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"But so contemptible that the king can well despise it," replied the queen-mother. "Well, what are the flirtations which are alluded to? Do you mean that of Madame d'Olonne?"
"No, no; nearer ourselves than that."
"_Casa de usted_," murmured the queen-mother, and without moving her lips, in her daughter-in-law's ear, without being overheard by Madame, who thus continued: - "You know the terrible news?" (4)
"Oh, yes; M. de Guiche's wound."
"And you attribute it, I suppose, as every one else does, to an accident which happened to him while hunting?"
"Yes, of course," said both the queens together, their interest awakened.
Madame drew closer to them, as she said, in a low tone of voice, "It was a duel."
"Ah!" said Anne of Austria, in a severe tone; for, in her ears, the word "duel," which had been forbidden in France all the time she reigned over it, had a strange sound.
"A most deplorable duel, which has nearly cost Monsieur two of his best friends, and the king two of his best servants."
"What was the cause of the duel?" inquired the young queen, animated by a secret instinct.
"Flirtation," repeated Madame, triumphantly. "The gentlemen in question were conversing about the virtue of a particular lady belonging to the court. One of them thought that Pallas was a very second-rate person compared to her; the other pretended that the lady in question was an imitation of Venus alluring Mars; and thereupon the two gentlemen fought as fiercely as Hector and Achilles."
"Venus alluring Mars?" said the young queen in a low tone of voice without venturing to examine into the allegory very deeply.
"Who is the lady?" inquired Anne of Austria abruptly. "You said, I believe, she was one of the ladies of honor?"
"Did I say so?" replied Madame.
"Yes; at least I thought I heard you mention it."
"Are you not aware that such a woman is of ill-omen to a royal house?"
"Is it not Mademoiselle de la Valliere?" said the queen-mother.
"Yes, indeed, that plain-looking creature."
"I thought she was affianced to a gentleman who certainly is not, at least so I have heard, either M. de Guiche or M. de Wardes?"
"Very possibly, madame."
The young queen took up a piece of tapestry, and began to broider with an affectation of tranquillity her trembling fingers contradicted.
"What were you saying about Venus and Mars?" pursued the queen-mother. "Is there a Mars also?"
"She boasts of that being the case."
"Did you say she boasts of it?"
"That was the cause of the duel."
"And M. de Guiche upheld the cause of Mars?"
"Yes, certainly; like the devoted servant he is."
"The devoted servant of whom?" exclaimed the young queen, forgetting her reserve in allowing her jealous feeling to escape.
"Mars, not to be defended except at the expense of Venus," replied Madame. "M. de Guiche maintained the perfect innocence of Mars, and no doubt affirmed that it was all a mere boast."
"And M. de Wardes," said Anne of Austria, quietly, "spread the report that Venus was within her rights, I suppose?"
"Oh, De Wardes," thought Madame, "you shall pay dearly for the wound you have given that noblest - best of men!" And she began to attack De Wardes with the greatest bitterness; thus discharging her own and De Guiche's debt, with the assurance that she was working the future ruin of her enemy. She said so much, in fact, that had Manicamp been there, he would have regretted he had shown such firm regard for his friend, inasmuch as it resulted in the ruin of his unfortunate foe.
"I see nothing in the whole affair but _one_ cause of mischief, and that is La Valliere herself," said the queen-mother.
The young queen resumed her work with perfect indifference of manner, while Madame listened eagerly.
"I do not yet quite understand what you said just now about the danger of coquetry," resumed Anne of Austria.
"It is quite true," Madame hastened to say, "that if the girl had not been a coquette, Mars would not have thought at all about her."
The repetition of this word Mars brought a passing color to the queen's face; but she still continued her work.
"I will not permit that, in my court, gentlemen should be set against each other in this manner," said Anne of Austria, calmly. "Such manners were useful enough, perhaps, in days when the divided nobility had no other rallying-point than mere gallantry. At that time women, whose sway was absolute and undivided, were privileged to encourage men's valor by frequent trials of their courage. But now, thank Heaven, there is but one master in France, and to him every instinct of the mind, every pulse of the body are due. I will not allow my son to be deprived of any single one of his servants." And she turned towards the young queen, saying, "What is to be done with this La Valliere?"
"La Valliere?" said the queen, apparently surprised, "I do not even know the name;" and she accompanied this remark by one of those cold, fixed smiles only to be observed on royal lips.
Madame was herself a princess great in every respect, great in intelligence, great by birth, by pride; the queen's reply, however, completely astonished her, and she was obliged to pause for a moment in order to recover herself. "She is one of my maids of honor," she replied, with a bow.
"In that case," retorted Maria Theresa, in the same tone, "it is your affair, my sister, and not ours."
"I beg your pardon," resumed Anne of Austria, "it is my affair. And I perfectly well understand," she pursued, addressing a look full of intelligence at Madame, "Madame's motive for saying what she has just said."
"Everything which emanates from you, madame," said the English princess, "proceeds from the lips of Wisdom."
"If we send this girl back to her own family," said Maria Theresa, gently, "we must bestow a pension upon her."
"Which I will provide for out of my income," exclaimed Madame.
"No, no," interrupted Anne of Austria, "no disturbance, I beg. The king dislikes that the slightest disrespectful remark should be made of any lady. Let everything be done quietly. Will you have the kindness, Madame, to send for this girl here; and you, my daughter, will have the goodness to retire to your own room."
The dowager queen's entreaties were commands, and as Maria Theresa rose to return to her apartments, Madame rose in order to send a page to summon La Valliere.
Chapter XXIV: The First Quarrel.
La Valliere entered the queen-mother's apartments without in the least suspecting that a serious plot was being concerted against her. She thought it was for something connected with her duties, and never had the queen-mother been unkind to her when such was the case. Besides, not being immediately under the control or direction of Anne of Austria, she could only have an official connection with her, to which her own gentleness of disposition, and the rank of the august princess, made her yield on every occasion with the best possible grace. She therefore advanced towards the queen-mother with that soft and gentle smile which constituted her principal charm, and as she did not approach sufficiently close, Anne of Austria signed to her to come nearer. Madame then entered the room, and with a perfectly calm air took her seat beside her mother- in-law, and continued the work which Maria Theresa had begun. When La Valliere, instead of the direction which she expected to receive immediately on entering the room, perceived these preparations, she looked with curiosity, if not with uneasiness, at the two princesses. Anne seemed full of thought, while Madame maintained an affectation of indifference that would have alarmed a less timid person even than Louise.
"Mademoiselle," said the queen-mother suddenly, without attempting to moderate or disguise her Spanish accent, which she never failed to do except when she was angry, "come closer; we were talking of you, as every one else seems to be doing."
"Of me!" exclaimed La Valliere, turning pale.
"Do you pretend to be ignorant of it; are you not aware of the duel between M. de Guiche and M. de Wardes?"
"Oh, madame! I heard of it yesterday," said La Valliere, clasping her hands together.
"And did you not foresee this quarrel?"
"Why should I, madame?"
"Because two men never fight without a motive, and because you must be aware of the motive which awakened the animosity of the two in question."
"I am perfectly ignorant of it, madame."
"A persevering denial is a very commonplace mode of defense, and you, who
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