Chapter 18: A Night in the Bastille

  1. 17: High Treason
  2. Man in the Iron Mask
  3. 19: The Shadow of Fouquet

Suffering in human life is proportioned to human strength. We will not pretend to say that God always apportions to a man’s capability of endurance the anguish he permits him to suffer; such, indeed, would not be exact, since God permits the existence of death, which is sometimes the only refuge open to those who are too closely pressed,- too bitterly afflicted, so far as the body is concerned. Suffering is proportioned to strength in this sense,- that the weak suffer more, where the trial is the same, than the strong. And what are the elementary principles which compose human strength? Are they not- more than anything else- exercise, habit, experience? We shall not even take the trouble to demonstrate that; it is an axiom in morals as in physics.

When the young King, stupefied, crushed, found himself led to a cell in the Bastille, he fancied at first that death is like sleep, and has its dreams; that the bed had broken through the flooring of his room at Vaux; that death had resulted; and that, still carrying out his dream, Louis XIV, now dead, was dreaming of those horrors, impossible to realize in life, which are termed dethronement, imprisonment, and degradation of a King all-powerful but yesterday. To be a spectator, as palpable phantom, of his own wretched suffering; to float in an incomprehensible mystery between resemblance and reality; to hear everything, to see everything, without confusing the details of that agony,- “was it not,” said the King to himself, “a torture the more terrible since it might be eternal?”

“Is this what is termed eternity,- hell?” Louis murmured at the moment the door closed upon him, shut by Baisemeaux himself. He did not even look around him; and in that chamber, leaning with his back against the wall, he allowed himself to be carried away by the terrible supposition that he was already dead, as he closed his eyes in order to avoid looking upon something even worse. “How can I have died?” he said to himself, almost insensible. “Could that bed have been let down by some artificial means? But, no! I do not remember to have received any contusion or any shock. Would they not rather have poisoned me at one of my meals, or with the fumes of wax, as they did my ancestress Jeanne d’Albret?”

Suddenly the chill of the dungeon seemed to fall like a cloak upon Louis’s shoulders. “I have seen,” he said, “My father lying dead upon his funeral couch, in his regal robes. That pale face, so calm and worn; those hands, once so skilful, lying nerveless by his side; those limbs stiffened by the icy grasp of death,- nothing there betokened a sleep disturbed by dreams. And yet what dreams God might have sent to him,- to him whom so many others had preceded, hurried away by him into eternal death! No, that King was still the King; he was enthroned still upon that funereal couch, as upon a velvet arm-chair; he had not abdicated aught of his majesty. God, who had not punished him, cannot punish me, who have done nothing.”

A strange sound attracted the young man’s attention. He looked round him, and saw on the mantel-shelf, just below an enormous crucifix coarsely painted in fresco on the wall, a rat of enormous size engaged in nibbling a piece of dry bread, but fixing all the time an intelligent and inquiring look upon the new occupant of the cell. The King could not resist a sudden impulse of fear and disgust. He moved back towards the door, uttering a loud cry; and as if he but needed this cry, which escaped from his breast almost unconsciously, to recognize himself, Louis knew that he was alive and in full possession of his natural senses. “A prisoner!” he cried. “I- a prisoner!” He looked round him for a bell to summon some one to him. “There are no bells in the Bastille,” he said, “and it is in the Bastille I am imprisoned. In what way can I have been made a prisoner? It is, of course, a conspiracy of M. Fouquet. I have been drawn into a snare at Vaux. M. Fouquet cannot be acting alone in this affair. His agent,- that voice I but just now heard was M. d’Herblay’s; I recognized it. Colbert was right, then. But what is Fouquet’s object? To reign in my place and stead? Impossible! Yet, who knows?” thought the King, relapsing into gloom. “Perhaps my brother the Duc d’Orleans is doing against me what my uncle, all through his life, wished to do against my father. But the Queen?- My mother too? And La Valliere? Oh! La Valliere,- she will have been abandoned to Madame. Dear child!- yes, it is so; they have shut her up, as they have me. We are separated forever!” and at this idea of separation the lover burst into tears, with sobs and groans.

“There is a governor in this place,” the King continued, in a fury of passion. “I will speak to him; I will summon him.”

He called; but no voice replied to his. He seized his chair, and hurled it against the massive oaken door. The wood resounded against the door, and awakened many a mournful echo in the profound depths of the staircase; but no one responded.

This was for the King a fresh proof of the slight regard in which he was held in the Bastille. Therefore, when his first fit of anger had passed away, having noticed a barred window, through which there passed a stream of light, lozenge-shaped, which must be the luminous dawn, Louis began to call out, at first gently, then louder and louder still; but no one replied to him. Twenty other attempts which he made, one after another, obtained no better success. His blood began to boil within him, and mount to his head. His nature was such that, accustomed to command, he trembled at the idea of disobedience. By degrees his anger increased. The prisoner broke the chair, which was too heavy for him to lift, and made use of it as a battering-ram to strike against the door. He struck with such force and rapidity that the perspiration soon began to pour down his face. The sound became tremendous and continuous; stifled cries replied in different directions.

This sound produced a strange effect upon the King; he paused to listen to it. It was the voices of the prisoners,- formerly his victims, now his companions. The voices ascended like vapors through the thick ceilings and the massive walls; they complained against the author of this noise, as doubtless their sighs and tears accused, in whispered tones, the author of their captivity. After having deprived so many persons of their liberty, the King had come among them to rob them of their sleep. This idea almost drove him mad; it redoubled his strength, or rather his will, bent upon obtaining some information or some result. With a portion of the broken chair he recommenced the noise. At the end of an hour Louis heard something in the corridor behind the door of his cell; and a violent blow which was returned upon the door itself made him cease his own.

“Ah, there! are you mad?” said a rude, brutal voice. “What is the matter with you this morning?”

“This morning!” thought the King, surprised; but he said aloud, politely, “Monsieur, are you the governor of the Bastille?”

“My good fellow, your head is out of sorts,” replied the voice; “but that is no reason why you should make such a terrible disturbance. Be quiet, mordieu!”

“Are you the governor?” the King inquired again.

He heard a door on the corridor close; the jailer had left without condescending to reply. When the King had assured himself of his departure, his fury knew no longer any bounds. As agile as a tiger, he leaped from the table to the window, and shook the iron bars. He broke a pane of glass, the pieces of which fell clanking into the courtyard below. He shouted with increasing hoarseness, “The governor, the governor!” This excess lasted fully an hour, during which time he was in a burning fever. With his hair in disorder and matted on his forehead, his dress torn and whitened, his linen in shreds, the King never rested until his strength was utterly exhausted; and it was not until then that he clearly understood the pitiless thickness of the walls, the impenetrable nature of the cement, invincible to all other influence save that of time, and that he possessed no other weapon but despair. He leaned his forehead against the door, and let the feverish throbbings of his heart calm by degrees; an additional pulsation would have made it burst.

“A moment will come when the food which is given to the prisoners will be brought to me. I shall then see some one; I shall speak to him, and get an answer.”

Then the King tried to remember at what hour the first repast of the prisoners was served in the Bastille; he was ignorant even of this detail. The feeling of remorse at this remembrance smote him like the keen thrust of a dagger,- that he should have lived for five-and-twenty years a King, and in the enjoyment of every happiness, without having bestowed a moment’s thought on the misery of those who had been unjustly deprived of their liberty. The King blushed from shame. He felt that Heaven, in permitting this fearful humiliation, did no more than render to the man the same torture which was inflicted by that man upon so many others. Nothing could be more efficacious toward awakening religious feeling in that soul prostrated by the sense of suffering. But Louis dared not even kneel in prayer to God to entreat him to terminate his bitter trial.

“Heaven is right,” he said; “Heaven acts wisely. It would be cowardly to pray to Heaven for that which I have so often refused to my own fellow-creatures.”

He had reached this stage of his reflections,- that is, of his agony of mind,- when the same noise was again heard behind his door, followed this time by the sound of the key in the lock, and of the bolts withdrawn from their staples. The King bounded forward to be nearer to the person who was about to enter; but suddenly reflecting that it was a movement unworthy of a sovereign, he paused, assumed a noble and calm expression, which for him was easy enough, and waited with his back turned towards the window, in order to some extent to conceal his agitation from the eyes of the person who was about entering. It was only a jailer with a basket of provisions. The King looked at the man with anxiety, and waited for him to speak.

“Ah!” said the latter, “you have broken your chair, I should say! Why, you must have become quite mad.”

“Monsieur,” said the King, “be careful what you say; it will be a very serious affair for you.”

The jailer placed the basket on the table, and looked at his prisoner steadily. “What do you say?” he said with surprise.

“Desire the governor to come to me,” added the King, with dignity.

“Come, my boy,” said the turnkey, “you have always been very quiet and reasonable; but you are getting vicious, it seems, and I wish to give you warning. You have broken your chair, and made a great disturbance; that is an offence punishable by imprisonment in one of the lower dungeons. Promise me not to begin over again, and I will not say a word about it to the governor.”

“I wish to see the governor,” replied the King, still controlling his passion.

“He will send you off to one of the dungeons, I tell you; so take care!”

“I insist upon it!- do you hear?”

“Ah! ah! your eyes are becoming wild again. Very good! I shall take away your knife.”

The jailer did as he had said, closed the door and departed, leaving the King more astounded, more wretched, and more alone than ever. In vain he began again to pound the door; in vain he threw the plates and dishes out of the window; not a sound was heard in answer. Two hours later he could not be recognized as a King, a gentleman, a man, a human being; he might rather be called a madman, tearing the door with his nails, trying to tear up the flooring of his cell, and uttering such wild and fearful cries that the old Bastille seemed to tremble to its very foundations for having revolted against its master. As for the governor, the jailer did not even think of disturbing him; the turnkeys and the sentinels had made their report, but what was the good of it? Were not these madmen common enough in the fortress, and were not the walls still stronger than they?

M. de Baisemeaux, thoroughly impressed with what Aramis had told him, and in perfect conformity with the King’s order, hoped only that one thing might happen; namely, that the madman Marchiali might be mad enough to hang himself to the canopy of his bed or to one of the bars of the window. In fact, the prisoner was anything but a profitable investment for M. Baisemeaux, and became more annoying than agreeable to him. These complications of Seldon and Marchiali, these complications of deliverance and reincarceration, these complications of personal resemblance, would have found a very proper dénouement. Baisemeaux even thought he had remarked that d’Herblay himself would not be altogether dissatisfied with it.

“And then, really,” said Baisemeaux to his next in command, “an ordinary prisoner is already unhappy enough in being a prisoner; he suffers quite enough indeed to induce one to hope, in charity, that his death may not be far distant. With still greater reason, then, when the prisoner has gone mad, and may bite and make a disturbance in the Bastille,- why, in that case it is not simply an act of mere charity to wish him dead; it would be almost a commendable action quietly to put him out of his misery.” And the good-natured governor thereupon sat down to his late breakfast.

  1. 17: High Treason
  2. Man in the Iron Mask
  3. 19: The Shadow of Fouquet