Chapter 53: Louis XIV

  1. 52: The Round of M. de Gesvres
  2. Man in the Iron Mask
  3. 54: The Friends of M. Fouquet

The King was seated in his cabinet, with his back turned towards the door of entrance. In front of him was a mirror in which while turning over his papers he could see with a glance those who came in. He did not take any notice of the entrance of d’Artagnan, but laid over his letters and plans the large silk cloth which he made use of to conceal his secrets from the importunate. D’Artagnan understood his play, and kept in the background; so that at the end of a minute, the King, who heard nothing and could see only with the corner of his eye, was obliged to cry, “Is not M. d’Artagnan there?”

“I am here, Sire,” replied the musketeer, advancing.

“Well, Monsieur,” said the King, fixing his clear eye upon d’Artagnan, “what have you to say to me?”

“I, Sire!” replied the latter, who watched the first blow of his adversary to make a good retort; “I have nothing to say to your Majesty, unless it be that you have caused me to be arrested, and here I am.”

The King was going to reply that he had not had d’Artagnan arrested, but the sentence appeared too much like an excuse, and he was silent. D’Artagnan likewise preserved an obstinate silence.

“Monsieur,” at length resumed the King, “what did I charge you to go and do at Belle-Isle? Tell me, if you please.”

The King, while speaking these words, looked fixedly at his captain. Here d’Artagnan was too fortunate,- the King gave him so fine an opening.

“I believe,” replied he, “that your Majesty does me the honor to ask what I went to Belle-Isle to do?”

“Yes, Monsieur.”

“Well, Sire, I know nothing about it; it is not of me that that question should be asked, but of that infinite number of officers of all kinds to whom have been given an infinite number of orders of all kinds, while to me, head of the expedition, nothing precise was ordered.”

The King was wounded; he showed it by his reply. “Monsieur,” said he, “Orders have only been given to such as were judged faithful.”

“And therefore I have been astonished, Sire,” retorted the musketeer, “that a captain like myself, who rank with a marshal of France, should have found himself under the orders of five or six lieutenants or majors, good to make spies of, possibly, but not at all fit to conduct warlike expeditions. It was upon this subject I came to demand an explanation of your Majesty, when I found the door closed against me, which, the last insult offered to a brave man, has led me to quit your Majesty’s service.”

“Monsieur,” replied the King, “you still believe you are living in an age when kings were, as you complain of having been, under the orders and subject to the judgment of their inferiors. You appear too much to forget that a King owes an account of his actions to none but God.”

“I forget nothing at all, Sire,” said the musketeer, wounded by this lesson. “Besides, I do not see in what an honest man, when he asks of his King how he has ill served him, offends him.”

“You have ill served me, Monsieur, by taking part with my enemies against me.”

“Who are your enemies, Sire?”

“The men I sent you to fight against.”

“Two men the enemies of your Majesty’s army? That is incredible.”

“You are not to judge of my wishes.”

“But I am to judge of my own friendships, Sire.”

“He who serves his friends does not serve his master.”

“I have so well understood that, Sire, that I have respectfully offered your Majesty my resignation.”

“And I have accepted it, Monsieur,” said the King. “Before being separated from you I was willing to prove to you that I know how to keep my word.”

“Your Majesty has kept more than your word, for your Majesty has had me arrested,” said d’Artagnan, with his cold bantering air; “you did not promise me that, Sire.”

The King would not condescend to perceive the pleasantry, and continued seriously, “You see, Monsieur, to what your disobedience has forced me.”

“My disobedience!” cried d’Artagnan, red with anger.

“That is the mildest name I can find,” pursued the King. “My idea was to take and punish rebels; was I bound to inquire whether these rebels were your friends or not?”

“But I was,” replied d’Artagnan. “It was a cruelty on your Majesty’s part to send me to take my friends and lead them to your gibbets.”

“It was a trial I had to make, Monsieur, of pretended servants, who eat my bread, and ought to defend my person. The trial has succeeded ill, M. d’Artagnan.”

“For one bad servant your Majesty loses,” said the musketeer, with bitterness, “there are ten who have, on that same day, gone through their ordeal. Listen to me, Sire; I am not accustomed to that service. Mine is a rebel sword when I am required to do wrong. It was wrong to send me in pursuit of two men whose lives M. Fouquet, your Majesty’s preserver, had implored you to save. Still further, these men were my friends. They did not attack your Majesty; they succumbed to a blind anger. Besides, why were they not allowed to escape? What crime had they committed? I admit that you may contest with me the right of judging of their conduct. But why suspect me before the action? Why surround me with spies? Why disgrace me before the army? Why me, in whom you have to this time showed the most entire confidence,- me, who for thirty years have been attached to your person, and have given you a thousand proofs of devotedness,- for it must be said, now that I am accused; why compel me to see three thousand of the King’s soldiers march in battle against two men?”

“One would say you have forgotten what these men have done to me!” said the King, in a hollow voice, “and that it was no merit of theirs that I was not lost.”

“Sire, one would say that you forget I was there.”

“Enough, M. d’Artagnan, enough of these dominating concerns which arise to keep the sun from my interests. I am founding a state in which there shall be but one master, as promised you formerly; the moment is come for keeping my promise. You wish to be, according to your tastes or your friendships, free to destroy my plans and save my enemies; I will break you, or I will abandon you. Seek a more compliant master. I know full well that another king would not conduct himself as I do, and would allow himself to be dominated over by you at the risk of sending you some day to keep company with M. Fouquet and the others; but I have a good memory, and for me services are sacred titles to gratitude, to impunity. You shall only have this lesson, M. d’Artagnan, as the punishment of your want of discipline; and I will not imitate my predecessors in their anger, not having imitated them in their favor. And then, other reasons make me act mildly towards you: in the first place, because you are a man of sense, a man of great sense, a man of heart, and you will be a good servant to him who shall have mastered you; secondly, because you will cease to have any motives for insubordination. Your friends are destroyed or ruined by me. These supports upon which your capricious mind instinctively relied I have made to disappear. At this moment, my soldiers have taken or killed the rebels of Belle-Isle.”

D’Artagnan became pale. “Taken or killed!” cried he. “Oh, Sire, if you thought what you tell me, if you were sure you were telling me the truth, I should forget all that is just, all that is magnanimous in your words, to call you a barbarous King and an unnatural man. But I pardon you these words,” said he, smiling with pride; “I pardon them to a young Prince who does not know, who cannot comprehend, what such men as M. d’Herblay, M. du Vallon, and myself are. Taken or killed! Ah, ah, Sire! tell me, if the news is true, how much it has cost you in men and money. We will then reckon if the game has been worth the stakes.”

As he spoke thus, the King went up to him in great anger and said, “M. d’Artagnan, your replies are those of a rebel! Tell me, if you please, who is King of France? Do you know any other?”

“Sire,” replied the captain of the Musketeers, coldly, “I remember that one morning at Vaux you addressed that question to people who did not know how to answer it, while I, on my part, did answer it. If I recognized my King on that day, when the thing was not easy, I think it would be useless to ask it of me now, when your Majesty is alone with me.”

At these words, Louis cast down his eyes. It appeared to him that the shade of the unfortunate Philippe passed between d’Artagnan and himself, to evoke the remembrance of that terrible adventure. Almost at the same moment an officer entered and placed a despatch in the hands of the King, who, in his turn, changed color while reading it. “Monsieur,” said he, “what I learn here you would know later; it is better I should tell you, and that you should learn it from the mouth of your King. A battle has taken place at Belle-Isle.”

“Oh! ah!” said d’Artagnan, with a calm air, though his heart beat enough to break through his chest. “Well, Sire?”

“Well, Monsieur; and I have lost a hundred and six men.”

A beam of joy and pride shone in the eyes of d’Artagnan. “And the rebels?”

“The rebels have fled,” said the King.

D’Artagnan could not restrain a cry of triumph. “Only,” added the King, “I have a fleet which closely blockades Belle-Isle, and I am certain no boat can escape.”

“So that,” said the musketeer, brought back to his dismal ideas, “if these two gentlemen are taken-”

“They will be hanged,” said the King, quietly.

“And do they know it?” replied d’Artagnan, repressing a shudder.

“They know it, because you must have told them yourself; and all the country knows it.”

“Then, Sire, they will never be taken alive, I will answer for that.”

“Ah!” said the King, negligently, taking up his letter again. “Very well, they will be dead then, M. d’Artagnan, and that will come to the same thing, since I should only take them to have them hanged.”

D’Artagnan wiped the sweat which flowed from his brow.

“I have told you,” pursued Louis XIV, “that I would one day be to you an affectionate, generous, and constant master. You are now the only man of former times worthy of my anger or my friendship. I will not be sparing of either to you, according to your conduct. Could you serve a King, M. d’Artagnan, who should have a hundred other kings, his equals, in the kingdom? Could I, tell me, do with such weakness the great things I meditate? Have you ever seen an artist effect solid work with a rebellious instrument? Far from us, Monsieur, those old leavens of feudal abuses! The Fronde, which threatened to ruin the monarchy, has emancipated it. I am master at home, Captain d’Artagnan, and I shall have servants who, wanting perhaps your genius, will carry devotedness and obedience up to heroism. Of what consequence, I ask you, of what consequence is it that God has given no genius to arms and legs? It is to the head he has given it; and the head, you know, all the rest obey. I myself am the head.”

D’Artagnan started. Louis XIV continued as if he had seen nothing, although this emotion had not at all escaped him. “Now, let us conclude between us two that bargain which I promised to make with you one day when you found me very small, at Blois. Do me justice, Monsieur, when you think that I do not make any one pay for the tears of shame I then shed. Look around you: lofty heads have bowed. Bow yours, or choose the exile that will best suit you. Perhaps, when reflecting upon it, you will find that this King has a generous heart, who reckons sufficiently upon your loyalty to allow you to leave him, knowing you to be dissatisfied, and the possessor of a great state secret. You are a brave man, I know. Why have you judged me before trial? Judge me from this day forward, d’Artagnan, and be as severe as you please.”

D’Artagnan remained bewildered, mute, undecided for the first time in his life. He had just found an adversary worthy of him. This was no longer trick, it was calculation; it was no longer violence, it was strength; it was no longer passion, it was will; it was no longer boasting; it was wisdom. This young man who had brought down Fouquet and could do without d’Artagnan, deranged all the somewhat headstrong calculations of the musketeer.

“Come, let us see what stops you?” said the King, kindly. “You have given in your resignation; shall I refuse to accept it? I admit that it may be hard for an old captain to recover his good-humor.”

“Oh!” replied d’Artagnan, in a melancholy tone, “that is not my most serious care. I hesitate to take back my resignation because I am old in comparison with you, and I have habits difficult to abandon. Henceforward, you must have courtiers who know how to amuse you,- madmen who will get themselves killed to carry out what you call your great works. Great they will be, I feel; but if by chance I should not think them so? I have seen war, Sire; I have seen peace; I have served Richelieu and Mazarin; I have been scorched with your father at the fire of Rochelle, riddled with thrusts like a sieve, having made a new skin ten times, as serpents do. After affronts and injustices, I have a command which was formerly something, because it gave the bearer the right of speaking as he liked to his King. But your captain of the Musketeers will henceforward be an officer guarding the lower doors. Truly, Sire, if that is to be the employment from this time, seize the opportunity of our being on good terms to take it from me. Do not imagine that I bear malice. No, you have tamed me, as you say; but it must be confessed that in taming me you have lessened me,- by bowing me, you have convicted me of weakness. If you knew how well it suits me to carry my head high, and what a pitiful mien I shall have while scenting the dust of your carpets! Oh, Sire, I regret sincerely, and you will regret as I do, those times when the King of France saw in his vestibules all those insolent gentlemen, lean, always swearing,- cross-grained mastiffs, who could bite mortally in days of battle. Those men were the best of courtiers for the hand which fed them,- they would lick it; but for the hand that struck them, oh, the bite that followed! A little gold on the lace of their cloaks, a little more portliness of figure, a little sprinkling of gray in their dry hair, and you will behold the handsome dukes and peers, the haughty marshals of France. But why should I tell you all this? The King is my master; he wills that I should make verses; he wills that I should polish the mosaics of his antechambers with satin shoe. Mordioux! that is difficult; but I have got over greater difficulties than that. I will do it. Why will I do it? Because I love money? I have enough. Because I am ambitious? My career is bounded. Because I love the court? No; I will remain because I have been accustomed for thirty years to go and take the order of the King, and to have said to me, ‘Good-evening, d’Artagnan,’ with a smile I did not beg for. That smile I will beg for! Are you content, Sire?” And d’Artagnan bowed his silvered head, upon which the smiling King placed his white hand with pride.

“Thanks, my old servant, my faithful friend,” said he. “As, reckoning from this day, I have no longer any enemies in France, it remains with me to send you to a foreign field to gather your marshal’s baton. Depend upon me for finding you an opportunity. In the mean time, eat of my best bread and sleep tranquilly.”

“That is all kind and well!” said d’Artagnan, much agitated. “But those poor men at Belle-Isle,- one of them, in particular, so good and so brave?”

“Do you ask their pardon of me?”

“Upon my knees, Sire!”

“Well, then, go and take it to them, if it be still time. But do you answer for them?”

“With my life, Sire!”

“Go, then. To-morrow I set out for Paris. Return by that time, for I do not wish you to leave me in future.”

“Be assured of that, Sire,” said d’Artagnan, kissing the royal hand. And with a heart swelling with joy, he rushed out of the castle on his way to Belle-Isle.

  1. 52: The Round of M. de Gesvres
  2. Man in the Iron Mask
  3. 54: The Friends of M. Fouquet