"What is the matter, and why do you limp so?" she inquired; "I mistook you for La Valliere." Montalais related how it had happened, that in hurrying on, in order to arrive as quickly as possible, she had sprained her foot. Madame seemed to pity her, and wished to have a surgeon sent for immediately, but she, assuring her that there was nothing really serious in the accident, said: "My only regret, Madame, is, that it will preclude my attendance on you, and I should have begged Mademoiselle de la Valliere to take my place with your royal highness, but - " seeing that Madame frowned, she added – "I have not done so." "Why did you not do so?" inquired Madame. "Because poor La Valliere seemed so happy to have her liberty for a whole evening and night too, that I did not feel courageous enough to ask her to take my place." "What, is she so delighted as that?" inquired madame, struck by these words. "She is wild with delight; she, who is always so melancholy, was singing like a bird. Besides, you highness knows how much she detests going out, and also that her character has a spice of wildness in it." "So!" thought Madame, "this extreme delight hardly seems natural to me." "She has already made all her preparations for dining in her own room _tete-a-tete_ with one of her favorite books. And then, as your highness has six other young ladies who would be delighted to accompany you, I did not make my proposal to La Valliere." Madame did not say a word in reply. "Have I acted properly?" continued Montalais, with a slight fluttering of the heart, seeing the little success that seemed to attend the _ruse de guerre_ which she had relied upon with so much confidence that she had not thought it even necessary to try and find another. "Does Madame approve of what I have done?" she continued. Madame was reflecting that the king could very easily leave Saint-Germain during the night, and that, as it was only four leagues and a half from Paris to Saint-Germain, he might readily be in Paris in an hour's time. "Tell me," she said, "whether La Valliere, when she heard of your accident, offered at least to bear you company?" "Oh! she does not yet know of my accident; but even did she know of it, I most certainly should not ask her to do anything that might interfere with her own plans. I think she wishes this evening to realize quietly by herself that amusement of the late king, when he said to M. de Cinq- Mars, 'Let us amuse ourselves by doing nothing, and making ourselves miserable.'" Madame felt convinced that some mysterious love adventure lurked behind this strong desire for solitude. The secret _might_ be Louis's return during the night; it could not be doubted any longer La Valliere had been informed of his intended return, and that was the reason for her delight at having to remain behind at the Palais Royal. It was a plan settled and arranged beforehand. "I will not be their dupe though," said Madame, and she took a decisive step. "Mademoiselle de Montalais," she said, "will you have the goodness to inform your friend, Mademoiselle de la Valliere, that I am exceedingly sorry to disarrange her projects of solitude, but that instead of becoming _ennuyee_ by remaining behind alone as she wished, she will be good enough to accompany us to Saint-Germain and get _ennuyee_ there." "Ah! poor La Valliere," said Montalais, compassionately, but with her heart throbbing with delight; "oh, Madame, could there not be some means - " "Enough," said Madame; "I desire it. I prefer Mademoiselle la Baume le Blanc's society to that of any one else. Go, and send her to me, and take care of your foot." Montalais did not wait for the order to be repeated; she returned to her room, almost forgetting to feign lameness, wrote an answer to Malicorne, and slipped it under the carpet. The answer simply said: "She shall." A Spartan could not have written more laconically. "By this means," thought Madame, "I will look narrowly after all on the road; she shall sleep near me during the night, and his majesty must be very clever if he can exchange a single word with Mademoiselle de la Valliere." La Valliere received the order to set off with the same indifferent gentleness with which she had received the order to play Cinderella. But, inwardly, her delight was extreme, and she looked upon this change in the princess's resolution as a consolation which Providence had sent her. With less penetration than Madame possessed, she attributed all to chance. While every one, with the exception of those in disgrace, of those who were ill, and those who were suffering from sprains, were being driven towards Saint-Germain, Malicorne smuggled his workman into the palace in one of M. de Saint-Aignan's carriages, and led him into the room corresponding to La Valliere's. The man set to work with a will, tempted by the splendid reward which had been promised him. As the very best tools and implements had been selected from the reserve stock belonging to the engineers attached to the king's household - and among others, a saw with teeth so sharp and well tempered that it was able, under water even, to cut through oaken joists as hard as iron - the work in question advanced very rapidly, and a square portion of the ceiling, taken from between two of the joists, fell into the arms of the delighted Saint-Aignan, Malicorne, the workman, and a confidential valet, the latter being one brought into the world to see and hear everything, but to repeat nothing. In accordance with a new plan indicated by Malicorne, the opening was effected in an angle of the room - and for this reason. As there was no dressing-closet adjoining La Valliere's room, she had solicited, and had that very morning obtained, a large screen intended to serve as a partition. The screen that had been allotted her was perfectly sufficient to conceal the opening, which would, besides, be hidden by all the artifices skilled cabinet-makers would have at their command. The opening having been made, the workman glided between the joists, and found himself in La Valliere's room. When there, he cut a square opening in the flooring, and out of the boards he manufactured a trap so accurately fitting into the opening that the most practised eye could hardly detect the necessary interstices made by its lines of juncture with the floor. Malicorne had provided for everything: a ring and a couple of hinges which had been bought for the purpose, were affixed to the trap-door; and a small circular stair-case, packed in sections, had been bought ready made by the industrious Malicorne, who had paid two thousand francs for it. It was higher than what was required, but the carpenter reduced the number of steps, and it was found to suit exactly. This staircase, destined to receive so illustrious a burden, was merely fastened to the wall by a couple of iron clamps, and its base was fixed into the floor of the comte's room by two iron pegs screwed down tightly, so that the king, and all his cabinet councilors too, might pass up and down the staircase without any fear. Every blow of the hammer fell upon a thick pad or cushion, and the saw was not used until the handle had been wrapped in wool, and the blade steeped in oil. The noisiest part of the work, moreover, had taken place during the night and early in the morning, that is to say, when La Valliere and Madame were both absent. When, about two o'clock in the afternoon, the court returned to the Palais Royal, La Valliere went up into her own room. Everything was in its proper place - not the smallest particle of sawdust, not the smallest chip, was left to bear witness to the violation of her domicile. Saint-Aignan, however, wishing to do his utmost in forwarding the work, had torn his fingers and his shirt too, and had expended no ordinary amount of perspiration in the king's service. The palms of his hands were covered with blisters, occasioned by his having held the ladder for Malicorne. He had, moreover, brought up, one by one, the seven pieces of the staircase, each consisting of two steps. In fact, we can safely assert that, if the king had seen him so ardently at work, his majesty would have sworn an eternal gratitude towards his faithful attendant. As Malicorne anticipated, the workman had completely finished the job in twenty-four hours; he received twenty-four louis, and left, overwhelmed with delight, for he had gained in one day as much as six months' hard work would have procured him. No one had the slightest suspicion of what had taken place in the room under Mademoiselle de la Valliere's apartment. But in the evening of the second day, at the very moment La Valliere had just left Madame's circle and returned to her own room, she heard a slight creaking sound in one corner. Astonished, she looked to see whence it proceeded, and the noise began again. "Who is there?" she said, in a tone of alarm. "It is I, Louise," replied the well-known voice of the king. "You! you!" cried the young girl, who for a moment fancied herself under the influence of a dream. "But where? You, sire?" "Here," replied the king, opening one of the folds of the screen, and appearing like a ghost at the end of the room. La Valliere uttered a loud cry, and fell trembling into an armchair, as the king advanced respectfully towards her. Chapter XXXV: The Apparition. La Valliere very soon recovered from her surprise, for, owing to his respectful bearing, the king inspired her with more confidence by his presence than his sudden appearance had deprived her of. But, as he noticed that which made La Valliere most uneasy was the means by which he had effected an entrance into her room, he explained to her the system of the staircase concealed by the screen, and strongly disavowed the notion of his being a supernatural appearance. "Oh, sire!" said La Valliere, shaking her fair head with a most engaging smile, "present or absent, you do not appear to my mind more at one time than at another." "Which means, Louise - "
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