Chapter 42: The Skin of the Bear

  1. 41: A Bargain
  2. Louise de la Valliere
  3. 43: The Queen-Mother

Colbert handed the duchess the letter, and gently drew aside the chair behind which she was standing. Madame de Chevreuse, with a very slight bow, immediately left the room. Colbert, who had recognized Mazarin’s handwriting and had counted the letters, rang to summon his secretary, whom he enjoined to go in immediate search of M. Vanel, a counsellor of the parliament. The secretary replied that, according to his usual practice, M. Vanel had just at that moment entered the house, in order to render to the intendant an account of the principal details of the business which had been transacted during the day in the sitting of the parliament. Colbert approached one of the lamps, read the letters of the deceased cardinal over again, smiled repeatedly as he recognized the great value of the papers which Madame de Chevreuse had just delivered to him, and burying his head in his hands for a few minutes reflected profoundly. In the mean time a tall, large-made man entered the room; his spare, thin face, steady look, and hooked nose, as he entered Colbert’s cabinet with a modest assurance of manner, revealed a character at once supple and decided,- supple towards the master who could throw him the prey; firm towards the dogs who might possibly be disposed to dispute it with him. M. Vanel carried a voluminous bundle of papers under his arm, and placed it on the desk on which Colbert was leaning both his elbows, as he supported his head.

“Good-day, M. Vanel,” said the latter, rousing himself from his meditation.

“Good-day, Monseigneur,” said Vanel, naturally.

“You should say ‘Monsieur,’ and not ‘Monseigneur,’” replied Colbert, gently.

“We give the title of ‘Monseigneur’ to ministers,” returned Vanel, with extreme self-possession, “and you are a minister.”

“Not yet.”

“You are so in point of fact, and I call you ‘Monseigneur’ accordingly; besides, you are my seigneur, and that is sufficient. If you dislike my calling you ‘Monseigneur’ before others, allow me, at least, to call you so in private.”

Colbert raised his head to the height of the lamps, and read, or tried to read, upon Vanel’s face how much actual sincerity entered into this protestation of devotion. But the counsellor knew perfectly well how to sustain the weight of his look, even were it armed with the full authority of the title he had conferred. Colbert sighed. He had read nothing in Vanel’s face; Vanel might be sincere. Colbert recollected that this man, inferior to himself, was superior to him in having an unfaithful wife. At the moment he was pitying this man’s lot, Vanel coolly drew from his pocket a perfumed letter, sealed with Spanish wax, and held it towards Colbert, saying, “A letter from my wife, Monseigneur.”

Colbert coughed, took, opened, and read the letter, and then put it carefully away in his pocket; while Vanel, unconcerned, turned over the leaves of the papers he had brought with him.

“Vanel,” Colbert said suddenly to his protégé, “you are a hard-working man?”

“Yes, Monseigneur.”

“Would twelve hours of labor frighten you?”

“I work fifteen hours every day.”

“Impossible! A counsellor need not work more than three hours a day in the parliament.”

“Oh! I am working up some returns for a friend of mine in the department of accounts; and as I still have time left on my hands, I am studying Hebrew.”

“Your reputation stands high in the parliament, Vanel.”

“I believe so, Monseigneur.”

“You must not grow rusty in your post of counsellor.”

“What must I do to avoid it?”

“Purchase a high place. Small ambitions are the most difficult to satisfy.”

“Small purses are the most difficult to fill, Monseigneur.”

“What post have you in view?” said Colbert.

“I see none,- not one.”

“There is one, certainly; but one need be the King himself to be able to buy it without inconvenience; and the King will not be inclined, I suppose, to purchase the post of procureur-général.”

At these words Vanel fixed his dull and humble look upon Colbert, who could hardly tell whether Vanel had comprehended him or not. “Why do you speak to me, Monseigneur,” said Vanel, “of the post of procureur-général to the parliament? I know no other post than the one M. Fouquet fills.”

“Exactly so, my dear counsellor.”

“You are not over-fastidious, Monseigneur, but before the post can be bought, it must be offered for sale.”

“I believe, M. Vanel, that it will be for sale before long.”

“For sale? What! M. Fouquet’s post of procureur-général?”

“So it is said.”

“The post which renders him inviolable, for sale! Oh, oh!” said Vanel, beginning to laugh.

“Would you be afraid, then, of the post?” said Colbert, gravely.

“Afraid! no; but-”

“Nor desirous of obtaining it?”

“You are laughing at me, Monseigneur,” replied Vanel; “is it likely that a counsellor of the parliament would not be desirous of becoming procureur-général?”

“Well, M. Vanel, since I tell you that the post will be shortly for sale-”

“I cannot help repeating, Monseigneur, that it is impossible; a man never throws away the buckler behind which he maintains his honor, his fortune, and his life.”

“There are certain men mad enough, Vanel, to fancy themselves out of the reach of all mischances.”

“Yes, Monseigneur; but such men never commit their mad acts for the advantage of the poor Vanels of the world.”

“Why not?”

“For the very reason that those Vanels are poor.”

“It is true that M. Fouquet’s post might cost a good round sum. What would you bid for it, M. Vanel?”

“Everything I am worth.”

“Which means-”

“Three or four hundred thousand livres.”

“And the post is worth-”

“A million and a half, at the very lowest. I know persons who have offered seventeen hundred thousand livres, without being able to persuade M. Fouquet to sell. Besides, supposing it were to happen that M. Fouquet wished to sell,- which I do not believe, in spite of what I have been told-”

“Ah, you have heard something about it, then! Who told you?”

“M. Gourville, M. Pélisson, and others.”

“Very good; if, therefore, M. Fouquet did wish to sell-”

“I could not buy it just yet, since the superintendent will only sell for ready money, and no one has a million and a half to throw down at once.”

Colbert suddenly interrupted the counsellor by an imperious gesture; he had begun to meditate. Observing his superior’s serious attitude, and his perseverance in continuing the conversation on this subject, Vanel awaited the solution without venturing to precipitate it.

“Explain fully to me,” said Colbert, at length, “the privileges of the office of procureur-général.”

“The right of impeaching every French subject who is not a Prince of the blood; the right of quashing all proceedings taken against any Frenchman who is neither King nor Prince. The procureur-général is the arm of the King to strike the evil-doer,- his arm also to extinguish the torch of justice. M. Fouquet, therefore, will be able, by stirring up the parliament, to maintain himself even against the King; and the King also, by humoring M. Fouquet, can get his edicts registered without opposition. The procureur-général can be a very useful or a very dangerous instrument.”

“Vanel, would you like to be procureur-général?” said Colbert, suddenly, softening both his look and his voice.

“I!” exclaimed the latter; “I have already had the honor to represent to you that I want about eleven hundred thousand livres to make up the amount.”

“Borrow that sum from your friends.”

“I have no friends richer than myself.”

“You are an honorable man, Vanel.”

“Ah, Monseigneur, if the world were to think as you do!”

“I think so, and that is quite enough; and if it should be needed, I will be your security.”

“Remember the proverb, Monseigneur.”

“What is that?”

“‘The endorser pays.’”

“Let that make no difference.”

Vanel rose, quite bewildered by this offer, which had been so suddenly and unexpectedly made to him by a man who treated the smallest affairs in a serious spirit. “You are not trifling with me, Monseigneur?” he said.

“Stay! we must act quickly. You say that M. Gourville has spoken to you about M. Fouquet’s post?”

“Yes, and M. Pélisson also.”

“Officially or officiously?”

“These were their words: ‘These parliamentary people are ambitious and wealthy; they ought to get together two or three millions among themselves, to present to their protector and great luminary, M. Fouquet.’”

“And what did you reply?”

“I said that, for my own part, I would give ten thousand livres if necessary.”

“Ah, you like M. Fouquet, then!” exclaimed Colbert, with a look full of hatred.

“No; but M. Fouquet is our chief. He is in debt,- is on the high-road to ruin; and we ought to save the honor of the body of which we are members.”

“This explains to me why M. Fouquet will be always safe and sound so long as he occupies his present post,” replied Colbert.

“Thereupon,” said Vanel, “M. Gourville added: ‘If we were to do anything out of charity to M. Fouquet, it could not be otherwise than most humiliating to him; and he would be sure to refuse it. Let the parliament subscribe among themselves to purchase in a proper manner the post of procureur-général. In that case all would go on well; the honor of our body would be saved, and M. Fouquet’s pride spared.’”

“That is an opening.”

“I considered it so, Monseigneur.”

“Well, M. Vanel, you will go at once, and find out either M. Gourville or M. Pélisson. Do you know any other friend of M. Fouquet?”

“I know M. de la Fontaine very well.”

“La Fontaine, the rhymester?”

“Yes; he used to write verses to my wife, when M. Fouquet was one of our friends.”

“Go to him, then, and try to procure an interview with the superintendent.”

“Willingly- but the sum?”

“On the day and hour when you arrange to settle the matter, M. Vanel, you shall be supplied with the money; so do not make yourself uneasy on that account.”

“Monseigneur, such munificence! You eclipse kings even,- you surpass M. Fouquet himself.”

“Stay a moment! Do not let us mistake each other. I do not make you a present of fourteen hundred thousand livres, M. Vanel, for I have children to provide for; but I will lend you that sum.”

“Ask whatever interest, whatever security you please, Monseigneur; I am quite ready. And when all your requisitions are satisfied, I will still repeat that you surpass kings and M. Fouquet in munificence. What conditions do you impose?”

“The repayment in eight years, and a mortgage upon the appointment itself.”

“Certainly. Is that all?”

“Wait a moment! I reserve to myself the right of purchasing the post from you at one hundred and fifty thousand livres’ profit for yourself, if in your mode of filling the office you do not follow out a line of conduct in conformity with the interests of the King and with my projects.”

“Ah! ah!” said Vanel, in a slightly altered tone.

“Is there anything in that which can possibly be objectionable to you, M. Vanel?” said Colbert, coldly.

“Oh, no, no!” replied Vanel, quickly.

“Very good. We will sign an agreement to that effect whenever you like. And now go as quickly as you can to M. Fouquet’s friends, and obtain an interview with the superintendent. Do not be too difficult in making whatever concessions may be required of you; and when once the arrangements are all made-”

“I will press him to sign.”

“Be most careful to do nothing of the kind; do not speak of signatures with M. Fouquet, nor of deeds, nor even ask him to pass his word. Understand this, otherwise you will lose everything. All you have to do is to get M. Fouquet to give you his hand on the matter. Go, go!”

  1. 41: A Bargain
  2. Louise de la Valliere
  3. 43: The Queen-Mother