MADEMOISELLE DE LA VALLIÈRE
We wandered through the salons, the Marquis and I. It was no easy matter to find a friend in rooms so crowded.
"Stay here," said the Marquis, "I have thought of a way of finding him. Besides, his jealousy may have warned him that there is no particular advantage to be gained by presenting you to his wife; I had better go and reason with him, as you seem to wish an introduction so very much."
This occurred in the room that is now called the "Salon d'Apollon." The paintings remained in my memory, and my adventure of that evening was destined to occur there.
I sat down upon a sofa, and looked about me. Three or four persons beside myself were seated on this roomy piece of gilded furniture. They were chatting all very gaily; all—except the person who sat next me, and she was a lady. Hardly two feet interposed between us. The lady sat apparently in a reverie. Nothing could be more graceful. She wore the costume perpetuated in Collignan's full-length portrait of Mademoiselle de la Valière. It is, as you know, not only rich, but elegant. Her hair was powdered, but one could perceive that it was naturally a dark brown. One pretty little foot appeared, and could anything be more exquisite than her hand?
It was extremely provoking that this lady wore her mask, and did not, as many did, hold it for a time in her hand.
I was convinced that she was pretty. Availing myself of the privilege of a masquerade, a microcosm in which it is impossible, except by voice and allusion, to distinguish friend from foe, I spoke:
"It is not easy, Mademoiselle, to deceive me," I began.
"So much the better for Monsieur," answered the mask, quietly.
"I mean," I said, determined to tell my fib, "that beauty is a gift more difficult to conceal than Mademoiselle supposes."
"Yet Monsieur has succeeded very well," she said in the same sweet and careless tones.
"I see the costume of this, the beautiful Mademoiselle de la Valière, upon a form that surpasses her own; I raise my eyes, and I behold a mask, and yet I recognize the lady; beauty is like that precious stone in the 'Arabian Nights,' which emits, no matter how concealed, a light that betrays it."
"I know the story," said the young lady. "The light betrayed it, not in the sun but in darkness. Is there so little light in these rooms, Monsieur, that a poor glowworm can show so brightly? I thought we were in a luminous atmosphere, wherever a certain Countess moved?"
Here was an awkward speech! How was I to answer? This lady might be, as they say some ladies are, a lover of mischief, or an intimate of the Countess de St. Alyre. Cautiously, therefore, I inquired,
"If you know me, you must know that she is my dearest friend. Is she not beautiful?"
"How can I answer, there are so many countesses."
"Everyone who knows me, knows who my best beloved friend is. You don't know me?"
"That is cruel. I can scarcely believe I am mistaken."
"With whom were you walking, just now?" she asked.
"A gentleman, a friend," I answered.
"I saw him, of course, a friend; but I think I know him, and should like to be certain. Is he not a certain Marquis?"
Here was another question that was extremely awkward.
"There are so many people here, and one may walk, at one time with one, and at another with a different one, that—"
"That an unscrupulous person has no difficulty in evading a simple question like mine. Know then, once for all, that nothing disgusts a person of spirit so much as suspicion. You, Monsieur, are a gentleman of discretion. I shall respect you accordingly."
"Mademoiselle would despise me, were I to violate a confidence."
"But you don't deceive me. You imitate your friend's diplomacy. I hate diplomacy. It means fraud and cowardice. Don't you think I know him? The gentleman with the cross of white ribbon on his breast? I know the Marquis d'Harmonville perfectly. You see to what good purpose your ingenuity has been expended."
"To that conjecture I can answer neither yes nor no."
"You need not. But what was your motive in mortifying a lady?"
"It is the last thing on earth I should do."
"You affected to know me, and you don't; through caprice, or listlessness, or curiosity, you wished to converse, not with a lady, but with a costume. You admired, and you pretend to mistake me for another. But who is quite perfect? Is truth any longer to be found on earth?"
"Mademoiselle has formed a mistaken opinion of me."
"And you also of me; you find me less foolish than you supposed. I know perfectly whom you intend amusing with compliments and melancholy declamation, and whom, with that amiable purpose, you have been seeking."
"Tell me whom you mean," I entreated. "Upon one condition."
"What is that?"
"That you will confess if I name the lady."
"You describe my object unfairly," I objected. "I can't admit that I proposed speaking to any lady in the tone you describe."
"Well, I shan't insist on that; only if I name the lady, you will promise to admit that I am right."
"Must I promise?"
"Certainly not, there is no compulsion; but your promise is the only condition on which I will speak to you again."
I hesitated for a moment; but how could she possibly tell? The Countess would scarcely have admitted this little romance to anyone; and the mask in the La Vallière costume could not possibly know who the masked domino beside her was.
"I consent," I said, "I promise."
"You must promise on the honor of a gentleman."
"Well, I do; on the honor of a gentleman."
"Then this lady is the Countess de St. Alyre."
I was unspeakably surprised; I was disconcerted; but I remembered my promise, and said:
"The Countess de St. Alyre is, unquestionably, the lady to whom I hoped for an introduction tonight; but I beg to assure you, also on the honor of a gentleman, that she has not the faintest imaginable suspicion that I was seeking such an honor, nor, in all probability, does she remember that such a person as I exists. I had the honor to render her and the Count a trifling service, too trifling, I fear, to have earned more than an hour's recollection."
"The world is not so ungrateful as you suppose; or if it be, there are, nevertheless, a few hearts that redeem it. I can answer for the Countess de St. Alyre, she never forgets a kindness. She does not show all she feels; for she is unhappy, and cannot."
"Unhappy! I feared, indeed, that might be. But for all the rest that you are good enough to suppose, it is but a flattering dream."
"I told you that I am the Countess's friend, and being so I must know something of her character; also, there are confidences between us, and I may know more than you think of those trifling services of which you suppose the recollection is so transitory."
I was becoming more and more interested. I was as wicked as other young men, and the heinousness of such a pursuit was as nothing, now that self-love and all the passions that mingle in such a romance were roused. The image of the beautiful Countess had now again quite superseded the pretty counterpart of La Vallièe, who was before me. I would have given a great deal to hear, in solemn earnest, that she did remember the champion who, for her sake, had thrown himself before the saber of an enraged dragoon, with only a cudgel in his hand, and conquered.
"You say the Countess is unhappy," said I. "What causes her unhappiness?"
"Many things. Her husband is old, jealous, and tyrannical. Is not that enough? Even when relieved from his society, she is lonely."
"But you are her friend?" I suggested.
"And you think one friend enough?" she answered; "she has one alone, to whom she can open her heart."
"Is there room for another friend?"
"How can I find a way?"
"She will aid you."
She answered by a question. "Have you secured rooms in either of the hotels of Versailles?"
"No, I could not. I am lodged in the Dragon Volant, which stands at the verge of the grounds of the Château de la Carque."
"That is better still. I need not ask if you have courage for an adventure. I need not ask if you are a man of honor. A lady may trust herself to you, and fear nothing. There are few men to whom the interview, such as I shall arrange, could be granted with safety. You shall meet her at two o'clock this morning in the Park of the Château de la Carque. What room do you occupy in the Dragon Volant?"
I was amazed at the audacity and decision of this girl. Was she, as we say in England, hoaxing me?
"I can describe that accurately," said I. "As I look from the rear of the house, in which my apartment is, I am at the extreme right, next the angle; and one pair of stairs up, from the hall."
"Very well; you must have observed, if you looked into the park, two or three clumps of chestnut and lime trees, growing so close together as to form a small grove. You must return to your hotel, change your dress, and, preserving a scrupulous secrecy as to why or where you go, leave the Dragon Volant, and climb the park wall, unseen; you will easily recognize the grove I have mentioned; there you will meet the Countess, who will grant you an audience of a few minutes, who will expect the most scrupulous reserve on your part, and who will explain to you, in a few words, a great deal which I could not so well tell you here."
I cannot describe the feeling with which I heard these words. I was astounded. Doubt succeeded. I could not believe these agitating words.
"Mademoiselle will believe that if I only dared assure myself that so great a happiness and honor were really intended for me, my gratitude would be as lasting as my life. But how dare I believe that Mademoiselle does not speak, rather from her own sympathy or goodness, than from a certainty that the Countess de St. Alyre would concede so great an honor?"
"Monsieur believes either that I am not, as I pretend to be, in the secret which he hitherto supposed to be shared by no one but the Countess and himself, or else that I am cruelly mystifying him. That I am in her confidence, I swear by all that is dear in a whispered farewell. By the last companion of this flower!" and she took for a moment in her fingers the nodding head of a white rosebud that was nestled in her bouquet. "By my own good star, and hers—or shall I call it our 'belle étoile?' Have I said enough?"
"Enough?" I repeated, "more than enough—a thousand thanks."
"And being thus in her confidence, I am clearly her friend; and being a friend would it be friendly to use her dear name so; and all for sake of practicing a vulgar trick upon you—a stranger?"
"Mademoiselle will forgive me. Remember how very precious is the hope of seeing, and speaking to the Countess. Is it wonderful, then, that I should falter in my belief? You have convinced me, however, and will forgive my hesitation."
"You will be at the place I have described, then, at two o'clock?"
"Assuredly," I answered.
"And Monsieur, I know, will not fail through fear. No, he need not assure me; his courage is already proved."
"No danger, in such a case, will be unwelcome to me."
"Had you not better go now, Monsieur, and rejoin your friend?"
"I promised to wait here for my friend's return. The Count de St. Alyre said that he intended to introduce me to the Countess."
"And Monsieur is so simple as to believe him?"
"Why should I not?"
"Because he is jealous and cunning. You will see. He will never introduce you to his wife. He will come here and say he cannot find her, and promise another time."
"I think I see him approaching, with my friend. No—there is no lady with him."
"I told you so. You will wait a long time for that happiness, if it is never to reach you except through his hands. In the meantime, you had better not let him see you so near me. He will suspect that we have been talking of his wife; and that will whet his jealousy and his vigilance."
I thanked my unknown friend in the mask, and withdrawing a few steps, came, by a little "circumbendibus," upon the flank of the Count. I smiled under my mask as he assured me that the Duchess de la Roqueme had changed her place, and taken the Countess with her; but he hoped, at some very early time, to have an opportunity of enabling her to make my acquaintance.
I avoided the Marquis d'Harmonville, who was following the Count. I was afraid he might propose accompanying me home, and had no wish to be forced to make an explanation.
I lost myself quickly, therefore, in the crowd, and moved, as rapidly as it would allow me, toward the Galerie des Glaces, which lay in the direction opposite to that in which I saw the Count and my friend the Marquis moving.