Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 41
THERE are two ways of gaining a foothold at court,—in the clouds, and one is august; in the mud, and one is powerful. In the first case, you belong on Olympus. In the second case, you belong in the private closet. He who belongs on Olympus has but the thunderbolt to serve him; he who is in the private closet has the police at his command.
The private closet contains all the instruments of government, and sometimes (for it is a traitor) its chastisements as well. Generally it is less tragic. It is there that Alberoni admires Vendôme. Royal personages willingly make it their place of audience; it takes the place of the throne. Louis XIV. receives the Duchess of Burgundy there; Philip V. is shoulder to shoulder there with the queen. The priest penetrates into it. The private closet is sometimes a branch of the confessional; therefore it is that at court there are underground fortunes,—not always the least. If under Louis XI. you would be great, be Pierre de Rohan, Marshal of France; if you would be influential, be Olivier le Daim, the barber. If you would be glorious under Marie de Medicis, be Sillery, the Chancellor; if you would be a person of consideration, be Hannon, the maid. If you would be illustrious under Louis XV., be Choiseul, the minister; if you would be formidable, be Lebel, the valet. Given Louis XIV., Bontemps who makes his bed is more powerful than Louvois who raises his armies, and Turenne who gains his victories. Take Père Joseph from Richelieu, and you have little left. There is mystery at least; his eminence in scarlet is magnificent, his eminence in grey is terrible. What power in being a worm! All the Narvaez combined with all the O'Donnells achieve less than one Sister Patrocinio. Of course, the condition of this power is littleness. If you would remain powerful, remain petty,—be nothing. The serpent in repose, twisted into a circle, is a figure at the same time of the infinite and of naught.
One of these ignoble opportunities had fallen to Barkilphedro. He had crawled where he wanted. Vermin can get in anywhere. Louis XIV. had bugs in his bed and Jesuits in his policy. There is no incompatibility in this. In this world, to gravitate is to oscillate. One pole is attracted to the other. Francis I. is attracted by Triboulet; Louis XV. is attracted by Lebel. There exists a deep affinity between extreme elevation and extreme debasement. It is the scullion who directs; nothing is easier of comprehension. It is the person below who pulls the string. No position could be more convenient. He is the eye, and he has the ear. He is the eye of the government; he has the ear of the king. To have the ear of the king is to draw and shut at will the bolt of the royal conscience, and to throw into that conscience whatever one wishes. The mind of a king is your cupboard; if you are a rag-picker, it is your basket. The ears of kings are not their own; consequently the poor devils are not altogether responsible for their actions. He who is not master of his own thoughts is not accountable for his own deeds.
A king obeys—what? Any evil spirit buzzing from outside in his ear; a noisome fly of the slums. This buzzing rules him. A reign is a dictation: the loud voice is the sovereign; the muffled voice is the sovereignty. Those who know how to distinguish this muffled voice in a reign, and to hear its whispers, are the real historians.