convincing them; but, at the present moment, without utterly condemning myself, I declare it to be superior to the non-complex coquetry of Montalais." And the two young girls began to laugh. La Valliere alone preserved silence, and quietly shook her head. Then, a moment after, she added, "If you were to tell me, in the presence of a man, but a fourth part of what you have just said, or even if I were assured that you think it, I should die of shame and grief where I am now." "Very well; die, poor tender little darling," replied Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente; "for if there are no men here, there are at least two women, your own friends, who declare you to be attained and convicted of being a coquette from instinct; in other words, the most dangerous kind of coquette the world possesses." "Oh! mesdemoiselles," replied La Valliere, blushing, and almost ready to weep. Her two companions again burst out laughing. "Very well! I will ask Bragelonne to tell me." "Bragelonne?" said Athenais. "Yes! Bragelonne, who is as courageous as Caesar, and as clever and witty as M. Fouquet. Poor fellow! for twelve years he has known you, loved you, and yet - one can hardly believe it - he has never even kissed the tips of your fingers." "Tell us the reason of this cruelty, you who are all heart," said Athenais to La Valliere. "Let me explain it by a single word - virtue. You will perhaps deny the existence of virtue?" "Come, Louise, tell us the truth," said Aure, taking her by the hand. "What do you wish me to tell you?" cried La Valliere. "Whatever you like; but it will be useless for you to say anything, for I persist in my opinion of you. A coquette from instinct; in other words, as I have already said, and I say it again, the most dangerous of all coquettes." "Oh! no, no; for pity's sake do not believe that!" "What! twelve years of extreme severity." "How can that be, since twelve years ago I was only five years old? The frivolity of the child cannot surely be placed to the young girl's account." "Well! you are now seventeen; three years instead of twelve. During those three years you have remained constantly and unchangeably cruel. Against you are arrayed the silent shades of Blois, the meetings when you diligently conned the stars together, the evening wanderings beneath the plantain-trees, his impassioned twenty years speaking to your fourteen summers, the fire of his glances addressed to yourself." "Yes, yes; but so it is!" "Impossible!" "But why impossible?" "Tell us something credible and we will believe you." "Yet, if you were to suppose one thing." "What is that?" "Suppose that I thought I was in love, and that I am not." "What! not in love!" "Well, then! if I have acted in a different manner to what others do when they are in love, it is because I do not love; and because my hour has not yet come." "Louise, Louise," said Montalais, "take care or I will remind you of the remark you made just now. Raoul is not here; do not overwhelm him while he is absent; be charitable, and if, on closer inspection, you think you do not love him, tell him so, poor fellow!" and she began to laugh. "Louise pitied M. de Guiche just now," said Athenais; "would it be possible to detect an explanation of her indifference for the one in this compassion for the other?" "Say what you please," said La Valliere, sadly; "upbraid me as you like, since you do not understand me." "Oh! oh!" replied Montalais, "temper, sorrow, tears; we are jesting, Louise, and are not, I assure you, quite the monsters you suppose. Look at the proud Athenais, as she is called; she does not love M. de Montespan, it is true, but she would be in despair if M. de Montespan did not continue to love her. Look at me; I laugh at M. Malicorne, but the poor fellow whom I laugh at knows precisely when he will be permitted to press his lips upon my hand. And yet the eldest of us is not twenty yet. What a future before us!" "Silly, silly girls!" murmured Louise. "You are quite right," said Montalais; "and you alone have spoken words of wisdom." "Certainly." "I do not dispute it," replied Athenais. "And so it is clear you do not love poor M. de Bragelonne?" "Perhaps she does," said Montalais; "she is not yet quite certain of it. But, in any case, listen, Athenais; if M. de Bragelonne is ever free, I will give you a little friendly advice." "What is that?" "To look at him well before you decide in favor of M. de Montespan." "Oh! in that way of considering the subject, M. de Bragelonne is not the only one whom one could look at with pleasure; M. de Guiche, for instance, has his value also." "He did not distinguish himself this evening," said Montalais; "and I know from very good authority that Madame thought him insupportable." "M. de Saint-Aignan produced a most brilliant effect, and I am sure that more than one person who saw him dance this evening will not soon forget him. Do you not think so, La Valliere?" "Why do you ask me? I did not see him, nor do I know him." "What! you did not see M. de Saint-Aignan? Don't you know him?" "No." "Come, come, do not affect a virtue more extravagantly excessive than our vanity! - you have eyes, I suppose?" "Excellent." "Then you must have seen all those who danced this evening." "Yes, nearly all." "That is a very impertinent 'nearly all' for somebody." "You must take it for what it is worth." "Very well; now, among all those gentlemen whom you saw, which do you prefer?" "Yes," said Montalais, "is it M. de Saint-Aignan, or M. de Guiche, or M. - " "I prefer no one; I thought them all about the same." "Do you mean, then, that among that brilliant assembly, the first court in the world, no one pleased you?" "I do not say that." "Tell us, then, who your ideal is?" "It is not an ideal being." "He exists, then?" "In very truth," exclaimed La Valliere, aroused and excited; "I cannot understand you at all. What! you who have a heart as I have, eyes as I have, and yet you speak of M. de Guiche, of M. de Saint-Aignan, when the king was there." These words, uttered in a precipitate manner, and in an agitated, fervid tone of voice, made her two companions, between whom she was seated, exclaim in a manner that terrified her, "_The king!_" La Valliere buried her face in her hands. "Yes," she murmured; "the king! the king! Have you ever seen any one to be compared to the king?" "You were right just now in saying you had excellent eyes, Louise, for you see a great distance; too far, indeed. Alas! the king is not one upon whom our poor eyes have a right to hinge themselves." "That is too true," cried La Valliere; "it is not the privilege of all eyes to gaze upon the sun; but I will look upon him, even were I to be blinded in doing so." At this moment, and as though caused by the words which had just escaped La Valliere's lips, a rustling of leaves, and of what sounded like some silken material, was heard behind the adjoining bushes. The young girls hastily rose, almost terrified out of their senses. They distinctly saw the leaves move, without being able to see what it was that stirred them. "It is a wolf or a wild boar," cried Montalais; "fly! fly!" The three girls, in the extremity of terror, fled by the first path that presented itself, and did not stop until they had reached the verge of the wood. There, breathless, leaning against each other, feeling their hearts throb wildly, they endeavored to collect their senses, but could only succeed in doing so after the lapse of some minutes. Perceiving at last the lights from the windows of the chateau, they decided to walk towards them. La Valliere was exhausted with fatigue, and Aure and Athenais were obliged to support her. "We have escaped well," said Montalais. "I am greatly afraid," said La Valliere, "that it was something worse than a wolf. For my part, and I speak as I think, I should have preferred to have run the risk of being devoured alive by some wild animal than to have been listened to and overheard. Fool, fool that I am! How could I have thought, how could I have said what I did?" And saying this her head bowed like the water tossed plume of a bulrush; she felt her limbs fail, and her strength abandoning her, and, gliding almost inanimate from the arms of her companions, sank down upon the turf. Chapter XLII: The King's Uneasiness. Let us leave poor La Valliere, who had fainted in the arms of her two companions, and return to the precincts of the royal oak. The young girls had hardly run twenty paces, when the sound which had so much alarmed them was renewed among the branches. A man's figure might indistinctly be perceived, and putting the branches of the bushes aside, he appeared upon the verge of the wood, and perceiving that the place was empty, burst out into a peal of laughter. It is almost superfluous to add that the form in question was that of a young and handsome cavalier, who immediately made a sign to another, who thereupon made his appearance. "What, sire," said the second figure, advancing timidly, "has your majesty put our young sentimentalists to flight?" "It seems so," said the king, "and you can show yourself without fear." "Take care, sire, you will be recognized." "But I tell you they are flown." "This is a most fortunate meeting, sire; and, if I dared offer an opinion to your majesty, we ought to follow them." "They are far enough away by this time." "They would quickly allow themselves to be overtaken, especially if they knew who were following them." "What do you mean by that, coxcomb that you are?" "Why, one of them seems to have taken a fancy to me, and another compared you to the sun." "The greater reason why we should not show ourselves, Saint-Aignan. The sun never shows itself in the night-time." "Upon my word, sire, your majesty seems to have very little curiosity. In your place, I should like to know who are the two nymphs, the two dryads, the two hamadryads, who have so good an opinion of us."
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