The reader guesses beforehand whom the usher preceded in announcing the courier from Bretagne. This messenger was easily recognized. It was D'Artagnan, his clothes dusty, his face inflamed, his hair dripping with sweat, his legs stiff; he lifted his feet painfully at every step, on which resounded the clink of his blood-stained spurs. He perceived in the doorway he was passing through, the superintendent coming out. Fouquet bowed with a smile to him who, an hour before, was bringing him ruin and death. D'Artagnan found in his goodness of heart, and in his inexhaustible vigor of body, enough presence of mind to remember the kind reception of this man; he bowed then, also, much more from benevolence and compassion, than from respect. He felt upon his lips the word which had so many times been repeated to the Duc de Guise: "Fly." But to pronounce that word would have been to betray his cause; to speak that word in the cabinet of the king, and before an usher, would have been to ruin himself gratuitously, and could save nobody. D'Artagnan then, contented himself with bowing to Fouquet and entered. At this moment the king floated between the joy the last words of Fouquet had given him, and his pleasure at the return of D'Artagnan. Without being a courtier, D'Artagnan had a glance as sure and as rapid as if he had been one. He read, on his entrance, devouring humiliation on the countenance of Colbert. He even heard the king say these words to him:—
"Ah! Monsieur Colbert; you have then nine hundred thousand livres at the intendance?" Colbert, suffocated, bowed but made no reply. All this scene entered into the mind of D'Artagnan, by the eyes and ears, at once.
The first word of Louis to his musketeer, as if he wished it to contrast with what he was saying at the moment, was a kind "good day." His second was to send away Colbert. The latter left the king's cabinet, pallid and tottering, whilst D'Artagnan twisted up the ends of his mustache.
"I love to see one of my servants in this disorder," said the king, admiring the martial stains upon the clothes of his envoy.
"I thought, sire, my presence at the Louvre was sufficiently urgent to excuse my presenting myself thus before you."
"You bring me great news, then, monsieur?"
"Sire, the thing is this, in two words: Belle-Isle is fortified, admirably fortified; Belle-Isle has a double enceinte, a citadel, two detached forts; its ports contain three corsairs; and the side batteries only await their cannon."
"I know all that, monsieur," replied the king.
"What! your majesty knows all that?" replied the musketeer, stupefied.
"I have the plan of the fortifications of Belle-Isle," said the king.
"Your majesty has the plan?"
"Here it is."
"It is really correct, sire: I saw a similar one on the spot."
D'Artagnan's brow became clouded.
"Ah! I understand all. Your majesty did not trust to me alone, but sent some other person," said he in a reproachful tone.
"Of what importance is the manner, monsieur, in which I have learnt what I know, so that I know it?"
"Sire, sire," said the musketeer, without seeking even to conceal his dissatisfaction; "but I must be permitted to say to your majesty, that it is not worth while to make me use such speed, to risk twenty times the breaking of my neck, to salute me on my arrival with such intelligence. Sire, when people are not trusted, or are deemed insufficient, they should scarcely be employed." And D'Artagnan, with a movement perfectly military, stamped with his foot, and left upon the floor dust stained with blood. The king looked at him, inwardly enjoying his first triumph.
"Monsieur," said he, at the expiration of a minute, "not only is Belle-Isle known to me, but, still further, Belle-Isle is mine."
"That is well! that is well, sire, I ask but one thing more," replied D'Artagnan.—"My discharge."
"What! your discharge?"
"Without doubt I am too proud to eat the bread of the king without earning it, or rather by gaining it badly.—My discharge, sire!"
"I ask for my discharge, or I will take it."
"You are angry, monsieur?"
"I have reason, mordioux! Thirty-two hours in the saddle, I ride day and night, I perform prodigies of speed, I arrive stiff as the corpse of a man who has been hung—and another arrives before me! Come, sire, I am a fool!—My discharge, sire!"
"Monsieur d'Artagnan," said Louis, leaning his white hand upon the dusty arm of the musketeer, "what I tell you will not at all affect that which I promised you. A king's word given must be kept." And the king going straight to his table, opened a drawer, and took out a folded paper. "Here is your commission of captain of musketeers; you have won it, Monsieur d'Artagnan."
D'Artagnan opened the paper eagerly, and scanned it twice. He could scarcely believe his eyes.
"And this commission is given you," continued the king, "not only on account of your journey to Belle-Isle but, moreover, for your brave intervention at the Place de Greve. There, likewise, you served me valiantly."
"Ah, ah!" said D'Artagnan, without his self-command being able to prevent a blush from mounting to his eyes—"you know that also, sire?"
"Yes, I know it."
The king possessed a piercing glance and an infallible judgment when it was his object to read men's minds. "You have something to say," said he to the musketeer, "something to say which you do not say. Come, speak freely, monsieur; you know that I told you, once and for all, that you are to be always quite frank with me."
"Well, sire! what I have to say is this, that I would prefer being made captain of the musketeers for having charged a battery at the head of my company, or taken a city, than for causing two wretches to be hung."
"Is this quite true you tell me?"
"And why should your majesty suspect me of dissimulation, I ask?"
"Because I have known you well, monsieur; you cannot repent of having drawn your sword for me."
"Well, in that your majesty is deceived, and greatly; yes, I do repent of having drawn my sword on account of the results that action produced; the poor men who were hung, sire, were neither your enemies nor mine; and they could not defend themselves."
The king preserved silence for a moment. "And your companion, M. d'Artagnan, does he partake of your repentance?"
"Yes, you were not alone, I have been told."
"At the Place de Greve."
"No, sire, no," said D'Artagnan, blushing at the idea that the king might have a suspicion that he, D'Artagnan, had wished to engross to himself all the glory that belonged to Raoul; "no, mordioux! and as your majesty says, I had a companion, and a good companion, too."
"A young man?"
"Yes, sire; a young man. Oh! your majesty must accept my compliments, you are as well informed of things out of doors as things within. It is M. Colbert who makes all these fine reports to the king."
"M. Colbert has said nothing but good of you, M. d'Artagnan, and he would have met with a bad reception if he had come to tell me anything else."
"That is fortunate!"
"But he also said much good of that young man."
"And with justice," said the musketeer.
"In short, it appears that this young man is a fire-eater," said Louis, in order to sharpen the sentiment which he mistook for envy.
"A fire-eater! Yes, sire," repeated D'Artagnan, delighted on his part to direct the king's attention to Raoul.
"Do you not know his name?"
"Well, I think—"
"You know him then?"
"I have known him nearly five-and-twenty years, sire."
"Why, he is scarcely twenty-five years old!" cried the king.
"Well, sire! I have known him ever since he was born, that is all."
"Do you affirm that?"
"Sire," said D'Artagnan, "your majesty questions me with a mistrust in which I recognize another character than your own. M. Colbert, who has so well informed you, has he not forgotten to tell you that this young man is the son of my most intimate friend?"
"The Vicomte de Bragelonne?"
"Certainly, sire. The father of the Vicomte de Bragelonne is M. le Comte de la Fere, who so powerfully assisted in the restoration of King Charles II. Bragelonne comes of a valiant race, sire."
"Then he is the son of that nobleman who came to me, or rather to M. Mazarin, on the part of King Charles II., to offer me his alliance?"
"And the Comte de la Fere is a great soldier, say you?"
"Sire, he is a man who has drawn his sword more times for the king, your father, than there are, at present, months in the happy life of your majesty."
It was Louis XIV. who now bit his lip.
"That is well, M. d'Artagnan, very well! And M. le Comte de la Fere is your friend, say you?"
"For about forty years; yes, sire. Your majesty may see that I do not speak to you of yesterday."
"Should you be glad to see this young man, M. d'Artagnan?"
The king touched his bell, and an usher appeared. "Call M. de Bragelonne," said the king.
"Ah! ah! he is here?" said D'Artagnan.
"He is on guard to-day, at the Louvre, with the company of the gentlemen of monsieur le prince."
The king had scarcely ceased speaking, when Raoul presented himself, and, on seeing D'Artagnan, smiled on him with that charming smile which is only found upon the lips of youth.
"Come, come," said D'Artagnan, familiarly, to Raoul, "the king will allow you to embrace me; only tell his majesty you thank him."
Raoul bowed so gracefully, that Louis, to whom all superior qualities were pleasing when they did not overshadow his own, admired his beauty, strength, and modesty.
"Monsieur," said the king, addressing Raoul, "I have asked monsieur le prince to be kind enough to give you up to me; I have received his reply, and you belong to me from this morning. Monsieur le prince was a good master, but I hope you will not lose by the exchange."
"Yes, yes, Raoul, be satisfied; the king has some good in him," said D'Artagnan, who had fathomed the character of Louis, and who played with his self-love, within certain limits; always observing, be it understood, the proprieties and flattering, even when he appeared to be bantering.
"Sire," said Bragelonne, with voice soft and musical, and with the natural and easy elocution he inherited from his father; "Sire, it is not from to-day that I belong to your majesty."
"Oh! no, I know," said the king, "you mean your enterprise of the Greve. That day, you were truly mine, monsieur."
"Sire, it is not of that day I would speak; it would not become me to refer to so paltry a service in the presence of such a man as M. d'Artagnan. I would speak of a circumstance which created an epoch in my life, and which consecrated me, from the age of sixteen, to the devoted service of your majesty."
"Ah! ah!" said the king, "what was that circumstance? Tell me, monsieur."
"This is it, sire.—When I was setting out on my first campaign, that is to say, to join the army of monsieur le prince, M. le Comte de la Fere came to conduct me as far as Saint-Denis, where the remains of King Louis XIII. wait, upon the lowest steps of the funeral basilique, a successor, whom God will not send him, I hope, for many years. Then he made me swear upon the ashes of our masters, to serve royalty, represented by you—incarnate in you, sire—to serve it in word, in thought, and in action. I swore, and God and the dead were witnesses to my oath. During ten years, sire, I have not so often as I desired had occasion to keep it. I am a soldier of your majesty, and nothing else; and, on calling me nearer to you, I do not change my master, I only change my garrison."
Raoul was silent and bowed. Louis still listened after he had done speaking.
"Mordioux!" cried D'Artagnan, "that was well spoken! was it not, your majesty? A good race! a noble race!"
"Yes," murmured the king, without, however daring to manifest his emotion, for it had no other cause than contact with a nature intrinsically noble. "Yes, monsieur, you say truly:—wherever you were, you were the king's. But in changing your garrison, believe me you will find an advancement of which you are worthy."
Raoul saw that this ended what the king had to say to him. And with the perfect tact which characterized his refined nature, he bowed and retired.
"Is there anything else, monsieur, of which you have to inform me?" said the king, when he found himself again alone with D'Artagnan.
"Yes, sire, and I kept that news for the last, for it is sad, and will clothe European royalty in mourning."
"What do you tell me?"
"Sire, in passing through Blois, a word, a sad word, echoed from the palace, struck my ear."
"In truth, you terrify me, M. d'Artagnan."
"Sire, this word was pronounced to me by a piqueur, who wore crape on his arm."
"My uncle, Gaston of Orleans, perhaps."
"Sire, he has rendered his last sigh."
"And I was not warned of it!" cried the king, whose royal susceptibility saw an insult in the absence of this intelligence.
"Oh! do not be angry, sire," said D'Artagnan; "neither the couriers of Paris, nor the couriers of the whole world, can travel with your servant; the courier from Blois will not be here these two hours, and he rides well, I assure you, seeing that I only passed him on the thither side of Orleans."
"My uncle Gaston," murmured Louis, pressing his hand to his brow, and comprising in those three words all that his memory recalled of that symbol of opposing sentiments.
"Eh! yes, sire, it is thus," said D'Artagnan, philosophically replying to the royal thought, "it is thus the past flies away."
"That is true, monsieur, that is true; but there remains for us, thank God! the future; and we will try to make it not too dark."
"I feel confidence in your majesty on that head," said D'Artagnan, bowing, "and now—"
"You are right, monsieur; I had forgotten the hundred leagues you have just ridden. Go, monsieur, take care of one of the best of soldiers, and when you have reposed a little, come and place yourself at my disposal."
"Sire, absent or present, I am always yours."
D'Artagnan bowed and retired. Then, as if he had only come from Fontainebleau, he quickly traversed the Louvre to rejoin Bragelonne.