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- Ten Years Later - 120/125 -
"Well," replied the king, "let them come. Who is there who would venture to think I had done wrong in remaining alone with Mademoiselle de la Valliere?"
"For pity's sake, sire! they will think it strange to see you wet through, in this manner, and that you should have run such risk for me."
"I have simply done my duty as a gentleman," said Louis; "and woe to him who may fail in his, in criticising his sovereign's conduct." In fact, at this moment a few eager and curious faces were seen in the walk, as if engaged in a search. Catching glimpses at last of the king and La Valliere, they seemed to have found what they were seeking. They were some of the courtiers who had been sent by the queen and Madame, and uncovered themselves, in token of having perceived his majesty. But Louis, notwithstanding La Valliere's confusion, did not quit his respectful and tender attitude. Then, when all the courtiers were assembled in the walk - when every one had been able to perceive the extraordinary mark of deference with which he had treated the young girl, by remaining standing and bare-headed during the storm - he offered her his arm, led her towards the group who were waiting, recognized by an inclination of the head the respectful salutations which were paid him on all sides; and, still holding his hat in his hand, he conducted her to her carriage. And, as a few sparse drops of rain continued to fall - a last adieu of the vanishing storm - the other ladies, whom respect had prevented from getting into their carriages before the king, remained altogether unprotected by hood or cloak, exposed to the rain from which the king was protecting, as well as he was able, the humblest among them. The queen and Madame must, like the others, have witnessed this exaggerated courtesy of the king. Madame was so disconcerted at it, that she touched the queen with her elbow, saying at the same time, "Look there, look there."
The queen closed her eyes as if she had been suddenly seized with a fainting-spell. She lifted her hands to her face and entered her carriage, Madame following her. The king again mounted his horse, and without showing a preference for any particular carriage door, he returned to Fontainebleau, the reins hanging over his horse's neck, absorbed in thought. As soon as the crowd had disappeared, and the sound of the horses and carriages grew fainter in the distance, and when they were certain, in fact, that no one could see them, Aramis and Fouquet came out of their grotto, and both of them in silence passed slowly on towards the walk. Aramis looked most narrowly not only at the whole extent of the open space stretching out before and behind him, but even into the very depth of the wood.
"Monsieur Fouquet," he said, when he had quite satisfied himself that they were alone, "we must get back, at any cost, that letter you wrote to La Valliere."
"That will be easy enough," said Fouquet, "if my servant has not given it to her."
"In any case it must be had, do you understand?"
"Yes. The king is in love with the girl, you mean?"
"Deeply, and what is worse is, that on her side, the girl is passionately attached to him."
"As much as to say that we must change our tactics, I suppose?"
"Not a doubt of it; you have no time to lose. You must see La Valliere, and, without thinking any more of becoming her lover, which is out of the question, must declare yourself her most devoted friend and her most humble servant."
"I will do so," replied Fouquet, "and without the slightest feeling of disinclination, for she seems a good-hearted girl."
"Or a very clever one," said Aramis; "but in that case, all the greater reason." Then he added, after a moment's pause, "If I am not mistaken, that girl will become the strongest passion of the king's life. Let us return to our carriage, and, as fast as possible, to the chateau."
Chapter LXIII: Toby.
Two hours after the superintendent's carriage had set off by Aramis's directions, conveying them both towards Fontainebleau with the fleetness of the clouds the last breath of the tempest was hurrying across the face of heaven, La Valliere was closeted in her own apartment, with a simple muslin wrapper round her, having just finished a slight repast, which was placed upon a marble table. Suddenly the door was opened, and a servant entered to announce M. Fouquet, who had called to request permission to pay his respects to her. She made him repeat the message twice over, for the poor girl only knew M. Fouquet by name, and could not conceive what business she could possibly have with a superintendent of finances. However, as he might represent the king - and, after the conversation we have recorded, it was very likely - she glanced at her mirror, drew out still more the ringlets of her hair, and desired him to be admitted. La Valliere could not, however, refrain from a certain feeling of uneasiness. A visit from the superintendent was not an ordinary event in the life of any woman attached to the court. Fouquet, so notorious for his generosity, his gallantry, and his sensitive delicacy of feeling with regard to women generally, had received more invitations than he had requested audiences. In many houses, the presence of the superintendent had been significant of fortune; in many hearts, of love. Fouquet entered the apartment with a manner full of respect, presenting himself with that ease and gracefulness of manner which was the distinctive characteristic of the men of eminence of that period, and which at the present day seems no longer to be understood, even through the interpretation of the portraits of the period, in which the painter has endeavored to recall them to being. La Valliere acknowledged the ceremonious salutation which Fouquet addressed to her by a gentle inclination of the head, and motioned him to a seat. But Fouquet, with a bow, said, "I will not sit down until you have pardoned me."
"I?" asked La Valliere, "pardon what?"
Fouquet fixed a most piercing look upon the young girl, and fancied he could perceive in her face nothing but the most unaffected surprise. "I observe," he said, "that you have as much generosity as intelligence, and I read in your eyes the forgiveness I solicit. A pardon pronounced by your lips is insufficient for me, and I need the forgiveness of your heart and mind."
"Upon my honor, monsieur," said La Valliere, "I assure you most positively I do not understand your meaning."
"Again, that is a delicacy on your part which charms me," replied Fouquet, "and I see you do not wish me to blush before you."
"Blush! blush before _me!_ Why should you blush?"
"Can I have deceived myself," said Fouquet; "and can I have been happy enough not to have offended you by my conduct towards you?"
"Really, monsieur," said La Valliere, shrugging her shoulders, "you speak in enigmas, and I suppose I am too ignorant to understand you."
"Be it so," said Fouquet; "I will not insist. Tell me, only, I entreat you, that I may rely upon your full and complete forgiveness."
"I have but one reply to make to you, monsieur," said La Valliere, somewhat impatiently, "and I hope that will satisfy you. If I knew the wrong you have done me, I would forgive you, and I now do so with still greater reason since I am ignorant of the wrong you allude to."
Fouquet bit his lips, as Aramis would have done. "In that case," he said, "I may hope, that, notwithstanding what has happened, our good understanding will remain undisturbed, and that you will kindly confer the favor upon me of believing in my respectful friendship."
La Valliere fancied that she now began to understand, and said to herself, "I should not have believed M. Fouquet so eager to seek the source of a favor so very recent," and then added aloud, "Your friendship, monsieur! you offer me your friendship. The honor, on the contrary, is mine, and I feel overpowered by it."
"I am aware," replied Fouquet, "that the friendship of the master may appear more brilliant and desirable than that of the servant; but I assure you the latter will be quite as devoted, quite as faithful, and altogether disinterested."
La Valliere bowed, for, in fact, the voice of the superintendent seemed to convey both conviction and real devotion in its tone, and she held out her hand to him, saying, "I believe you."
Fouquet eagerly took hold of the young girl's hand. "You see no difficulty, therefore," he added, "in restoring me that unhappy letter."
"What letter?" inquired La Valliere.
Fouquet interrogated her with his most searching gaze, as he had already done before, but the same ingenious expressions, the same transparently candid look met his. "I am obliged to confess," he said, after this denial, "that your heart is the most delicate in the world, and I should not feel I was a man of honor and uprightness if I were to suspect anything from a woman so generous as yourself."
"Really, Monsieur Fouquet," replied La Valliere, "it is with profound regret I am obliged to repeat that I absolutely understand nothing of what you refer to."
"In fact, then, upon your honor, mademoiselle, you have not received any letter from me?"
"Upon my honor, none," replied La Valliere, firmly.
"Very well, that is quite sufficient; permit me, then, to renew the assurance of my utmost esteem and respect," said Fouquet. Then, bowing, he left the room to seek Aramis, who was waiting for him in his own apartment, and leaving La Valliere to ask herself whether the superintendent had not lost his senses.
"Well!" inquired Aramis, who was impatiently waiting Fouquet's return, "are you satisfied with the favorite?"
"Enchanted," replied Fouquet; "she is a woman full of intelligence and fine feeling."
"She did not get angry, then?"
"Far from that - she did not even seem to understand."
"To understand what?"
"To understand that I had written to her."
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