not return, will suppose we have taken another road back, and that he will not follow the carriages belonging to the court?" "Oh, there is no fear of that," said Fouquet; "whenever I place my coachman and my carriage in any particular spot, nothing but an express order from the king could stir them; and more than that, too, it seems that we are not the only ones who have come so far, for I hear footsteps and the sound of voices." As he spoke, Fouquet turned round, and opened with his cane a mass of foliage which hid the path from his view. Aramis's glance as well as his own plunged at the same moment through the aperture he had made. "A woman," said Aramis. "And a man," said Fouquet. "It is La Valliere and the king," they both exclaimed together. "Oh, oh!" said Aramis, "is his majesty aware of your cavern as well? I should not be astonished if he were, for he seems to be on very good terms with the dryads of Fontainebleau." "Never mind," said Fouquet; "let us get there. If he is not aware of it, we shall see what he will do if he should know it, as it has two entrances, so that whilst he enters by one, we can leave by the other." "Is it far?" asked Aramis, "for the rain is beginning to penetrate." "We are there now," said Fouquet, as he pushed aside a few branches, and an excavation in the solid rock could be observed, hitherto concealed by heaths, ivy, and a thick covert of small shrubs. Fouquet led the way, followed by Aramis; but as the latter entered the grotto, he turned round, saying: "Yes, they are entering the wood; and, see, they are bending their steps this way." "Very well; let us make room for them," said Fouquet, smiling and pulling Aramis by his cloak; "but I do not think the king knows of my grotto." "Yes," said Aramis, "they are looking about them, but it is only for a thicker tree." Aramis was not mistaken, the king's looks were directed upward, and not around him. He held La Valliere's arm within his own, and held her hand in his. La Valliere's feet began to sleep on the damp grass. Louis again looked round him with greater attention than before, and perceiving an enormous oak with wide-spreading branches, he hurriedly drew La Valliere beneath its protecting shelter. The poor girl looked round her on all sides, and seemed half afraid, half desirous of being followed. The king made her lean back against the trunk of the tree, whose vast circumference, protected by the thickness of the foliage, was as dry as if at that moment the rain had not been falling in torrents. He himself remained standing before her with his head uncovered. After a few minutes, however, some drops of rain penetrated through the branches of the tree and fell on the king's forehead, who did not pay any attention to them. "Oh, sire!" murmured La Valliere, pushing the king's hat towards him. But the king simply bowed, and determinedly refused to cover his head. "Now or never is the time to offer your place," said Fouquet in Aramis's ear. "Now or never is the time to listen, and not lose a syllable of what they may have to say to each other," replied Aramis in Fouquet's ear. In fact they both remained perfectly silent, and the king's voice reached them where they were. "Believe me," said the king, "I perceive, or rather I can imagine your uneasiness; believe me, I sincerely regret having isolated you from the rest of the company, and brought you, also, to a spot where you will be inconvenienced by the rain. You are wet already, and perhaps cold too?" "No, sire." "And yet you tremble?" "I am afraid, sire, that my absence may be misinterpreted; at a moment, too, when all the others are reunited." "I would not hesitate to propose returning to the carriages, Mademoiselle de la Valliere, but pray look and listen, and tell me if it be possible to attempt to make the slightest progress at present?" In fact the thunder was still rolling, and the rain continued to fall in torrents. "Besides," continued the king, "no possible interpretation can be made which would be to your discredit. Are you not with the king of France; in other words, with the first gentleman of the kingdom?" "Certainly, sire," replied La Valliere, "and it is a very distinguished honor for me; it is not, therefore, for myself that I fear any interpretations that may be made." "For whom, then?" "For you, sire." "For _me?_" said the king, smiling, "I do not understand you." "Has your majesty already forgotten what took place yesterday evening in her royal highness's apartments?" "Oh! forget that, I beg, or allow me to remember it for no other purpose than to thank you once more for your letter, and - " "Sire," interrupted La Valliere, "the rain is falling, and your majesty's head is uncovered." "I entreat you not to think of anything but yourself." "Oh! I," said La Valliere, smiling, "I am a country girl, accustomed to roaming through the meadows of the Loire and the gardens of Blois, whatever the weather may be. And, as for my clothes," she added, looking at her simple muslin dress, "your majesty sees there is but little room for injury." "Indeed, I have already noticed, more than once, that you owed nearly everything to yourself and nothing to your toilette. Your freedom from coquetry is one of your greatest charms in my eyes." "Sire, do not make me out better than I am, and say merely, 'You cannot possibly be a coquette.'" "Why so?" "Because," said La Valliere, smiling, "I am not rich." "You admit, then," said the king, quickly, "that you have a love for beautiful things?" "Sire, I only regard those things as beautiful which are within my reach. Everything which is too highly placed for me - " "You are indifferent to?" "Is foreign to me, as being prohibited." "And I," said the king, "do not find that you are at my court on the footing you should be. The services of your family have not been sufficiently brought under my notice. The advancement of your family was cruelly neglected by my uncle." "On the contrary, sire. His royal highness, the Duke of Orleans, was always exceedingly kind towards M. de Saint-Remy, my step-father. The services rendered were humble, and, properly speaking, our services have been adequately recognized. It is not every one who is happy enough to find opportunities of serving his sovereign with distinction. I have no doubt at all, that, if ever opportunities had been met with, my family's actions would have been as lofty as their loyalty was firm: but that happiness was never ours." "In that case, Mademoiselle de la Valliere, it belongs to kings to repair the want of opportunity, and most delightedly do I undertake to repair, in your instance, and with the least possible delay, the wrongs of fortune towards you." "Nay, sire," cried La Valliere, eagerly; "leave things, I beg, as they are now." "Is it possible! you refuse what I ought, and what I wish to do for you?" "All I desired has been granted me, when the honor was conferred upon me of forming one of Madame's household." "But if you refuse for yourself, at least accept for your family." "Your generous intentions, sire, bewilder me and make me apprehensive, for, in doing for my family what your kindness urges you to do, your majesty will raise up enemies for us, and enemies for yourself, too. Leave me in the ranks of middle life, sire; of all the feelings and sentiments I experience, leave me to enjoy the pleasing instinct of disinterestedness." "The sentiments you express," said the king, "are indeed admirable." "Quite true," murmured Aramis in Fouquet's ear, "and he cannot be accustomed to them." "But," replied Fouquet, "suppose she were to make a similar reply to my letter." "True!" said Aramis, "let us not anticipate, but wait the conclusion." "And then, dear Monsieur d'Herblay," added the superintendent, hardly able to appreciate the sentiments which La Valliere had just expressed, "it is very often sound calculation to seem disinterested with monarchs." "Exactly what I was thinking this very minute," said Aramis. "Let us listen." The king approached nearer to La Valliere, and as the rain dripped more and more through the foliage of the oak, he held his hat over the head of the young girl, who raised her beautiful blue eyes towards the royal hat which sheltered her, and shook her head, sighing deeply as she did so. "What melancholy thought," said the king, "can possibly reach your heart when I place mine as a rampart before it?" "I will tell you, sire. I had already once before broached this question, which is so difficult for a young girl of my age to discuss, but your majesty imposed silence on me. Your majesty belongs not to yourself alone: you are married; and every sentiment which would separate your majesty from the queen, in leading you to take notice of me, will be a source of profoundest sorrow for the queen." The king endeavored to interrupt the young girl, but she continued with a suppliant gesture. "The Queen Maria, with an attachment which can be well understood, follows with her eyes every step of your majesty which separates you from her. Happy enough in having had her fate united to your own, she weepingly implores Heaven to preserve you to her, and is jealous of the faintest throb of your heart bestowed elsewhere." The king again seemed anxious to speak, but again did La Valliere venture to prevent him. - "Would it not, therefore, be a most blamable action," she continued, "if your majesty, a witness of this anxious and disinterested affection, gave the queen any cause for jealousy? Forgive me, sire, for the expressions I have used. I well know it is impossible, or rather that it would be impossible, that the greatest queen of the whole world could be jealous of a poor girl like myself. But though a queen, she is still a woman, and her heart, like that of the rest of her sex, cannot close itself against the suspicions which such as are evilly disposed, insinuate. For Heaven's sake, sire, think no more of me; I am unworthy of your regard."
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