Chapter XI: The Sun ReappearsEdit
For nearly a week the king was constant to his new humour. The routine of his life remained unchanged, save that it was the room of the frail beauty, rather than of Madame de Maintenon, which attracted him in the afternoon. And in sympathy with this sudden relapse into his old life, his coats lost something of their sombre hue, and fawn-colour, buff-colour, and lilac began to replace the blacks and the blues. A little gold lace budded out upon his hats also and at the trimmings of his pockets, while for three days on end his _prie-dieu_ at the royal chapel had been unoccupied. His walk was brisker, and he gave a youthful flourish to his cane as a defiance to those who had seen in his reformation the first symptoms of age. Madame had known her man well when she threw out that artful insinuation.
And as the king brightened, so all the great court brightened too. The _salons_ began to resume their former splendour, and gay coats and glittering embroidery which had lain in drawers for years were seen once more in the halls of the palace. In the chapel, Bourdaloue preached in vain to empty benches, but a ballet in the grounds was attended by the whole court, and received with a frenzy of enthusiasm. The Montespan ante-room was crowded every morning with men and women who had some suit to be urged, while her rival's chambers were as deserted as they had been before the king first turned a gracious look upon her. Faces which had been long banished the court began to reappear in the corridors and gardens unchecked and unrebuked, while the black cassock of the Jesuit and the purple soutane of the bishop were less frequent colours in the royal circle.
But the Church party, who, if they were the champions of bigotry, were also those of virtue, were never seriously alarmed at this relapse. The grave eyes of priest or of prelate followed Louis in his escapade as wary huntsmen might watch a young deer which gambols about in the meadow under the impression that it is masterless, when every gap and path is netted, and it is in truth as much in their hands as though it were lying bound before them. They knew how short a time it would be before some ache, some pain, some chance word, would bring his mortality home to him again, and envelop him once more in those superstitious terrors which took the place of religion in his mind. They waited, therefore, and they silently planned how the prodigal might best be dealt with on his return.
To this end it was that his confessor, Pere la Chaise, and Bossuet, the great Bishop of Meaux, waited one morning upon Madame de Maintenon in her chamber. With a globe beside her, she was endeavouring to teach geography to the lame Due du Maine and the mischievous little Comte de Toulouse, who had enough of their father's disposition to make them averse to learning, and of their mother's to cause them to hate any discipline or restraint. Her wonderful tact, however, and her unwearying patience had won the love and confidence even of these little perverse princes, and it was one of Madame de Montespan's most bitter griefs that not only her royal lover, but even her own children, turned away from the brilliancy and riches of her salon to pass their time in the modest apartment of her rival.
Madame de Maintenon dismissed her two pupils, and received the ecclesiastics with the mixture of affection and respect which was due to those who were not only personal friends, but great lights of the Gallican Church. She had suffered the minister Louvois to sit upon a stool in her presence, but the two chairs were allotted to the priests now, and she insisted upon reserving the humbler seat for herself. The last few days had cast a pallor over her face which spiritualised and refined the features, but she wore unimpaired the expression of sweet serenity which was habitual to her.
"I see, my dear daughter, that you have sorrowed," said Bossuet, glancing at her with a kindly and yet searching eye.
"I have indeed, your Grace. All last night I spent in prayer that this trial may pass away from us."
"And yet you have no need for fear, madame--none, I assure you. Others may think that your influence has ceased; but we, who know the king's heart, we think otherwise. A few days may pass, a few weeks at the most, and once more it will be upon your rising fortunes that every eye in France will turn."
The lady's brow clouded, and she glanced at the prelate as though his speech were not altogether to her taste. "I trust that pride does not lead me astray," she said. "But if I can read my own soul aright, there is no thought of myself in the grief which now tears my heart. What is power to me? What do I desire? A little room, leisure for my devotions, a pittance to save me from want--what more can I ask for? Why, then, should I covet power? If I am sore at heart, it is not for any poor loss which I have sustained. I think no more of it than of the snapping of one of the threads on yonder tapestry frame. It is for the king I grieve--for the noble heart, the kindly soul, which might rise so high, and which is dragged so low, like a royal eagle with some foul weight which ever hampers its flight. It is for him and for France that my days are spent in sorrow and my nights upon my knees."
"For all that, my daughter, you are ambitious."
It was the Jesuit who had spoken. His voice was clear and cold, and his piercing gray eyes seemed to read into the depths of her soul.
"You may be right, father. God guard me from self-esteem. And yet I do not think that I am. The king, in his goodness, has offered me titles-- I have refused them; money--I have returned it. He has deigned to ask my advice in matters of state, and I have withheld it. Where, then, is my ambition?"
"In your heart, my daughter. But it is not a sinful ambition. It is not an ambition of this world. Would you not love to turn the king towards good?"
"I would give my life for it."
"And there is your ambition. Ah, can I not read your noble soul? Would you not love to see the Church reign pure and serene over all this realm--to see the poor housed, the needy helped, the wicked turned from their ways, and the king ever the leader in all that is noble and good? Would you not love that, my daughter?"
Her cheeks had flushed, and her eyes shone as she looked at the gray face of the Jesuit, and saw the picture which his words had conjured up before her. "Ah, that would be joy indeed!" she cried.
"And greater joy still to know, not from the mouths of the people, but from the voice of your own heart in the privacy of your chamber, that you had been the cause of it, that your influence had brought this blessing upon the king and upon the country."
"I would die to do it."
"We wish you to do what may be harder. We wish you to live to do it."
"Ah!" She glanced from one to the other with questioning eyes.
"My daughter," said Bossuet solemnly, leaning forward, with his broad white hand outstretched and his purple pastoral ring sparkling in the sunlight, "it is time for plain speaking. It is in the interests of the Church that we do it. None hear, and none shall ever hear, what passes between us now. Regard us, if you will, as two confessors, with whom your secret is inviolable. I call it a secret, and yet it is none to us, for it is our mission to read the human heart. You love the king."
"Your Grace!" She started, and a warm blush, mantling up in her pale cheeks, deepened and spread until it tinted her white forehead and her queenly neck.
"You love the king."
"Your Grace--father!" She turned in confusion from one to the other.
"There is no shame in loving, my daughter. The shame lies only in yielding to love. I say again that you love the king."
"At least I have never told him so," she faltered.
"And will you never?"
"May heaven wither my tongue first!"
"But consider, my daughter. Such love in a soul like yours is heaven's gift, and sent for some wise purpose. This human love is too often but a noxious weed which blights the soil it grows in, but here it is a gracious flower, all fragrant with humility and virtue."
"Alas! I have tried to tear it from my heart."
"Nay; rather hold it firmly rooted there. Did the king but meet with some tenderness from you, some sign that his own affection met with an answer from your heart, it might be that this ambition which you profess would be secured, and that Louis, strengthened by the intimate companionship of your noble nature, might live in the spirit as well as in the forms of the Church. All this might spring from the love which you hide away as though it bore the brand of shame."
The lady half rose, glancing from the prelate to the priest with eyes which had a lurking horror in their depths.
"Can I have understood you!" she gasped. "What meaning lies behind these words? You cannot counsel me to--"
The Jesuit had risen, and his spare figure towered above her.
"My daughter, we give no counsel which is unworthy of our office. We speak for the interests of Holy Church, and those interests demand that you should marry the king."
"Marry the king!" The little room swam round her. "Marry the king!"
"There lies the best hope for the future. We see in you a second Jeanne d'Arc, who will save both France and France's king."
Madame sat silent for a few moments. Her face had regained its composure, and her eyes were bent vacantly upon her tapestry frame as she turned over in her mind all that was involved in the suggestion.
"But surely--surely this could never be," she said at last, "Why should we plan that which can never come to pass?"
"What King of France has married a subject? See how every princess of Europe stretches out her hand to him. The Queen of France must be of queenly blood, even as the last was."
"All this may be overcome."
"And then there are the reasons of state. If the king marry, it should be to form a powerful alliance, to cement a friendship with a neighbour nation, or to gain some province which may be the bride's dowry. What is my dowry? A widow's pension and a work-box." She laughed bitterly, and yet glanced eagerly at her companions, as one who wished to be confuted.
"Your dowry, my daughter, would be those gifts of body and of mind with which heaven has endowed you. The king has money enough, and the king has provinces enough. As to the state, how can the state be better served than by the assurance that the king will be saved in future from such sights as are to be seen in this palace to-day?"
"Oh, if it could be so! But think, father, think of those about him-- the dauphin, monsieur his brother, his ministers. You know how little this would please them, and how easy it is for them to sway his mind. No, no; it is a dream, father, and it can never be."
The faces of the two ecclesiastics, who had dismissed her other objections with a smile and a wave, clouded over at this, as though she had at last touched upon the real obstacle.
"My daughter," said the Jesuit gravely, "that is a matter which you may leave to the Church. It may be that we, too, have some power over the king's mind, and that we may lead him in the right path, even though those of his own blood would fain have it otherwise. The future only can show with whom the power lies. But you? Love and duty both draw you one way now, and the Church may count upon you."
"To my last breath, father."
"And you upon the Church. It will serve you, if you in turn will but serve it."
"What higher wish could I have?"
"You will be our daughter, our queen, our champion, and you will heal the wounds of the suffering Church."
"Ah! if I could!"
"But you can. While there is heresy within the land there can be no peace or rest for the faithful. It is the speck of mould which will in time, if it be not pared off, corrupt the whole fruit."
"What would you have, then, father?"
"The Huguenots must go. They must be driven forth. The goats must be divided from the sheep. The king is already in two minds. Louvois is our friend now. If you are with us, then all will be well."
"But, father, think how many there are!"
"The more reason that they should be dealt with."
"And think, too, of their sufferings should they be driven forth."
"Their cure lies in their own hands."
"That is true. And yet my heart softens for them."
Pere la Chaise and the bishop shook their heads. Nature had made them both kind and charitable men, but the heart turns to flint when the blessing of religion is changed to the curse of sect.
"You would befriend God's enemies then?"
"No, no; not if they are indeed so."
"Can you doubt it? Is it possible that your heart still turns towards the heresy of your youth?"
"No, father; but it is not in nature to forget that my father and my grandfather--"
"Nay, they have answered for their own sins. Is it possible that the Church has been mistaken in you? Do you then refuse the first favour which she asks of you? You would accept her aid, and yet you would give none in return."
Madame de Maintenon rose with the air of one who has made her resolution. "You are wiser than I," said she, "and to you have been committed the interests of the Church. I will do what you advise."
"You promise it?"
Her two visitors threw up their hands together. "It is a blessed day," they cried, "and generations yet unborn will learn to deem it so."
She sat half stunned by the prospect which was opening out in front of her. Ambitious she had, as the Jesuit had surmised, always been-- ambitious for the power which would enable her to leave the world better than she found it. And this ambition she had already to some extent been able to satisfy, for more than once she had swayed both king and kingdom. But to marry the king--to marry the man for whom she would gladly lay down her life, whom in the depths of her heart she loved in as pure and as noble a fashion as woman ever yet loved man--that was indeed a thing above her utmost hopes. She knew her own mind, and she knew his. Once his wife, she could hold him to good, and keep every evil influence away from him. She was sure of it. She should be no weak Maria Theresa, but rather, as the priest had said, a new Jeanne d'Arc, come to lead France and France's king into better ways. And if, to gain this aim, she had to harden her heart against the Huguenots, at least the fault, if there were one, lay with those who made this condition rather than with herself. The king's wife! The heart of the woman and the soul of the enthusiast both leaped at the thought.
But close at the heels of her joy there came a sudden revulsion to doubt and despondency. Was not all this fine prospect a mere day-dream? and how could these men be so sure that they held the king in the hollow of their hand? The Jesuit read the fears which dulled the sparkle of her eyes, and answered her thoughts before she had time to put them into words.
"The Church redeems its pledges swiftly," said he. "And you, my daughter, you must be as prompt when your own turn comes."
"I have promised, father."
"Then it is for us to perform. You will remain in your room all evening."
"The king already hesitates. I spoke with him this morning, and his mind was full of blackness and despair. His better self turns in disgust from his sins, and it is now when the first hot fit of repentance is just coming upon him that he may best be moulded to our ends. I have to see and speak with him once more, and I go from your room to his. And when I have spoken, he will come from his room to yours, or I have studied his heart for twenty years in vain. We leave you now, and you will not see us, but you will see the effects of what we do, and you will remember your pledge to us." They bowed low to her both together, and left her to her thoughts.
An hour passed, and then a second one, as she sat in her _fauteuil_, her tapestry before her, but her hands listless upon her lap, waiting for her fate. Her life's future was now being settled for her, and she was powerless to turn it in one way or the other. Daylight turned to the pearly light of evening, and that again to dusk, but she still sat waiting in the shadow. Sometimes as a step passed in the corridor she would glance expectantly towards the door, and the light of welcome would spring up in her gray eyes, only to die away again into disappointment. At last, however, there came a quick sharp tread, crisp and authoritative, which brought her to her feet with flushed cheeks and her heart beating wildly. The door opened, and she saw outlined against the gray light of the outer passage the erect and graceful figure of the king.
"Sire! One instant, and mademoiselle will light the lamp."
"Do not call her." He entered and closed the door behind him. "Francoise, the dusk is welcome to me, because it screens me from the reproaches which must lie in your glance, even if your tongue be too kindly to speak them."
"Reproaches, sire! God forbid that I should utter them!"
"When I last left you, Francoise, it was with a good resolution in my mind. I tried to carry it out, and I failed--I failed. I remember that you warned me. Fool that I was not to follow your advice!"
"We are all weak and mortal, sire. Who has not fallen? Nay, sire, it goes to my heart to see you thus."
He was standing by the fireplace, his face buried in his hands, and she could tell by the catch of his breath that he was weeping. All the pity of her woman's nature went out to that silent and repenting figure dimly seen in the failing light. She put out her hand with a gesture of sympathy, and it rested for an instant upon his velvet sleeve. The next he had clasped it between his own, and she made no effort to release it.
"I cannot do without you, Francoise," he cried. "I am the loneliest man in all this world, like one who lives on a great mountain-peak, with none to bear him company. Who have I for a friend? Whom can I rely upon? Some are for the Church; some are for their families; most are for themselves. But who of them all is single-minded? You are my better self, Francoise; you are my guardian angel. What the good father says is true, and the nearer I am to you the further am I from all that is evil. Tell me, Francoise, do you love me?"
"I have loved you for years, sire." Her voice was low but clear--the voice of a woman to whom coquetry was abhorrent.
"I had hoped it, Francoise, and yet it thrills me to hear you say it. I know that wealth and title have no attraction for you, and that your heart turns rather towards the convent than the palace. Yet I ask you to remain in the palace, and to reign there. Will you be my wife, Francoise?"
And so the moment had in very truth come. She paused for an instant, only an instant, before taking this last great step; but even that was too long for the patience of the king.
"Will you not, Francoise?" he cried, with a ring of fear in his voice.
"May God make me worthy of such an honour, sire!" said she. "And here I swear that if heaven double my life, every hour shall be spent in the one endeavour to make you a happier man!"
She had knelt down, and the king, still holding her hand, knelt down beside her.
"And I swear too," he cried, "that if my days also are doubled, you will now and forever be the one and only woman for me."
And so their double oath was taken, an oath which was to be tested in the future, for each did live almost double their years, and yet neither broke the promise made hand in hand on that evening in the shadow-girt chamber.