust of the king's intentions. It was obvious that the powerful appeals which had been made to him had shaken if they had failed to alter his resolution. What would be the result if more were made? And more would be made; that was as certain as that darkness follows light. Some master-card must be played now which would bring the matter to a crisis at once, for every day of delay was in favour of their opponents. To hesitate was to lose. All must be staked upon one final throw.
The Bishop of Meaux was waiting in the ante-room, and Father la Chaise in a few brief words let him see the danger of the situation and the means by which they should meet it. Together they sought Madame de Maintenon in her room. She had discarded the sombre widow's dress which she had chosen since her first coming to court, and wore now, as more in keeping with her lofty prospects, a rich yet simple costume of white satin with bows of silver serge. A single diamond sparkled in the thick coils of her dark tresses. The change had taken years from a face and figure which had always looked much younger than her age, and as the two plotters looked upon her perfect complexion, her regular features, so calm and yet so full of refinement, and the exquisite grace of her figure and bearing, they could not but feel that if they failed in their ends, it was not for want of having a perfect tool at their command.
She had risen at their entrance, and her expression showed that she had read upon their faces something of the anxiety which filled their minds.
"You have evil news!" she cried.
"No, no, my daughter." It was the bishop who spoke. "But we must be on our guard against our enemies, who would turn the king away from you if they could."
Her face shone at the mention of her lover.
"Ah, you do not know!" she cried. "He has made a vow. I would trust him as I would trust myself. I know that he will be true."
But the Jesuit's intellect was arrayed against the intuition of the woman.
"Our opponents are many and strong," said he shaking his head. "Even if the king remain firm, he will be annoyed at every turn, so that he will feel his life is darker instead of lighter, save, of course, madame, for that brightness which you cannot fail to bring with you. We must bring the matter to an end."
"And how, father?"
"The marriage must be at once!"
"Yes. This very night, if possible."
"Oh, father, you ask too much. The king would never consent to such a proposal."
"It is he that will propose it."
"Because we shall force him to. It is only thus that all the opposition can be stopped. When it is done, the court will accept it. Until it is done, they will resist it."
"What would you have me do, then, father?"
"Resign the king."
"Resign him!" She turned as pale as a lily, and looked at him in bewilderment.
"It is the best course, madame."
"Ah, father, I might have done it last month, last week, even yesterday morning. But now--oh, it would break my heart!"
"Fear not, madame. We advise you for the best. Go to the king now, at once. Say to him that you have heard that he has been subjected to much annoyance upon your account, that you cannot bear to think that you should be a cause of dissension in his own family, and therefore you will release him from his promise, and will withdraw yourself from the court forever."
"Go now? At once?"
"Yes, without loss of an instant."
She cast a light mantle about her shoulders.
"I follow your advice," she said. "I believe that you are wiser than I. But, oh, if he should take me at my word!"
"He will not take you at your word."
"It is a terrible risk."
"But such an end as this cannot be gained without risks. Go, my child, and may heaven's blessing go with you!"