Chapter 49: M. Colbert’s Rough Draught

  1. 48: M de Mazarin’s Receipt
  2. Louise de la Valliere
  3. 50: The Vicomte de Bragelonne

Vanel, who entered at this stage of the conversation, was for Aramis and Fouquet the full stop which terminates a sentence. But, for Vanel, Aramis’s presence in Fouquet’s cabinet had quite another signification. At his first step into the room he fixed upon the delicate yet firm countenance of the Bishop of Vannes a look of astonishment which soon became one of scrutinizing inquiry. As for Fouquet, a true politician,- that is to say, complete master of himself,- he had already, by the energy of his own resolute will, contrived to remove from his face all traces of the emotion which Aramis’s revelation had occasioned. He was no longer, therefore, a man overwhelmed by misfortune and reduced to expedients; he held his head proudly erect, and extended his hand with a gesture of welcome to Vanel. He was prime minister; he was in his own house. Aramis knew the superintendent well; the delicacy of the feelings of his heart and the exalted nature of his mind could no longer surprise him. He confined himself, then, for the moment- intending to resume later an active part in the conversation- to the difficult role of a man who looks on and listens in order to learn and understand.

Vanel was visibly overcome, and advanced into the middle of the cabinet, bowing to everything and everybody.

“I am come,” he said.

“You are exact, M. Vanel,” returned Fouquet.

“In matters of business, Monseigneur,” replied Vanel, “I look upon exactitude as a virtue.”

“No doubt, Monsieur.”

“I beg your pardon,” interrupted Aramis, indicating Vanel with his finger, but addressing himself to Fouquet; “this is the gentleman, I believe, who has come about the purchase of your appointment?”

“Yes, I am,” replied Vanel, astonished at the extremely haughty tone with which Aramis had put the question; “but in what way am I to address you, who do me the honor-”

“Call me Monseigneur,” replied Aramis, dryly.

Vanel bowed.

“Come, gentlemen,” said Fouquet, a truce to these ceremonies! Let us proceed to business.”

“Monseigneur sees,” said Vanel, “that I am waiting his pleasure.”

“On the contrary, it is I who wait,” replied Fouquet.

“What for, Monseigneur?”

“I thought that perhaps you would have something to say.”

“Oh,” said Vanel to himself, “he has reflected on the matter, and I am lost!” But resuming his courage he continued, “No, Monseigneur, nothing,- absolutely nothing more than what I said to you yesterday, and which I am ready to repeat now.”

“Come, now, tell me frankly, M. Vanel, is not the affair rather a burdensome one for you?”

“Certainly, Monseigneur; fourteen hundred thousand livres is an important sum.”

“So important, indeed,” said Fouquet, “that I have reflected-”

“You have been reflecting, do you say, Monseigneur?” exclaimed Vanel, anxiously.

“Yes, that you might not yet be in a position to purchase.”

“Oh, Monseigneur!”

“Do not make yourself uneasy on that score, M. Vanel! I shall not blame you for a failure in your word, which evidently will be due to inability on your part.”

“Oh, yes, Monseigneur, you would blame me, and you would be right in doing so,” said Vanel: “for a man must be either imprudent or a fool to undertake engagements which he cannot keep; and I, at least, have always regarded a thing agreed upon as a thing done.”

Fouquet colored, while Aramis uttered a “Hum!” of impatience.

“You would be wrong to emphasize such notions as those, Monsieur,” said the superintendent: “for a man’s mind is variable and full of little caprices, very excusable, and sometimes very worthy of respect; and a man may have wished for something yesterday, and to-day have changed his mind.”

Vanel felt a cold sweat trickle down his face. “Monseigneur!” he muttered.

Aramis, who was delighted to find the superintendent carrying on the debate with such clearness and precision, stood leaning his arm upon the marble top of a console table, and began to play with a small gold knife with a malachite handle. Fouquet did not hasten to reply; but after a moment’s pause, “Come, my dear M. Vanel,” he said, “I will explain to you how I am situated.” Vanel began to tremble. “Yesterday I wished to sell-”

“Monseigneur has done more than wish to sell; Monseigneur has sold.”

“Well, well, that may be so; but to-day I ask you, as a favor, to restore me my word which I pledged you.”

“I received your word as a perfect assurance that it would be kept.”

“I know that; and that is the reason why I now entreat you,- do you understand me?- I entreat you to restore it to me.”

Fouquet suddenly paused. The words “I entreat you,” the force of which he did not immediately perceive, seemed almost to choke him as he uttered it. Aramis, still playing with his knife, fixed a look upon Vanel which seemed to search the inmost recess of his heart.

Vanel simply bowed as he said, “I am overcome, Monseigneur, at the honor you do me to consult me upon a matter of business which is already completed; but-”

“Nay, do not say but, dear M. Vanel.”

“Alas! Monseigneur, you see,” he said, as he opened a large pocket-book, “I have brought the money with me,- the whole sum, I mean. And here, Monseigneur, is the contract of sale which I have just effected of a property belonging to my wife. The order is authentic in every way, the necessary signatures have been attached to it, and it is made payable at sight; it is ready money. In one word, the affair is complete.”

“My dear M. Vanel, there is not a matter of business in this world, however important it may be, which cannot be postponed in order to oblige-”

“Certainly,” said Vanel, awkwardly.

“To oblige a man who by that means might and would be made a devoted friend.”

“Certainly, Monseigneur.”

“And the more completely a friend, M. Vanel, in proportion to the importance of the service rendered, since the value of the service he had received would have been so considerable. Well, what do you decide?”

Vanel preserved silence. In the mean time Aramis had continued his observations. Vanel’s narrow face, his deeply sunk orbits, his arched eyebrows, had revealed to the Bishop of Vannes the type of an avaricious and ambitious character. Aramis’s method was to oppose one passion by another. He saw Fouquet defeated, demoralized; he threw himself into the contest with new weapons. “Excuse me, Monseigneur,” he said; “you forget to show M. Vanel that his own interests are diametrically opposed to this renunciation of the sale.”

Vanel looked at the bishop with astonishment; he had hardly expected to find an auxiliary in him. Fouquet also paused to listen to the bishop.

“Do you not see,” continued Aramis, “that M. Vanel, in order to purchase your appointment, has been obliged to sell a property which belongs to his wife? Well, that is no slight matter; for one cannot displace fourteen or fifteen hundred thousand livres, as he has done, without considerable loss and very serious inconvenience.”

“Perfectly true,” said Vanel, whose secret Aramis had with his keen-sighted gaze wrung from the bottom of his heart.

“Such embarrassments,” pursued Aramis, “resolve themselves into expenses; and when one has a large disbursement to make, expenses are to be considered.”

“Yes, yes,” said Fouquet, who began to understand Aramis’s meaning.

Vanel remained silent; he, too, had understood him.

Aramis observed his coldness of manner and his silence. “Very good,” he said to himself, “you are waiting, I see, until you know the amount; but do not fear! I shall send you such a flight of crowns that you cannot but capitulate on the spot.”

“We must offer M. Vanel a hundred thousand crowns at once,” said Fouquet, carried away by his generosity.

The sum was a good one. A prince, even, would have been satisfied with such a bonus. A hundred thousand crowns at that period was the dowry of a king’s daughter.

Vanel, however, did not move.

“He is a rascal!” thought the bishop; “we must offer the five hundred thousand livres at once!” and he made a sign to Fouquet.

“You seem to have spent more than that, dear M. Vanel,” said the superintendent. “The price of money is enormous. You must have made a great sacrifice in selling your wife’s property. Well, what can I have been thinking of? It is an order for five hundred thousand livres that I am about to sign for you; and even in that case I shall feel that I am greatly indebted to you.”

There was not a single gleam of delight or desire on Vanel’s face, which remained impassive; not a muscle of it changed in the slightest degree. Aramis cast a look of despair at Fouquet, and then, going straight up to Vanel and taking hold of him by the coat with the gesture used by men of high rank, he said: “M. Vanel, it is neither the inconvenience, nor the displacement of your money, nor the sale of your wife’s property even, that you are thinking of at this moment, it is something still more important. I can well understand it, so pay particular attention to what I am going to say.”

“Yes, Monseigneur,” Vanel replied, beginning to tremble. The fire in the eyes of the prelate scorched him.

“I offer you, therefore, in the superintendent’s name, not three hundred thousand livres, nor five hundred thousand, but a million. A million,- do you understand me?” he added, as he shook him nervously.

“A million!” repeated Vanel, as pale as death.

“A million; in other words, at the present rate of interest, an income of seventy thousand livres!”

“Come, Monsieur,” said Fouquet, “you can hardly refuse that. Answer! Do you accept?”

“Impossible!” murmured Vanel.

Aramis bit his lips, and something like a white cloud passed over his face. That cloud indicated thunder. He still kept his hold on Vanel. “You have purchased the appointment for fifteen hundred thousand livres, I think? Well, we will give you these fifteen hundred thousand livres; by paying M. Fouquet a visit, and shaking hands with him, you will have become a gainer of a million and a half. You get honor and profit at the same time, M. Vanel.”

“I cannot do it,” said Vanel, hoarsely.

“Very well,” replied Aramis, who had grasped Vanel so tightly by the coat that when he let go his hold Vanel staggered back a few paces,- “very well; one can now see clearly enough your object in coming here.”

“Yes,” said Fouquet, “one can easily see that.”

“But-” said Vanel, attempting to stand erect before the weakness of these two men of honor.

“The fellow presumes to speak!” said Aramis, with the tone of an emperor.

“Fellow?” repeated Vanel.

“The wretch, I meant to say,” added the prelate, who had now resumed his usual self-possession. “Come, Monsieur, produce your deed of sale! You should have it there, in one of your pockets, already prepared, as an assassin holds his pistol or his dagger concealed, under his cloak.”

Vanel began to mutter something.

“Enough!” cried Fouquet. “Where is this deed?”

Vanel tremblingly searched in his pockets; and as he drew out his pocketbook, a paper fell out of it, while Vanel offered the other to Fouquet. Aramis pounced upon the paper which had fallen out, the handwriting of which he recognized.

“I beg your pardon,” said Vanel; “that is a rough draught of the deed.”

“I see that very clearly,” retorted Aramis, with a smile more cutting than a lash of a whip would have been; “and what surprises me is that this draught is in M. Colbert’s handwriting. Look, Monseigneur, look!” And he handed the paper to Fouquet, who recognized the truth of his remark; for, covered with erasures, with inserted words, the margins filled with additions, this deed- an open proof of Colbert’s plot- had just revealed everything to its unhappy victim.

“Well!” murmured Fouquet.

Vanel, completely humiliated, seemed as if he were looking for some deep hole where he could hide himself.

“Well!” said Aramis, “if your name were not Fouquet, and if your enemy’s name were not Colbert,- if you had to deal only with this mean thief before you, I should say to you, ‘Repudiate it!’ Such a proof as this absolves you from your word. But these fellows would think you were afraid; they would fear you less than they do; therefore sign, Monseigneur!” and he held out a pen towards him.

Fouquet pressed Aramis’s hand; but instead of the deed which Vanel handed to him, he took the rough draught of it.

“No, not that paper,” said Aramis, hastily; “this is the one. The other is too precious a document for you to part with.”

“No, no!” replied Fouquet. “I will sign upon the paper of M. Colbert; and I write, ‘The writing is approved.’” He then signed, and said, “Here it is, M. Vanel”; and the latter seized the paper, laid down his money, and was about to retreat.

“One moment!” said Aramis. “Are you quite sure the exact amount is there? It ought to be counted over, M. Vanel, particularly since it is money which M. Colbert presents to the ladies. Ah, that worthy M. Colbert is not so generous as M. Fouquet!” and Aramis, spelling every word, every letter of the order to pay, distilled his wrath and his contempt, drop by drop, upon the miserable wretch, who had to submit to this torture for a quarter of an hour. He was then dismissed, not in words, but by a gesture, as one dismisses a beggar or discharges a menial.

As soon as Vanel had gone, the minister and the prelate, their eyes fixed on each other, remained silent for a few moments.

“Well,” said Aramis, the first to break the silence, “to what can that man be compared, who, entering into a conflict with an enemy armed from head to foot, thirsting for his life, strips himself, throws down his arms, and sends kisses to his adversary? Good faith, M. Fouquet, is a weapon which scoundrels very frequently make use of against men of honor, and it answers their purpose. Men of honor ought in their turn, also, to make use of bad faith against such scoundrels. You would soon see how strong they would become without ceasing to be men of honor.”

“It would be rascally conduct,” replied Fouquet.

“Not at all; it would be merely coquetting or playing with the truth. And now, since you have finished with this Vanel, since you have deprived yourself of the happiness of confounding him by repudiating your word, and since you have given up, to be used against yourself, the only weapon which can ruin us-”

“My dear friend,” said Fouquet, mournfully, “you are like the teacher of philosophy whom La Fontaine was telling us about the other day: he saw a child drowning, and began to read him a lecture divided into three heads.”

Aramis smiled as he said, “Philosophy,- yes, teacher,- yes; a drowning child,- yes; but a child that can be saved,- you shall see. And, first of all, let us talk about business.” Fouquet looked at him with an air of astonishment. “Did you not some time ago speak to me about an idea you had of giving a fête at Vaux?”

“Oh,” said Fouquet, “that was when affairs were flourishing!”

“A fête, I believe, to which the King, without prompting, invited himself?”

“No, no, my dear prelate; a fête to which M. Colbert advised the King to invite himself!”

“Ah! exactly; as it would be a fête of so costly a character that you would be ruined in giving it?”

“Precisely so. In other times, as I said just now, I had a kind of pride in showing my enemies the fruitfulness of my resources; I felt it a point of honor to strike them with amazement, in creating millions under circumstances where they had imagined nothing but bankruptcies possible. But at the present day I am arranging my accounts with the State, with the King, with myself; and I must now become a mean, stingy man. I shall be able to prove to the world that I can act or operate with my deniers as I used to do with my bags of pistoles; and beginning to-morrow, my equipages shall be sold, my houses mortgaged, my expenses contracted.”

“Beginning with to-morrow,” interrupted Aramis, quietly, “you will occupy yourself, without the slightest delay, with your fête at Vaux, which must hereafter be spoken of with the most magnificent productions of your most prosperous days.”

“You are mad, Chevalier d’Herblay.”

“I? You do not think that.”

“What do you mean, then? Do you not know that a fête at Vaux, of the very simplest possible character, would cost four or five millions?”

“I do not speak of a fête of the very simplest possible character, my dear superintendent.”

“But since the fête is to be given to the King,” replied Fouquet, who misunderstood Aramis’s idea, “it cannot be simple.”

“Just so; it ought to be on a scale of the most unbounded magnificence.”

“In that case I shall have to spend ten or twelve millions.”

“You shall spend twenty if you require it,” said Aramis, calmly.

“Where shall I get them?” exclaimed Fouquet.

“That is my affair, Monsieur the Superintendent; and do not be uneasy for a moment about it. The money will be placed at once at your disposal, sooner than you will have arranged the plans of your fête.”

“Chevalier! Chevalier!” said Fouquet, giddy with amazement, “whither are you hurrying me?”

“Across the gulf into which you were about to fall,” replied the Bishop of Vannes. “Take hold of my cloak and throw fear aside!”

“Why did you not tell me that sooner, Aramis? There was a day when with one million you could have saved me.”

“While to-day I can give you twenty,” said the prelate. “Such is the case, however. The reason is very simple. On the day you speak of I had not at my disposal the million which you needed, while now I can easily procure the twenty millions we require.”

“May Heaven hear you, and save me!”

Aramis smiled, with the singular expression habitual with him. “Heaven never fails to hear me,” he said; “perhaps because I pray with a loud voice.”

“I abandon myself to you unreservedly,” Fouquet murmured.

“No, no; I do not understand it in that manner. It is I who am entirely at your service. Therefore you, who have the clearest, the most delicate, and the most ingenious mind,- you shall have entire control over the fête, even to the very smallest details. Only-”

“Only?” said Fouquet, as a man accustomed to appreciate the value of a parenthesis.

“Well, then, leaving the entire invention of the details to you, I shall reserve to myself a general superintendence over the execution.”

“In what way?”

“I mean that you will make of me, on that day, a majordomo, a sort of inspector-general, or factotum,- something between a captain of the guard and manager or steward. I will look after the people, and will keep the keys of the doors. You will give your orders, of course; but will give them to no one but to me. They will pass through my lips, to reach those for whom they are intended,- you understand?”

“No, I do not understand.”

“But you agree?”

“Of course, of course, my friend.”

“That is all I care about. Thanks; and prepare your list of invitations.”

“Whom shall I invite?”

“Every one.”

  1. 48: M de Mazarin’s Receipt
  2. Louise de la Valliere
  3. 50: The Vicomte de Bragelonne