Chapter 89 - A Surprise For Madame De Montalais
Madame's marriage was celebrated in the chapel of the Palais-Royal, in the presence of a crowd of courtiers, who had been most scrupulously selected. However, notwithstanding the marked favor which an invitation indicated, Raoul, faithful to his promise to Malicorne, who was so anxious to witness the ceremony, obtained admission for him. After he had fulfilled this engagement, Raoul approached De Guiche, who, as if in contrast with his magnificent costume, exhibited a countenance so utterly dejected, that the Duke of Buckingham was the only one present who could contend with him as far as pallor and discomfiture were concerned.
"Take care, count," said Raoul, approaching his friend, and preparing to support him at the moment the archbishop blessed the married couple. In fact, the Prince of Conde was attentively scrutinizing these two images of desolation, standing like caryatides on either side of the nave of the church. The count, after that, kept a more careful watch over himself.
At the termination of the ceremony, the king and queen passed onward towards the grand reception-room, where Madame and her suite were to be presented to them. It was remarked that the king, who had seemed more than surprised at his sister-in-law's appearance was most flattering in his compliments to her. Again, it was remarked that the queen-mother, fixing a long and thoughtful gaze upon Buckingham, leaned towards Madame de Motteville as though to ask her, "Do you not see how much he resembles his father?" and finally it was remarked that Monsieur watched everybody, and seemed quite discontented. After the reception of the princess and ambassadors, Monsieur solicited the king's permission to present to him as well as to Madame the persons belonging to their new household.
"Are you aware, vicomte," inquired the Prince de Conde of Raoul, "whether the household has been selected by a person of taste, and whether there are any faces worth looking at?"
"I have not the slightest idea, monseigneur," replied Raoul.
"You affect ignorance, surely."
"In what way, monseigneur?"
"You are a friend of De Guiche, who is one of the friends of the prince."
"That may be so, monseigneur; but the matter having no interest whatever for me, I never questioned De Guiche on the subject; and De Guiche on his part, never having been questioned, did not communicate any particulars to me."
"It is true I saw Manicamp at Havre, and during the journey here, but I was no more inquisitive with him than I had been towards De Guiche. Besides, is it likely that Manicamp should know anything of such matters? for he is a person of only secondary importance."
"My dear vicomte, do you not know better than that?" said the prince; "why, it is these persons of secondary importance who, on such occasions, have all the influence; and the truth is, that nearly everything has been done through Manicamp's presentations to De Guiche, and through De Guiche to Monsieur."
"I assure you, monseigneur, I was ignorant of that," said Raoul, "and what your highness does me the honor to impart is perfectly new to me."
"I will most readily believe you, although it seems incredible; besides, we shall not have long to wait. See, the flying squadron is advancing, as good Queen Catherine used to say. Ah! ah! what pretty faces!"
A bevy of young girls at this moment entered the salon, conducted by Madame de Navailles, and to Manicamp's credit be it said, if indeed he had taken that part in their selection which the Prince de Conde assigned him, it was a display calculated to dazzle those who, like the prince, could appreciate every character and style of beauty. A young, fair-complexioned girl, from twenty to one-and-twenty years of age, and whose large blue eyes flashed, as she opened them, in the most dazzling manner, walked at the head of the band and was the first presented.
"Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente," said Madame de Navailles to Monsieur, who, as he saluted his wife, repeated "Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente."
"Ah! ah!" said the Prince de Conde to Raoul, "she is presentable enough."
"Yes," said Raoul, "but has she not a somewhat haughty style?"
"Bah! we know these airs very well, vicomte; three months hence she will be tame enough. But look, there, indeed, is a pretty face."
"Yes," said Raoul, "and one I am acquainted with."
"Mademoiselle Aure de Montalais," said Madame de Navailles. The name and Christian name were carefully repeated by Monsieur.
"Great heavens!" exclaimed Raoul, fixing his bewildered gaze upon the entrance doorway.
"What's the matter?" inquired the prince; "was it Mademoiselle Aure de Montalais who made you utter such a `Great heavens'?"
"No, monseigneur, no," replied Raoul, pale and trembling.
"Well, then, if it be not Mademoiselle Aure de Montalais, it is that pretty blonde who follows her. What beautiful eyes! She is rather thin, but has fascinations without number."
"Mademoiselle de la Baume le Blanc de la Valliere!" said Madame de Navailles; and, as this name resounded through his whole being, a cloud seemed to rise from his breast to his eyes, so that he neither saw nor heard anything more; and the prince, finding him nothing more than a mere echo which remained silent under his railleries, moved forward to inspect somewhat closer the beautiful girls whom his first glance had already particularized.
"Louise here! Louise a maid of honor to Madame!" murmured Raoul, and his eyes, which did not suffice to satisfy his reason, wandered from Louise to Montalais. The latter had already emancipated herself from her assumed timidity, which she only needed for the presentation and for her reverences.
Mademoiselle de Montalais, from the corner of the room to which she had retired, was looking with no slight confidence at the different persons present; and, having discovered Raoul, she amused herself with the profound astonishment which her own and her friend's presence there caused the unhappy lover. Her waggish and malicious look, which Raoul tried to avoid meeting, and which yet he sought inquiringly from time to time, placed him on the rack. As for Louise, whether from natural timidity, or some other reason for which Raoul could not account, she kept her eyes constantly cast down; intimidated, dazzled, and with impeded respiration, she withdrew herself as much as possible aside, unaffected even by the nudges Montalais gave her with her elbow. The whole scene was a perfect enigma for Raoul, the key to which he would have given anything to obtain. But no one was there who could assist him, not even Malicorne; who, a little uneasy at finding himself in the presence of so many persons of good birth, and not a little discouraged by Montalais's bantering glances, had described a circle, and by degrees succeeded in getting a few paces from the prince, behind the group of maids of honor, and nearly within reach of Mademoiselle Aure's voice, she being the planet around which he, as her attendant satellite, seemed constrained to gravitate. As he recovered his self-possession, Raoul fancied he recognized voices on his right hand that were familiar to him, and he perceived De Wardes, De Guiche, and the Chevalier de Lorraine, conversing together. It is true they were talking in tones so low, that the sound of their words could hardly be heard in the vast apartment. To speak in that manner from any particular place without bending down, or turning round, or looking at the person with whom one may be engaged in conversation, is a talent that cannot be immediately acquired by newcomers. Long study is needed for such conversations, which, without a look, gesture, or movement of the head, seem like the conversation of a group of statues. In fact, in the king's and queen's grand assemblies, while their majesties were speaking, and while every one present seemed to be listening in the midst of the most profound silence, some of these noiseless conversations took place, in which adulation was not the prevailing feature. But Raoul was one among others exceedingly clever in this art, so much a matter of etiquette, that from the movement of the lips he was often able to guess the sense of the words.
"Who is that Montalais?" inquired De Wardes, "and that La Valliere? What country-town have we had sent here?"
"Montalais?" said the chevalier, - "oh, I know her; she is a good sort of a girl, whom we shall find amusing enough. La Valliere is a charming girl, slightly lame."
"Ah! bah!" said De Wardes.
"Do not be absurd, De Wardes, there are some very characteristic and ingenious Latin axioms about lame ladies."
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," said De Guiche, looking at Raoul with uneasiness, "be a little careful, I entreat you."
But the uneasiness of the count, in appearance at least, was not needed. Raoul had preserved the firmest and most indifferent countenance, although he had not lost a word that passed. He seemed to keep an account of the insolence and license of the two speakers in order to settle matters with them at the earliest opportunity.
De Wardes seemed to guess what was passing in his mind, and continued:
"Who are these young ladies' lovers?"
"Montalais's lover?" said the chevalier.
"Yes, Montalais first."
"You, I, or De Guiche, - whoever likes, in fact."
"And the other?"
"Mademoiselle de la Valliere?"
"Take care, gentlemen," exclaimed De Guiche, anxious to put a stop to De Wardes's reply; "take care, Madame is listening to us."
Raoul thrust his hand up to the wrist into his justaucorps in great agitation. But the very malignity which he saw was excited against these poor girls made him take a serious resolution. "Poor Louise," he thought, "has come here only with an honorable object in view and under honorable protection; and I must learn what that object is which she has in view, and who it is that protects her." And following Malicorne's maneuver, he made his way toward the group of the maids of honor. The presentations were soon over. The king, who had done nothing but look at and admire Madame, shortly afterwards left the reception-room, accompanied by the two queens. The Chevalier de Lorraine resumed his place beside Monsieur, and, as he accompanied him, insinuated a few drops of the venom he had collected during the last hour, while looking at some of the faces in the court, and suspecting that some of their hearts might be happy. A few of the persons present followed the king as he quitted the apartment; but such of the courtiers as assumed an independence of character, and professed a gallantry of disposition, began to approach the ladies of the court. The prince paid his compliments to Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, Buckingham devoted himself to Madame Chalais and Mademoiselle de Lafayette, whom Madame already distinguished by her notice, and whom she held in high regard. As for the Comte de Guiche, who had abandoned Monsieur as soon as he could approach Madame alone, he conversed, with great animation, with Madame de Valentinois, and with Mesdemoiselles de Crequy and de Chatillon.
Amid these varied political and amorous interests, Malicorne was anxious to gain Montalais's attention; but the latter preferred talking with Raoul, even if it were only to amuse herself with his innumerable questions and his astonishment. Raoul had gone direct to Mademoiselle de la Valliere, and had saluted her with the profoundest respect, at which Louise blushed, and could not say a word. Montalais, however, hurried to her assistance.
"Well, monsieur le vicomte, here we are, you see."
"I do, indeed, see you," said Raoul, smiling, "and it is exactly because you are here that I wish to ask for some explanation."
Malicorne approached the group with his most fascinating smile.
"Go away, Malicorne; really, you are exceedingly indiscreet." At this remark Malicorne bit his lips and retired a few steps, without making any reply. His smile, however, changed its expression, and from its former frankness, became mocking in its expression.
"You wished for an explanation, M. Raoul?" inquired Montalais.
"It is surely worth one, I think; Mademoiselle de la Valliere a maid of honor to Madame!"
"Why should not she be a maid of honor, as well as myself?" inquired Montalais.
"Pray accept my compliments, young ladies," said Raoul, who fancied he perceived they were not disposed to answer him in a direct manner.
"Your remark was not made in a very complimentary manner, vicomte."
"Certainly; I appeal to Louise."
"M. de Bragelonne probably thinks the position is above my condition," said Louise, hesitatingly.
"Assuredly not," replied Raoul, eagerly; "you know very well that such is not my feeling; were you called upon to occupy a queen's throne, I should not be surprised; how much greater reason, then, such a position as this? The only circumstance that amazes me is that I should have learned it only to-day, and that by the merest accident."
"That is true," replied Montalais, with her usual giddiness; "you know nothing about it, and there is no reason you should. M. de Bragelonne had written several letters to you, but your mother was the only person who remained behind at Blois, and it was necessary to prevent these letters falling into her hands; I intercepted them, and returned them to M. Raoul, so that he believed you were still at Blois while you were here in Paris, and had no idea whatever, indeed, how high you had risen in rank."
"Did you not inform M. Raoul, as I begged you to do?"
"Why should I? to give him an opportunity or making some of his severe remarks and moral reflections, and to undo what we had so much trouble in effecting? Certainly not."
"Am I so very severe, then?" said Raoul, inquiringly.
"Besides," said Montalais, "it is sufficient to say that it suited me. I was about setting off for Paris - you were away; Louise was weeping her eyes out; interpret that as you please; I begged a friend, a protector of mine, who had obtained the appointment for me, to solicit one for Louise; the appointment arrived. Louise left in order to get her costume prepared; as I had my own ready, I remained behind; I received your letters, and returned them to you, adding a few words, promising you a surprise. Your surprise is before you, monsieur, and seems to be a fair one enough; you have nothing more to ask. Come, M. Malicorne, it is now time to leave these young people together: they have many things to talk about; give me your hand; I trust that you appreciate the honor conferred upon you, M. Malicorne."
"Forgive me," said Raoul, arresting the giddy girl, and giving to his voice an intonation, the gravity of which contrasted with that of Montalais; "forgive me, but may I inquire the name of the protector you speak of; for if protection be extended towards you, Mademoiselle Montalais, - for which, indeed, so many reasons exist," added Raoul, bowing, "I do not see that the same reasons exist why Mademoiselle de la Valliere should be similarly cared for."
"But, M. Raoul," said Louise, innocently, "there is no difference in the matter, and I do not see why I should not tell it you myself; it was M. Malicorne who obtained it for me."
Raoul remained for a moment almost stupefied, asking himself if they were trifling with him; he then turned round to interrogate Malicorne, but he had been hurried away by Montalais, and was already at some distance from them. Mademoiselle de la Valliere attempted to follow her friend, but Raoul, with gentle authority, detained her.
"Louise, one word, I beg."
"But, M. Raoul," said Louise, blushing, "we are alone. Every one has left. They will become anxious, and will be looking for us."
"Fear nothing," said the young man, smiling, "we are neither of us of sufficient importance for our absence to be remarked."
"But I have my duty to perform, M. Raoul."
"Do not be alarmed, I am acquainted with these usages of the court; you will not be on duty until to-morrow; a few minutes are at your disposal, which will enable you to give me the information I am about to have the honor to ask you for."
"How serious you are, M. Raoul!" said Louise.
"Because the circumstances are serious. Are you listening?"
"I am listening; I would only repeat, monsieur, that we are quite alone."
"You are right," said Raoul, and, offering her his hand, he led the young girl into the gallery adjoining the reception-room, the windows of which looked out upon the courtyard. Every one hurried towards the middle window, which had a balcony outside, from which all the details of the slow and formal preparations for departure could be seen. Raoul opened one of the side windows, and then, being alone with Louise, said to her: "You know, Louise, that from my childhood I have regarded you as my sister, as one who has been the confidante of all my troubles, to whom I have entrusted all my hopes."
"Yes, M. Raoul," she answered softly; "yes, M. Raoul, I know that."
"You used, on your side, to show the same friendship towards me, and had the same confidence in me; why have you not, on this occasion, been my friend - why have you shown suspicion of me?"
Mademoiselle de la Valliere did not answer. "I fondly thought you loved me," said Raoul, whose voice became more and more agitated; "I fondly thought you consented to all the plans we had, together, laid down for our own happiness, at the time when we wandered up and down the walks of Cour-Cheverny, under the avenue of poplar trees leading to Blois. You do not answer me, Louise. Is it possible," he inquired, breathing with difficulty, "that you no longer love me?"
"I did not say so," replied Louise, softly.
"Oh! tell me the truth, I implore you. All my hopes in life are centered in you. I chose you for your gentle and simple tastes. Do not suffer yourself to be dazzled, Louise, now that you are in the midst of a court where all that is pure too soon becomes corrupt - where all that is young too soon grows old. Louise, close your ears, so as not to hear what may be said; shut your eyes, so as not to see the examples before you; shut your lips, that you may not inhale the corrupting influences about you. Without falsehood or subterfuge, Louise, am I to believe what Mademoiselle de Montalais stated? Louise, did you come to Paris because I was no longer at Blois?"
La Valliere blushed and concealed her face in her hands.
"Yes, it was so, then!" exclaimed Raoul, delightedly; "that was, then, your reason for coming here. I love you as I never yet loved you. Thanks, Louise, for this devotion; but measures must be taken to place you beyond all insult, to shield you from every lure. Louise, a maid of honor in the court of a young princess in these days of free manners and inconstant affections - -a maid of honor is placed as an object of attack without having any means of defence afforded her; this state of things cannot continue, you must be married in order to be respected."
"Yes, here is my hand, Louise; will you place yours within it?"
"But your father?"
"My father leaves me perfectly free."
"Yet - - "
"I understand your scruples, Louise; I will consult my father."
"Reflect, M. Raoul; wait."
"Wait! it is impossible. Reflect, Louise, when you are concerned! it would be insulting, - give me your hand, dear Louise; I am my own master. My father will consent, I know; give me your hand, do not keep me waiting thus. One word in answer, one word only; if not, I shall begin to think that, in order to change you forever, nothing more was needed than a single step in the palace, a single breath of favor, a smile from the queen, a look from the king."
Raoul had no sooner pronounced this latter word, than La Valliere became as pale as death, no doubt from fear at seeing the young man excite himself. With a movement as rapid as thought, she placed both her hands in those of Raoul, and then fled without adding a syllable; disappearing without casting a look behind her. Raoul felt his whole frame tremble at the contact of her hand; he received the compact as a solemn bargain wrung by affection from her child-like timidity.