Chapter 92 - Forever!
The Duke of Buckingham, obedient to the queen-mother's invitation, presented himself in her apartments half an hour after the departure of the Duc d'Orleans. When his name was announced by the gentleman-usher in attendance, the queen, who was sitting with her elbow resting on a table, and her head buried in her hands, rose, and smilingly received the graceful and respectful salutation which the duke addressed to her. Anne of Austria was still beautiful. It is well known that at her then somewhat advanced age, her long auburn hair, perfectly formed hands, and bright ruby lips, were still the admiration of all who saw her. On the present occasion, abandoned entirely to a remembrance which evoked all the past in her heart, she looked almost as beautiful as in the days of her youth, when her palace was open to the visits of the Duke of Buckingham's father, then a young and impassioned man, as well as an unfortunate prince, who lived for her alone, and died with her name upon his lips. Anne of Austria fixed upon Buckingham a look so tender in its expression, that it denoted, not alone the indulgence of maternal affection, but a gentleness of expression like the coquetry of a woman who loves.
"Your majesty," said Buckingham, respectfully, "desired to speak to me."
"Yes, duke," said the queen, in English; "will you be good enough to sit down?"
The favor which Anne of Austria thus extended to the young man, and the welcome sound of the language of a country from which the duke had been estranged since his stay in France, deeply affected him. He immediately conjectured that the queen had a request to make of him. After having abandoned the first few moments to the irrepressible emotions she experienced, the queen resumed the smiling air with which she had received him. "What do you think of France?" she said, in French.
"It is a lovely country, madame," replied the duke.
"Had you ever seen it before?"
"Once only, madame."
"But, like all true Englishmen, you prefer England?"
"I prefer my own native land to France," replied the duke; "but if your majesty were to ask me which of the two cities, London or Paris, I should prefer as a residence, I should be forced to answer, Paris."
Anne of Austria observed the ardent manner with which these words had been pronounced. "I am told my lord, you have rich possessions in your own country and that you live in a splendid and time-honored palace."
"It was my father's residence," replied Buckingham, casting down his eyes.
"Those are indeed great advantages and souvenirs," replied the queen, alluding, in spite of herself, to recollections from which it is impossible voluntarily to detach one's self.
"In fact," said the duke, yielding to the melancholy influence of this opening conversation, "sensitive persons live as much in the past or the future, as in the present."
"That is very true," said the queen, in a low tone of voice. "It follows, then, my lord,' she added, "that you, who are a man of feeling, will soon quit France in order to shut yourself up with your wealth and your relics of the past."
Buckingham raised his head and said, "I think not, madame."
"What do you mean?"
"On the contrary, I think of leaving England in order to take up my residence in France."
It was now Anne of Austria's turn to exhibit surprise. "Why?" she said. "Are you not in favor with the new king?"
"Perfectly so, madame, for his majesty's kindness to me is unbounded."
"It cannot," said the queen, "be because your fortune has diminished, for it is said to be enormous."
"My income, madame, has never been so large."
"There is some secret cause, then?"
"No, madame," said Buckingham, eagerly, "there is nothing secret in my reason for this determination. I prefer residence in France; I like a court so distinguished by its refinement and courtesy; I like the amusements, somewhat serious in their nature, which are not the amusements of my own country, and which are met with in France."
Anne of Austria smiled shrewdly. "Amusements of a serious nature?" she said. "Has your Grace well reflected on their seriousness?" The duke hesitated. "There is no amusement so serious," continued the queen, "as to prevent a man of your rank - - "
"Your majesty seems to insist greatly on that point," interrupted the duke.
"Do you think so, my lord?"
"If you will forgive me for saying so, it is the second time you have vaunted the attractions of England at the expense of the delight which all experience who live in France."
Anne of Austria approached the young man, and placing her beautiful hand upon his shoulder, which trembled at the touch, said, "Believe me, monsieur, nothing can equal a residence in one's own native country. I have very frequently had occasion to regret Spain. I have lived long, my lord, very long for a woman, and I confess to you, that not a year has passed I have not regretted Spain."
"Not one year, madame?" said the young duke coldly. "Not one of those years when you reigned Queen of Beauty - as you still are, indeed?"
"A truce to flattery, duke, for I am old enough to be your mother." She emphasized these latter words in a manner, and with a gentleness, which penetrated Buckingham's heart. "Yes," she said, "I am old enough to be your mother; and for this reason, I will give you a word of advice."
"That advice being that I should return to London?" he exclaimed.
"Yes, my lord."
The duke clasped his hands with a terrified gesture which could not fail of its effect upon the queen, already disposed to softer feelings by the tenderness of her own recollections. "It must be so," added the queen.
"What!" he again exclaimed, "am I seriously told that I must leave, - that I must exile myself, - that I am to flee at once?"
"Exile yourself, did you say? One would fancy France was your native country."
"Madame, the country of those who love is the country of those whom they love."
"Not another word, my lord; you forget whom you are addressing."
Buckingham threw himself on his knees. "Madame, you are the source of intelligence, of goodness, and of compassion; you are the first person in this kingdom, not only by your rank, but the first person in the world on account of your angelic attributes. I have said nothing, madame. Have I, indeed, said anything you should answer with such a cruel remark? What have I betrayed?"
"You have betrayed yourself," said the queen, in a low tone of voice.
"I have said nothing, - I know nothing."
"You forget you have spoken and thought in the presence of a woman, and besides - - "
"Besides," said the duke, "no one knows you are listening to me."
"On the contrary, it is known; you have all the defects and all the qualities of youth."
"I have been betrayed or denounced, then?"
"By those who, at Havre, had, with infernal perspicacity, read my heart like an open book."
"I do not know whom you mean."
"M. de Bragelonne, for instance."
"I know the name without being acquainted with the person to whom it belongs. M. de Bragelonne has said nothing."
"Who can it be, then? If any one, madame, had had the boldness to notice in me that which I do not myself wish to behold - - "
"What would you do, duke?"
"There are secrets which kill those who discover them."
"He, then, who has discovered your secret, madman that you are, still lives; and, what is more, you will not slay him, for he is armed on all sides, - he is a husband, a jealous man, - he is the second gentleman in France, - he is my son, the Duc d'Orleans."
The duke turned pale as death. "You are very cruel, madame," he said.
"You see, Buckingham," said Anne of Austria, sadly, "how you pass from one extreme to another, and fight with shadows, when it would seem so easy to remain at peace with yourself."
"If we fight, madame, we die on the field of battle," replied the young man, gently, abandoning himself to the most gloomy depression.
Anne ran towards him and took him by the hand. "Villiers," she said, in English, with a vehemence of tone which nothing could resist, "what is it you ask? Do you ask a mother to sacrifice her son, - a queen to consent to the dishonor of her house? Child that you are, do not dream of it. What! in order to spare your tears am I to commit these crimes? Villiers! you speak of the dead; the dead, at least, were full of respect and submission; they resigned themselves to an order of exile; they carried their despair away with them in their hearts, like a priceless possession, because the despair was caused by the woman they loved, and because death, thus deceptive, was like a gift or a favor conferred upon them."
Buckingham rose, his features distorted, and his hands pressed against his heart. "You are right, madame," he said, "but those of whom you speak had received their order of exile from the lips of the one whom they loved; they were not driven away; they were entreated to leave, and were not laughed at."
"No," murmured Anne of Austria, "they were not forgotten. But who says you are driven away, or that you are exiled? Who says that your devotion will not be remembered? I do not speak on any one's behalf but my own, when I tell you to leave. Do me this kindness - grant me this favor; let me, for this also, be indebted to one of your name."
"It is for your sake, then, madame?"
"For mine alone."
"No one whom I shall leave behind me will venture to mock, - no prince even who shall say, `I required it.'"
"Listen to me, duke," and hereupon the dignified features of the queen assumed a solemn expression. "I swear to you that no one commands in this matter but myself. I swear to you that, not only shall no one either laugh or boast in any way, but no one even shall fail in the respect due to your rank. Rely upon me, duke, as I rely upon you."
"You do not explain yourself, madame; my heart is full of bitterness, and I am in utter despair; no consolation, however gentle and affectionate, can afford me relief."
"Do you remember your mother, duke?" replied the queen, with a winning smile.
"Very slightly, madame; yet I remember how she used to cover me with her caresses and her tears whenever I wept."
"Villiers," murmured the queen, passing her arm round the young man's neck, "look upon me as your mother, and believe that no one shall ever make my son weep."
"I thank you, madame," said the young man, affected and almost suffocated by his emotion, "I feel there is indeed still room in my heart for a gentler and nobler sentiment than love."
The queen-mother looked at him and pressed his hand. "Go," she said.
"When must I leave? Command me."
"At any time that may suit you, my lord," resumed the queen; "you will choose your own day of departure. Instead, however, of setting off to-day, as you would doubtless wish to do, or to-morrow, as others may have expected, leave the day after to-morrow, in the evening; but announce to-day that it is your wish to leave."
"My wish?" murmured the young duke.
"And shall I never return to France?"
Anne of Austria reflected for a moment, seemingly absorbed in sad and serious thought. "It would be a consolation for me," she said, "if you were to return on the day when I shall be carried to my final resting-place at Saint-Denis beside the king, my husband."
"Madame, you are goodness itself; the tide of prosperity is setting in on you; your cup brims over with happiness, and many long years are yet before you."
"In that case you will not come for some time, then," said the queen, endeavoring to smile.
"I shall not return," said Buckingham, "young as I am. Death does not reckon by years; it is impartial; some die young, some reach old age."
"I will not harbor any sorrowful ideas, duke. Let me comfort you; return in two years. I perceive from your face that the very idea which saddens you so much now, will have disappeared before six months have passed, and will be not only dead but forgotten in the period of absence I have assigned you.'
"I think you judged me better a little while ago madame," replied the young man, "when you said that time is powerless against members of the family of Buckingham."
"Silence," said the queen, kissing the duke upon the forehead with an affection she could not restrain. "Go, go; spare me and forget yourself no longer. I am the queen; you are the subject of the king of England. King Charles awaits your return. Adieu, Villiers, - farewell."
"Forever!" replied the young man, and he fled, endeavoring to master his emotion.
Anne leaned her head upon her hands, and then looking at herself in the glass, murmured, "It has been truly said, that a woman who has truly loved is always young, and that the bloom of twenty years ever lies concealed in some secret cloister of the heart."