Chapter 13: Nectar and Ambrosia

  1. 12: The Wine of Melun
  2. Man in the Iron Mask
  3. 14: A Gascon, and a Gascon and a Half

Fouquet held the stirrup of the King, who having dismounted bowed graciously, and more graciously still held out his hand to him, which Fouquet, in spite of a slight resistance on the King’s part, carried respectfully to his lips. The King wished to wait in the first courtyard for the arrival of the carriages; nor had he long to wait. For the roads had been put into excellent order by the superintendent, and a stone would hardly have been found the size of an egg the whole way from Melun to Vaux; so that the carriages, rolling along as though on a carpet, brought the ladies to Vaux, without jolting or fatigue, by eight o’clock. They were received by Madame Fouquet; and at the moment when they made their appearance, a light as bright as day burst forth from all the trees and vases and marble statues. This species of enchantment lasted until their Majesties had retired into the palace. All these wonders and magical effects,- which the chronicler has heaped up, or rather preserved, in his recital at the risk of rivalling the creations of a romancist,- these splendors whereby night seemed conquered and Nature corrected, together with every delight and luxury combined for the satisfaction of all the senses as well as of the mind, Fouquet really offered to his sovereign in that enchanting retreat, to which no monarch could at that time boast of possessing an equal.

We do not intend to describe the grand banquet, at which all the royal guests were present, nor the concerts, nor the fairy-like and magical transformations and metamorphoses. It will be enough for our purpose to depict the countenance which the King assumed, and which, from being gay, soon wore a gloomy, constrained, and irritated expression. He remembered his own residence, and the mean style of luxury which prevailed there,- which comprised only that which was merely useful for the royal wants, without being his own personal property. The large vases of the Louvre, the old furniture and plate of Henry II, of Francis I, of Louis XI, were merely historical monuments,- they were nothing but specimens of art, relics left by his predecessors; while with Fouquet the value of the article was as much in the workmanship as in the article itself. Fouquet ate from a gold service, which artists in his own employ had modelled and cast for him. Fouquet drank wines of which the King of France did not even know the name, and drank them out of goblets each more precious than the whole royal cellar.

What, too, could be said of the apartments, the hangings, the pictures, the servants and officers of every description, in Fouquet’s household? What could be said of the mode of service in which etiquette was replaced by order, stiff formality by personal unrestrained comfort, and the happiness and contentment of the guest became the supreme law of all who obeyed the host? The swarm of busily engaged persons moving about noiselessly; the multitude of guests, who were, however, even less numerous than the servants who waited on them; the myriads of exquisitely prepared dishes, of gold and silver vases; the floods of dazzling light; the masses of unknown flowers, of which the hothouses had been despoiled, redundant with the luxuriance of unequalled beauty,- the harmony of all, which indeed was no more than the prelude of the promised fête, charmed all the guests, who testified their admiration over and over again, not by voice or gesture, but by deep silence and rapt attention,- those two languages of the courtier which acknowledge the hand of no master powerful enough to restrain them.

As for the King, his eyes filled with tears; he dared not look at the Queen. Anne of Austria, whose pride, as it ever had been, was superior to that of any creature breathing, overwhelmed her host by the contempt with which she treated everything handed to her. The young Queen, kind-hearted by nature and curious by disposition, praised Fouquet, ate with an exceedingly good appetite, and asked the names of the different fruits which were placed upon the table. Fouquet replied that he did not know their names. The fruits came from his own stores; he had often cultivated them himself, having an intimate acquaintance with the cultivation of exotic fruits and plants. The King felt and appreciated the delicacy of the reply, but was only more humiliated at it; he thought that the Queen was a little too familiar in her manners, and that Anne of Austria resembled Juno a little too much; his chief anxiety, however, was that he might remain cold and distant in his behavior, bordering slightly on the limits of extreme disdain or of simple admiration.

Fouquet had foreseen all that; he was, in fact, one of those men who foresee everything. The King had expressly declared that so long as he remained under Fouquet’s roof he did not wish his own different repasts to be served in accordance with the usual etiquette, and that he would consequently dine with the rest of the company; but by the thoughtful attention of the superintendent the King’s dinner was served up separately, if one may so express it, in the middle of the general table. The dinner, wonderful in every respect, from the dishes of which it was composed, comprised everything the King liked, and which he generally preferred to anything else. Louis had no excuse- he, indeed, who had the keenest appetite in his kingdom- for saying that he was not hungry. Fouquet even did better still: he indeed, in obedience to the King’s expressed desire, seated himself at the table, but as soon as the soups were served, he rose and personally waited on the King, while Madame Fouquet stood behind the Queen-Mother’s arm-chair. The disdain of Juno and the sulky fits of temper of Jupiter could not resist this exhibition of kindly feeling and polite attention. The Queen ate a biscuit dipped in a glass of San-Lucar wine; and the King ate of everything, saying to Fouquet, “It is impossible, Monsieur the Superintendent, to dine better anywhere.” Whereupon the whole court began, on all sides, to devour the dishes spread before them, with such enthusiasm that it looked like a cloud of Egyptian locusts settling down upon the uncut crops.

As soon, however, as his hunger was appeased, the King became dull and gloomy again; the more so in proportion to the satisfaction he fancied he had manifested, and particularly on account of the deferential manner which his courtiers had shown towards Fouquet. D’Artagnan, who ate a good deal and drank but little, without allowing it to be noticed, did not lose a single opportunity, but made a great number of observations which he turned to good profit.

When the supper was finished, the King expressed a wish not to lose the promenade. The park was illuminated; the moon, too, as if she had placed herself at the orders of the Lord of Vaux, silvered the trees and lakes with her bright phosphoric light. The air was soft and balmy; the gravelled walks through the thickly set avenues yielded luxuriously to the feet. The fête was complete in every respect; for the King, having met La Valliere in one of the winding paths of the wood, was able to press her by the hand and say, “I love you,” without any one overhearing him, except M. d’Artagnan who followed, and M. Fouquet who preceded him.

The night of enchantments stole on. The King having requested to be shown to his room, there was immediately a movement in every direction. The Queens passed to their own apartments, accompanied by the music of the orbos and flutes. The King found his musketeers awaiting him on the grand flight of steps; for Fouquet had brought them on from Melun, and had invited them to supper. D’Artagnan’s suspicions at once disappeared. He was weary; he had supped well, and wished, for once in his life, thoroughly to enjoy a fête given by a man who was in every sense of the word a king. “M. Fouquet,” he said, “is the man for me.

The King was conducted with the greatest ceremony to the chamber of Morpheus, of which we owe some slight description to our readers. It was the handsomest and the largest in the palace. Lebrun had painted on the vaulted ceiling the happy as well as disagreeable dreams with which Morpheus affects kings as well as other men: with everything lovely to which sleep gives birth,- its perfumes, its flowers and nectar, the wild voluptuousness or deep repose of the senses,- had the painter enriched his frescos. It was a composition as soft and pleasing in one part as dark and terrible in another. The poisoned chalice; the glittering dagger suspended over the head of the sleeper; wizards and phantoms with hideous masks, those dim shadows more terrific than the brightness of flame or the blackness of night,- these he had made the companions of his more pleasing pictures.

No sooner had the King entered the room than a cold shiver seemed to pass through him; and when Fouquet asked him the cause of it, the King replied, turning pale, “I am sleepy.”

“Does your Majesty wish for your attendants at once?”

“No; I have to talk with a few persons first,” said the King. “Will you have the goodness to summon M. Colbert?”

Fouquet bowed, and left the room.

  1. 12: The Wine of Melun
  2. Man in the Iron Mask
  3. 14: A Gascon, and a Gascon and a Half