The Man in the Iron Mask
By Alexandre Dumas, Pere
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The Man in the Iron Mask
By Dumas, Alexandre
Tor ClassicsCopyright © 1998 Dumas, Alexandre
All right reserved.
Since Aramis' singular transformation into a confessor of the order, Baisemeaux was no longer the same man. Up to that period, the place which Aramis had held in the worthy governor's estimation was that of a prelate whom he respected and a friend to whom he owned a debt of gratitude; but now he felt himself an inferior, and that Aramis was his master. He himself lighted a lantern, summoned a turnkey, and said, returning to Aramis:
"I am at your orders, monseigneur.?"
Aramis merely nodded his head, as much to say, "Very good," and signed to him with his hand to lead the way. Baisemeaux advanced, and Aramis followed him. It was a beautiful starry night; the steps of three men resounded on the flags of the terraces, and the clinking of the keys hanging from the jailer's girdle made itself heard up to the stories of the towers, as if to remind the prisoners that liberty was out of their reach. It might have been said that the alteration effected in Baisemeaux had extended itself even to the prisoners. The turnkey, the same who, on Aramis' first arrival, had shown himself so inquisitive and curious, had now become not only silent, but even impassible. He held his head down, and seemed afraid to keep his ears open. In this wise they reached the basement of the Bertaudiere, the two first stories of which were mountedsilently and somewhat slowly; for Baisemeaux, though far from disobeying, was far from exhibiting any eagerness to obey. On arriving at the door Baisemeaux showed a disposition to enter the prisoner's chamber; but Aramis, stopping him on the threshold, said:
"The rules do not allow the governor to hear the prisoner's confession.?"
Baisemeaux bowed, and made way for Aramis, who took the lantern and entered; and then signed to them to close the door behind him. For an instant he remained standing, listening whether Baisemeaux and the turnkey had retired; but as soon as he was assured by the sound of their dying footsteps that they had left the tower, he put the lantern on the table and gazed around. On a bed of green serge, similar in all respects to the other beds in the Bastile, save that it was newer, and under curtains half-drawn, reposed a young man, to whom we have already once before introduced Aramis. According to custom, the prisoner was without a light. At the hour of curfew he was bound to extinguish his lamp, and we perceive how much he was favored in being allowed to keep it burning, even till then. Near the bed a large leather armchair, with twisted legs, sustained his clothes. A little table--without pens, books, paper, or ink--stood neglected in sadness near the window; while several plates, still unemptied, showed that the prisoner had scarcely touched his recent repast. Aramis saw that the young man was stretched upon his bed, his face half-concealed by his arms. The arrival of a visitor did not cause any change of position; either he was waiting in expectation or was asleep. Aramis lighted the candle from the lantern, pushed back the armchair, and approached the bed with an evident mixture of interest and respect. The young man raised his head.
"What is it?" said he.
"Have you not desired a confessor?" replied Aramis.
"Because you are ill?"
The young man gave Aramis a piercing glance, and answered:
"I thank you." After a moment's silence, "I have seen you before," he continued.
Doubtless, the scruitiny the prisoner had just made of the cold, crafty, and imperious character stamped upon the features of the bishop of Vannes was little reassuring to one in his situation, for he added:
"I am better."
"And then?" said Aramis.
"Why, then, being better, I have no longer the same need of a confessor, I think."
"Not even of the haircloth, which the note you found in your bread informed you of?"
The young man started; but before he had either assented or denied, Aramis continued:
"Not even of the ecclesiastic from whom you were to hear an important revelation?"
"If it be so," said the young man, sinking again on his pillow, "it is different; I listen."
Aramis then looked at him more closely, and was struck with the easy majesty of his mien, one which can never be acquired unless Heaven has implanted it in the blood or heart.
"Sit down, monsieur," said the prisoner. Aramis bowed, and obeyed.
"How does the Bastile agree with you?" asked the bishop.
"You do not suffer?"
"You have nothing to regret?"
"Not even your liberty?"
"What do you call liberty, monsieur?" asked the prisoner, with the tone of a man who is preparing for a struggle.
"I call liberty the flowers, the air, light, the stars, the happiness of going whithersoever the nervous limbs of twenty years of age may wish to carry you."
The young man smiled, whether in resignation or con- tempt it was difficult to tell.
"Look," said he, "I have in that Japanese vase two roses gathered yesterday evening in the bud from the governor's garden; this morning they have blown and spread their vermilion chalice beneath my gaze; with every opening petal they unfold the treasures of their perfume, filling my chamber with a fragrance that embalms it. Look, now, on these two roses; even among roses these are beautiful, and the rose is the most beautiful of flowers. Why, then, do you bid me desire other flowers when I possess die loveliest of all?"
Aramis gazed at the young man in surprise.
"If flowers constitute liberty," sadly resumed the captive, "I am free, for I possess them."
"But the air!" cried Aramis; "air so necessary to life!"
"Well, monsieur," returned the prisoner, "draw near to the window; it is open. Between heaven and earth the wind whirls on its storms of hail and lightning, wafts its warm mists, or breathes in gentle breezes. It caresses my face. When mounted on the back of this armchair, with my arm around the bars of the window to sustain myself, I fancy I am swimming in the wide expanse before me."
The countenance of Aramis darkened as the young man continued:
"Light I have; what is better than light? I have the sun, a friend who comes to visit me every day, without the permission of the governor or the jailer's company. He comes in at the window, and traces in my room a square the shape of the window, and which lights up the hangings of my bed down to the border. This luminous square increases from ten o'clock till midday, and decreases from one till three slowly, as if, having hastened to come, it sorrowed at leaving me. When its last ray disappears I have enjoyed its presence for four hours. Is not that sufficient? I have been told that there are unhappy beings who dig in quarries, and laborers who toil in mines, and who never behold it at all."
Aramis wiped the drops from his brow.
"As to the stars, which are so delightful to view," continued the young man, "they all resemble one another, save in size and brilliancy. I am a favored mortal, for if you had not lighted that candle you would have been able to see the beautiful stars which I was gazing at from my couch before your arrival, and whose rays were playing over my eyes."
Aramis lowered his head; he felt himself overwhelmed with the bitter flow of that sinister philosophy which is the religion of the captive.
"So much, then, for the flowers, the air, the daylight, and the stars," tranquilly continued the man; "there remains but my exercise. Do I not walk all day in the governor's garden if it is fine--here if it rains? in the fresh air if it is warm; in the warm, thanks to my winter stove, if it be cold? Ah, monsieur, do you fancy," continued the prisoner, not without bitterness, "that men have not done everything for me that a man can hope for or desire?"
"Men!" said Aramis. "Be it so; but it seems to me you forget Heaven."
"Indeed I have forgotten Heaven," murmured the prisoner, with emotion; "but why do you mention it? Of what use is it to talk to a prisoner of Heaven?"
Aramis looked steadily at this singular youth, who possessed the resignation of a martyr with the smile of an atheist.
"Is not Heaven in everything?" he murmured, in a reproachful tone.
"Say, rather, at the end of everything," answered the prisoner firmly.
"Be it so," said Aramis; "but let us return to our starting-point."
"I desire nothing better," returned the young man.
"I am your confessor."
"Well, then, you ought, as a penitent, to tell me the truth."
"All that I wish is to tell it you."
"Every prisoner has committed some crime for which he has been imprisoned. What crime, then, have you committed?"
"You asked me the same question the first time you saw me," returned the prisoner.
"And then, as now, you evaded giving me an answer."
"And what reason have you for thinking that I shall now reply to you?"
"Because this time I am your confessor."
"Then, if you wish me to tell what crime I have committed, explain to me in what a crime consists. For as my conscience does not accuse me, I aver that I am not a criminal."
"We are often criminals in the sight of the great of the earth, not alone for having ourselves committed crimes, but because we know that crimes have been committed."
The prisoner manifested the deepest attention.
"Yes, I understand you," he said, after a pause; "yes, you are right, monsieur; it is very possible that in that light I am a criminal in the eyes of the great of the earth."
"Ah! then you know something," said Aramis, who thought he had pierced not merely through a defect in, but through the joints of the harness.
"No, I am not aware of anything," replied the young
man; "but sometimes I think--and I say to myself--"
"What do you say to yourself?"
"That if I were to think any further I should either go mad or I should divine a great deal."
"And then--and then?" said Aramis impatiently.
"Then I leave off."
"You leave off?"
"Yes; my head becomes confused, and my ideas melancholy; I feel ennui overtaking me; I wish--"
"I don't know; but I do not like to give myself up to longing for things which I do not possess, when I am so happy with what I have."
"You are afraid of death?" said Aramis, with a slight uneasiness.
"Yes," said the young man, smiling.
Aramis felt the chill of that smile, and shuddered.
"Oh, as you fear death, you know more about matters than you say," he cried.
"And you," returned the prisoner, "who bid me to ask to see you; you, who, when I did ask to see you, came here promising a world of confidence; how is it that, nevertheless, it is you who are silent, and 'tis I who speak? Since, then, we both wear masks, either let us both retain them or put them aside together."
Aramis felt the force and justice of the remark, saying to himself:
"This is no ordinary man; I must be cautious. Are you ambitious?" said he suddenly to the prisoner, aloud, without preparing him for the alteration.
"What do you mean by ambition?" replied the youth.
"It is," replied Aramis, "a feeling which prompts a man to desire more than he has."
"I said'that I was contented, monsieur; but, perhaps, I deceive myself. I am ignorant of the nature of ambition; but it is not impossible I may have some. Tell me your mind; 'tis all I wish."
"An ambitious man," said Aramis, "is one who covets what is beyond his station."
"I covet nothing beyond my station," said the young man, with an assurance of manner which for the second time made the bishop of Vannes tremble.
He was silent. But, to look at the kindling eye, the knitted brow, and the reflective attitude of the captive, it was evident that he expected something more than silence--a silence which Aramis now broke.
"You lied the first time I saw you," said he.
"Lied!" cried the young man, starting up on his couch, with such a tone in his voice, and such a lightning in his eyes, that Aramis recoiled in spite of himself.
"I should say," returned Aramis, bowing, "you concealed from me what you knew of your infancy."
"A man's secrets are his own, monsieur," retorted the prisoner, "and not at the mercy of the first chance comer."
"True," said Aramis, bowing still lower than before, "'tis true. Pardon me, but today, do I still occupy the place of a chance comer? I beseech you to reply, monseigneur."
This title slightly disturbed the prisoner; but nevertheless he did not appear astonished that it was given him.
"I do not know you, monsieur," said he.
"Oh, if I but dared, I would take your hand and would kiss it!"
The young man seemed as if he were going to give Aramis his hand; but the light which beamed in his eyes faded away and he coldly and distrustfully withdrew his hand again.
"Kiss the hand of a prisoner," he said, shaking his head; "to what purpose?"
"Why did you tell me," said Aramis, "that you were happy here? Why, that you aspired to nothing? Why, in a word, by thus speaking, do you prevent me from being frank in my turn?"
The same light shone a third time in the young man's eyes, but died ineffectually away as before.
"You distrust me," said Aramis.
"And why say you so, monsieur?"
"Oh, for a very simple reason; if you know what you ought to know, you ought to mistrust everybody."
"Then be not astonished that I am mistrustful, since you suspect me of knowing what I know not."
Aramis was struck with admiration at this energetic resistance.
"Oh, monsieur, you drive me to despair!" said he, striking the armchair with his fist.
"And, on my part, I do not comprehend you, monsieur."
"Well, then, try to understand me."
The prisoner looked fixedly at Aramis.
"Sometimes it seems to me," said the latter, "that I have before me the man whom I seek, and then--"
"And then your man disappears--is it not so?" said the prisoner, smiling. "So much the better."
"Certainly," said he; "I have nothing further to say to a man who mistrusts me as you do."
"And I, monsieur," said the prisoner, in the same tone, "have nothing to say to a man who will not understand that a prisoner ought to be mistrustful of everybody."
"Even of his old friends," said Aramis. "Oh, monseigneur, you are too prudent!"
"Of my old friends?--you one of my old friends-- you?"
"Do you no longer remember," said Aramis, "that you once saw, in the village where your early years were spent--"
"Do you know the name of the village?" asked the prisoner.
"Noisy-le-Sec, monseigneur," answered Aramis firmly.
"Go on," said the young man, with an immovable aspect.
"Stay, monseigneur," said Aramis; "if you are positively resolved to carry on this game, let us break off. I am here to tell you many things, 'tis true; but you must allow me to see that, on your side, you have a desire to know them. Before revealing the important matters I conceal, be assured I am in need of some encouragement, if not candor; a little sympathy, if not confidence. But you keep yourself intrenched in a pretended ignorance which paralyzes me. Oh, not for the reason you think; for, ignorant as you may be, or indifferent as you feign to be, you are none the less what you are, monseigneur, and there is nothing--nothing, mark me--which can cause you not to be so."
"I promise you," replied the prisoner, "to hear you without impatience. Only it appears to me that I have a right to repeat the question I have already asked--'Who are you?'"
"Do you remember, fifteen or eighteen years ago, seeing at Noisy-le-Sec a cavalier, accompanied by a lady in black silk, with flame-colored ribbons in her hair?"
"Yes," said the young man; "I once asked the name of this cavalier, and they told me he called himself the Abbé d'Herblay. I was astonished that the abbé had so warlike an air, and they replied that there was nothing singular in that, seeing that he was one of Louis XIII's musketeers."
"Well," said Aramis, "that musketeer and abbé, afterward bishop of Vannes, is your confessor now."
"I know it; I recognized you."
"Then, monseigneur, if you know that, I must further add a fact of which you are ignorant--that if the king were to know this evening of the presence of this musketeer, this abbé, this bishop, this confessor, here--he, who has risked everything to visit you, would to-morrow see glitter the executioner's ax at the bottom of a dungeon more gloomy and more obscure than yours."
While hearing these words, delivered with emphasis, the young man had raised himself on his couch, and gazed more and more eagerly at Aramis.
The result of his scrutiny was that he appeared to derive some confidence from it.
"Yes," he murmured, "I remember perfectly. The woman of whom you speak came once with you, and twice afterward with another."
"With another woman, who came to see you every month--is it not so, monseigneur?"
"Do you know who this lady was?"
The light seemed ready to flash from the prisoner's eyes.
"I am aware that she was one of the ladies of the court," he said.
"You remember that lady well, do you not?"
"Oh, my recollection can hardly be very confused on this head," said the young prisoner. "I saw that lady once with a gentleman about forty-five years old. I saw her once with you, and with the lady dressed in black. I have seen her twice since with the same person. These four people, with my master, and old Perronnette, my jailer, and the governor of the prison, are the only persons with whom I have ever spoken, and, indeed, almost the only persons I have ever seen."
"Then, you were in prison?"
"If I am a prisoner here, there I was comparatively free, although in a very narrow sense--a house which I never quitted, a garden surrounded with walls I could not clear, these constituted my residence; but you know it, as you have been there. In a word, being accustomed to live within these bounds, I never cared to leave them. And so you will understand, monsieur, that, not having seen anything of the world, I have nothing left to care for; and, therefore, if you relate anything, you will be obliged to explain everything to me."
"And I will do so," said Aramis, bowing, "for it is my duty, monseigneur."
"Well, then, begin by telling me who was my tutor."
"A worthy and, above all, an honorable gentleman, monseigneur; fit guide both for body and soul. Had you ever any reason to complain of him?"
"Oh, no; quite the contrary. But this gentleman of yours often used to tell me that my father and mother were dead. Did he deceive me, or did he speak the truth?"
"He was compelled to comply with the orders given him."
"Then he lied?"
"In one respect. Your father is dead."
"And my mother?"
"She is dead for you."
"But, then, she lives for others, does she not?"
"And I--I, then" (the young man looked sharply at Aramis), "am compelled to live in the obscurity of a prison?"
"Alas! I fear so."
"And that, because my presence in the world would lead to the revelation of a great secret?"
"Certainly, a very great secret."
"My enemy must indeed be powerful, to be able to shut up in the Bastile a child such as I then was."
"More powerful than my mother, then?"
"And why do you ask that?"
"Because my mother would have taken my part."
"Yes, monseigneur; more powerful than your mother."
"Seeing, then, that my nurse and preceptor were carried off, and that I, also, was separated from them--either they were, or I am, very dangerous to my enemy?"
"Yes; a peril from which he freed himself, by causing the nurse and preceptor to disappear," answered Aramis quietly.
"Disappear!" cried the prisoner--"but how did they disappear?"
"In the surest possible way," answered Aramis--"they are dead."
The young man turned visibly pale, and passed his hand tremblingly over his face.
"From poison?" he asked.
The prisoner reflected a moment.
"My enemy must, indeed, have been very cruel, or hard beset by necessity, to assassinate those two innocent people, my sole support; for the worthy gentleman and the poor nurse had never harmed a living being."
"In your family, monseigneur, necessity is stern. And so it is necessity which compels me, to my great regret, to tell you that this gentleman and the unhappy lady have been assassinated?.r;
"Oh, you tell me nothing I am not aware of," said the prisoner, knitting his brows.
"I suspected it."
"I will tell you."
At this moment the young man, supporting himself on his two elbows, drew close to Aramis' face, with such an expression of dignity, of self-command, and of dof enthusiasm strike in devouring flashes from that sacred heart of his into his brain of adamant.
"Speak, monseigneur. I have already told you that by conversing with you I endanger my life. Little value as it has, I implore you to accept it as the ransom of your own."
"Well," resumed the young man, "this is why I suspected that they killed my nurse and my preceptor."
"Whom you used to call your father?"
"Yes; whom I called my father, but whose son I well knew I was not."
"Who caused you to suppose so?"
"For the same reason that you, monsieur, are too respectful for a friend, he was also too respectful for a father."
"I, however," said Aramis, "have no intention to disguise myself."
The young man nodded assent, and continued:
"Undoubtedly, I was not destined to perpetual seclusion," said the prisoner; "and that which makes me believe so, above all, now, is the care that was taken to render me as accomplished a cavalier as possible. The gentleman attached to my person taught me everything he knew him self--mathematics, a little geometry, astronomy, fencing, and riding. Every morning I went through military exercises, and practiced on horseback. Well, one morning, during summer, it being very hot, I went to sleep in the hall. Nothing up to that period, except the respect paid me, had enlightened me, or even roused my suspicions. I lived as children, as birds, as plants, as the air and the sun do. I had just turned my fifteenth year--"
"This, then, is eight years ago?"
"Yes, nearly; but I have ceased to reckon time."
"Excuse me; but what did your tutor tell you to encourage you to work?"
"He used to say that a man was bound to make for himself, in the world, that fortune which Heaven had refused him at his birth. He added, that, being a poor, obscure orphan, I had no one but myself to look to; and that nobody either did, or ever would, take any interest in me. I was then in the hall I have spoken of, asleep from fatigue in fencing. My preceptor was in his room on the first floor, just over me. Suddenly I heard him exclaim, and then he called: 'Perronnette! Perronnette!' It was my nurse whom he called."
"Yes, I know it," said Aramis. "Continue, monseigneur."
"Very likely she was in the garden, for my preceptor came hastily downstairs. I rose, anxious at seeing him anxious. He opened the garden-door, still crying out, 'Perronnette! Perronnette!' The windows of the hall looked into the court; the shutters were closed; but through a chink in them I saw my tutor draw near a large well, which was almost directly under the windows of his study. He stooped over the brim, looked into the well, again cried out, and made wild and affrighted gestures. Where I was, I could not only see, but hear--and see and hear I did."
"Go on, I pray you," said Aramis.
"Dame Perronnette came running up, hearing the governor's cries. He went to meet her, took her by the arm, and drew her quickly toward the edge; after which, as they both bent over it together, 'Look, look,' cried he, 'what a misfortune!'"
"'Calm yourself, calm yourself,' said Perronnette; 'what is the matter?'
"'The letter!' he exclaimed; 'do you see that letter?' pointing to the bottom of the well.
"'What letter?' she cried.
"'The letter you see down there; the last letter from the queen.'
"At this word I trembled. My tutor--he who passed for my father, he who was continually recommending me modesty and humility--in correspondence with the queen.
"'The queen's last letter!' cried Perronnette, without showing more astonishment than at seeing this letter at the bottom of the well; 'but how came it there?'
"'A chance, Dame Perronnette--a singular chance. I was entering my room, and on opening the door, the window, too, being open, a puff of air came suddenly and carried off this paper--this letter of her majesty's; I darted after it, and gained the window just in time to see it flutter a moment in the breeze and disappear down the well.'
"'Well,' said Dame Perronnette; 'and if the letter has fallen into the well 'tis all the same as if it was burned; as the queen burns all her letters every time she comes----'
"And so, you see, this lady who came every month was the queen," said the prisoner.
"'Doubtless, doubtless,' continued the old gentleman; 'but this letter contained instructions--how can I follow them?'
"'Write immediately to her; give her a plain account of the accident, and the queen will no doubt write you another letter in place of this.'
"'Oh! the queen would never believe the story,' said the good gentleman, shaking his head; 'she will imagine that I want to keep this letter instead of giving it up like the rest, so as to have a hold over her. She is so distrustful, and Monsieur de Mazarin so-- This devil of an Italian is capable of having us poisoned at the first breath of suspicion.'"
Aramis almost imperceptibly smiled.
"'You know, Dame Perronnette, they are both so suspicious in all that concerns Philippe.'
"'Philippe' was the name they gave me," said the prisoner.
"'Well, 'tis no use hesitating,' said Dame Perronnette, 'somebody must go down the well.'
"'Of course; so that the person who goes down may read the paper as he is coming up.'
"'But let us choose some villager who cannot read, and then you will be at ease.'
"'Granted; but will not any one who descends guess that a paper must be important for which we risk a man's life? However, you have given me an idea, Dame Perronnette; somebody shall go down the well, but that somebody shall be myself.'
"But at this notion Dame Perronnette lamented and cried in such a manner, and so implored the old nobleman, with tears in her eyes, that he promised her to obtain a ladder long enough to reach down, while she went in search of some stout-hearted youth, whom she was to persuade that a jewel had fallen into the well, and that this jewel was wrapped in a paper. 'And as paper,' remarked my preceptor, 'naturally unfolds in water, the young man would not be surprised at finding nothing, after all, but the letter wide open.'
"'But perhaps the writing will be already effaced by that time,' said Dame Perronnette.
"'No consequence, provided we secure the letter. On returning it to the queen she will see at once that we have not betrayed her; and, consequently, as we shall not rouse the distrust of Mazarin, we shall have nothing to fear from him.'
"Having come to this resolution, they parted. I pushed back the shutter, and, seeing that my tutor was about to re-enter, I threw myself on my couch, in a confusion of brain caused by all I had just heard. My governor opened the door a few moments after, and thinking I was asleep, gently closed it again. As soon as ever it was shut I rose, and listening, heard the sound of retiring footsteps. Then I returned to the shutter, and saw my tutor and Dame Perronnette go out together. I was alone in the house. They had hardly closed the gate before I sprang from the window and ran to the well. Then, just as my governor had leaned over, so leaned I. Something white and luminous glistened in the green and quivering ripples of the water. The brilliant disk fascinated and allured me; my eyes became fixed, and I could hardly breathe. The well seemed to draw me in with its large mouth and icy breath; and I thought I read, at the bottom of the water, characters of fire traced upon the letter the queen had touched. Then, scarcely knowing what I was about, and urged on by one of those instinctive impulses which drive men upon their destruction, I lowered the cord from the windlass of the well to within about three feet of the water, leaving the bucket dangling, and at the same time taking infinite pains not to disturb that coveted letter, which was beginning to change its white tint for a greenish hue-- proof enough that it was sinking--and then, with the rope weltering in my hands, slid down into the abyss. When I saw myself hanging over the dark pool, when I saw the sky lessening above my head, a cold shudder came over me, a chill fear got the better of me, I was seized with giddiness, and the hair rose on my head; but my strong will still reigned supreme over all the terror arid disquietude. I gained the water, and at once plunged into it, holding on by one hand, while I immersed the other and seized the dear letter, which, alas! came in two in my grasp. I concealed the two fragments in my body-coat, and, helping myself with my feet against the sides of the pit, and clinging on with my hands, agile and vigorous as I was, and, above all, pressed for time, I regained the brink, drenching it as I touched it with the water that streamed off me. I was no sooner out of the well with my prize than I rushed into the sunlight, and took refuge in a kind of shrubbery at the bottom of the garden. As I entered my hiding-place, the bell which resounded when the great gate was opened, rang. It was my preceptor come back again. I had but just time. I calculated that it would take ten minutes before he would gain my place of concealment, even if, guessing where I was, he came straight to it; and twenty if he were obliged to look for me. But this was time enough to allow me to read the cherished letter, whose fragments I hastened to unite again. The writing was already fading, but I managed to decipher it all?"
"And what read you there, monseigneur?" asked Aramis, deeply interested.
"Quite enough, monsieur, to see that my tutor was a man of noble rank, and that Perronnette, without being a lady of quality, was far better than a servant; and also to perceive that I must myself be high-born, since the queen, Anne of Austria, and Mazarin, the prime minister, commended me so earnestly to their care?"
Here the young man paused, quite overcome.
"And what happened?" asked Aramis.
"It happened, monsieur," answered he, "that the workmen they had summoned found nothing in the well, after the closest search; that my governor perceived that the brink was all watery; that I was not so dried by the sun as to escape Dame Perronnette's observing that my garments were moist; and, lastly, that I was seized with a violent fever, owing to the chill and the excitement of my discovery, an attack of delirium supervening, during which I related the whole adventure; so that, guided by my avowal, my governor found under the bolster the two pieces of the queen's letter?"
"Ah!" said Aramis, "now I understand?"
"Beyond this, all is conjecture. Doubtless the unfortunate lady and gentleman, not daring to keep the occurrence secret, wrote all to the queen, and sent back to her the torn
letter" "After which," said Aramis, "you were arrested and removed to the Bastile?" "As you see?"
"Then your two attendants disappeared?"
"Let us not take up our time with the dead, but see what
can be done with the living. You told me you were resigned"
"I repeat it?"
"Without any desire for freedom?"
"As I told you?"
"Without ambition, sorrow, or thought?"
The young man made no answer.
"Well," asked Aramis, "why are you silent?"
"I think I have spoken enough," answered the prisoner, "and that now it is your turn. I am weary?"
Aramis gathered himself up, and a shade of deep solemnity spread itself over his countenance. It was evident that he had reached the crisis in the part he had come to the prison to play.
"One question," said Aramis.
"What is it? Speak?"
"In the house you inhabited, there were neither looking-glasses nor mirrors?"
"What are those two words, and what is their meaning?"
asked the young man. "I have no sort of knowledge of
"They designate two pieces of furniture which reflect
objects; so that, for instance, you may see in them your own lineaments, as you see mine now, with the naked eye?"
"No; then there was neither a glass nor a mirror in the house," answered the young man.
Aramis looked round him.
"Nor is there here either," he said; "they have again
I taken the same precaution?"
"To what end?"
"You will know directly. Now, you have told me that you were instructed in mathematics, astronomy, fencing, and riding; but you have not said a word about history?"
"My tutor sometimes related to me the principal deeds of the King St. Louis, King Francis I, and King Henry IV?"
"Is that all?"
"This also was done by design, then; just as they deprived you of mirrors, which reflect the present, so they left you in ignorance of history, which reflects the past. Since your imprisonment, books have been forbidden you; so that you are unacquainted with a number of facts, by means of which you would be able to reconstruct the shattered edifice of your recollections and your hopes?"
"It is true," said the young man.
"Listen, then; I will in a few words tell you what has passed in France during the last twenty-three or twenty-four years; that is, from the probable date of your birth; in a word, from the time that interests you?"
And the young man resumed his serious and attentive
"Do you know who was the son of Henry IV?"
"At least, I know who his successor was?"
"By means of a coin dated 1610, which bears the effigy of Henry IV; and another of 1612, bearing that of Louis XIII. So I presumed that, there being only two years between the two dates, Louis was Henry's successor?"
"Then," said Aramis, "you know that the last reigning monarch was Louis XIII?"
"I do," answered the youth, slightly reddening.
"Well, he was a prince full of noble ideas and great projects, always, alas! deferred by trouble of the times and the struggle that his minister, Richelieu, had to maintain against the great nobles of France. The king himself was of a feeble character, and died young and unhappy?"
"I know it?"
"He had been long anxious about having an heir; a care which weighs heavily on princes, who desire to leave behind them more than one pledge that their thoughts and their works will be continued?"
"Did the king, then, die childless?" asked the prisoner, smiling.
"No, but he was long without one, and for a long while
thought he should be the last of his race. This idea had
reduced him to the depths of despair, when suddenly, his
wife, Anne of Austria----"
The prisoner trembled.
"Did you know," said Aramis, "that Louis XIII's wife was called Anne of Austria?"
"Continue," said the young man, without replying to the question.
"When suddenly," resumed Aramis, "the queen announced an interesting event. There was great joy at the intelligence, and all prayed for her happy delivery. On the 5th of September, 1638, she gave birth to a son?"
Here Aramis looked at his companion, and thought he observed him turning pale.
"You are about to hear," said Aramis, "an account which few could now give; for it refers to a secret which they think buried with the dead, or entombed in the abyss of the confessional?"
"And you will tell me this secret," broke in the youth.
"Oh!" said Aramis, with unmistakable emphasis, "I do not know that I ought to risk this secret by intrusting it to one who has no desire to quit the Bastile?"
"I hear you, monsieur?"
"The queen, then, gave birth to a son. But while the court was rejoicing over the event, when the king had shown the new-born child to the nobility and people, and was sitting gayly down to table, to celebrate the event, the queen, who was alone in her room, was again taken ill and gave birth to a second son?"
"Oh!" said the prisoner, betraying a better acquaintance
with affairs than he had owned to, "I thought that Monsieur
was only born a----"
Aramis raised his finger.
"Let me continue," said he.
The prisoner sighed impatiently, and paused.
"Yes," said Aramis, "the queen had a second son, whom Dame Perronnette, the midwife, received in her arms?"
"Dame Perronnette!" murmured the young man.
"They ran at once to the banqueting-room, and whispered to the king what had happened; he rose and quitted the table. But this time it was no longer happiness that his face expressed, but something akin to terror. The birth of twins changed into bitterness the joy to which that of an only son had given rise, seeing that in France (a fact you are assuredly ignorant of), it is the oldest of the kings' sons who succeeds his father?"
"I know it?"
"And that the doctors and jurists assert that there is ground for doubting whether he who first makes his appearance is the elder by the law of Heaven and of nature?"
The prisoner uttered a smothered cry, and became whiter than the coverlet under which he hid himself.
"Now you understand," pursued Aramis, "that the king, who, with so much pleasure, saw himself repeated in one, was in despair about two; fearing that the second might dispute the first's claim to seniority, which had been recognized only two hours before; and so this second son, relying on party interests and caprices, might 6ne day sow discord and engender civil war in the kingdom; by these means destroying the very dynasty he should have strengthened?"
"Oh, I understand! I understand!" murmured the young man.
"Well," continued Aramis, "this is what they relate, what they declare; this is why one of the queen's two sons, shamefully parted from his brother, shamefully sequestered, is buried in the profoundest obscurity; this is why that second son has disappeared, and so completely that not a soul in France, save his mother, is aware of his existence?"
"Yes, his mother, who has cast him off," cried the prisoner, in a tone of despair.
"Except, also," Aramis went on, "the lady in the black
dress; and, finally, excepting----"
"Excepting yourself. Is it not? You who come and relate all this; you, who rouse in my soul curiosity, hatred, am bition, and, perhaps, even the thirst of vengeance; except you, monsieur, who, if you are the man whom I expect, whom the note I have received applies to; whom, in short, Heaven ought to send me, must possess about you----"
"What?" asked Aramis.
"A portrait of the king, Louis XTV, who at this moment reigns upon the throne of France?"
"Here is the portrait," replied the bishop, handing the prisoner a miniature in enamel, on which Louis was depicted life-like, with a handsome, lofty mien. The prisoner eagerly seized the portrait, and gazed at it with devouring eyes.
"And now, monseigneur," said Aramis, "here is a mirror?"
Aramis left the prisoner time to recover his ideas.
"So high! so high!" murmured the young man, eagerly comparing the likeness of Louis with his own countenance reflected in the glass.
"What do you think of it?" at length said Aramis.
"I think that I am lost," replied the captive; "the king will never set me free?"
"And I--I demand," added the bishop, fixing his piercing eyes significantly upon the prisoner, "I demand which of the two is the king; the one whom this miniature portrays, or whom the glass reflects?"
"The king, monsieur," sadly replied the young man, "is he who is on the throne, who is not in prison; and who, on the other hand, can cause others to be entombed there. Royalty is power; and you see well how powerless I am?"
"Monseigneur," answered Aramis, with a respect he had not yet manifested, "the king, mark me, will, if you desire it, be he who, quitting his dungeon, shall maintain himself upon the throne, on which his friends will place him?"
"Tempt me not, monsieur," broke in the prisoner bitterly.
"Be not weak, monseigneur," persisted Aramis; "I have brought all the proofs of your birth; consult them; satisfy yourself that you are a king's son; and then let us act?"
"No, no; it is impossible?"
"Unless, indeed," resumed the bishop ironically, "it be the destiny of your race that the brothers excluded from the throne should be always princes void of courage and honesty, as was your uncle, Monsieur Gaston d'Orleans, who ten times conspired against his brother, Louis XIII?"
"What!!' cried the prince, astonished, "my uncle Gaston 'conspired against his brother;' conspired to dethrone him?"
"Exactly, monseigneur; for no other reason. I tell you the truth?"
"And he had friends--devoted ones?"
"As much so as I am to you?"
"And, after all, what did he do? Failed!"
"He failed, I admit; but always through his own fault; and for the sake of purchasing--not his life--for the life of the king's brother is sacred and inviolable--but his liberty, he sacrificed the lives of all his friends, one after another. And so, at this day, he is the very shame of history, and the detestation of a hundred noble families in this kingdom?"
"I understand, monsieur; either by weakness or treachery, my uncle slew his friends?"
"By weakness; which, in princes, is always treachery?"
"And cannot a man fail, then, from incapacity and ignorance? Do you really believe it possible that a poor captive such as I, brought up, not only at a distance from the court, but even from the world--do you believe it possible that such a one could assist those of his friends who should attempt to serve him?"
And, as Aramis was about to reply, the young man suddenly cried out, with a violence which betrayed the temper of his blood:
"We are speaking of friends; but how can I/ have any friends--I, whom no one knows, and have neither liberty, money, nor influence, to gain any?"
"I fancy I had the honor to offer myself to your royal highness?"
"Oh, do not style me so, monsieur; 'tis either treachery or cruelty. Bid me not think of aught else than these prison walls, which confine me; let me again love, or, at least, submit to my slavery and my obscurity?"
"Monseigneur, monseigneur, if you again utter these desperate words--if, after having received proof of your high birth, you still remain poor-sighted in body and soul, I will comply with your desire, I will depart, and renounce forever the service of a master to whom so eagerly I came to devote my assistance and my life!"
"Monsieur," cried the prince, "would it not have been better for you to have reflected, before telling me all that you have done, that you have broken my heart forever!"
"And so I desired to do, monseigneur?"
"To talk to me about power, grandeur, and even royalty. Is a prison the fitting place? You wish to make me believe in splendor, and we are lying hidden in night; you boast of glory, and we are smothering our words in the curtains of this miserable bed; you give me glimpses of absolute power, and I hear the step of the jailer in the corridor-- that step which, after all, makes you tremble more than it does me. To render me somewhat less incredulous, free me from the Bastile; let me breathe the fresh air; give me my spurs and trusty sword, then we shall begin to understand each other."
"It is precisely my intention to give you all this, monseigneur, and more; only, do you desire it?"
"A word more," said the prince. "I know there are guards in every gallery, bolts to every door, cannon and soldiery at every barrier. How will you overcome the sentries--spike the guns? How will you break through the bolts and bars?"
"Monseigneur--how did you get the note which announced my arrival to you?"
"You can bribe a jailer for such a thing as a note?"
"If we can corrupt one turnkey, we can corrupt ten?"
"Well, I admit that it may be possible to release a poor captive from the Bastile; possible so to conceal him that the king's people shall not again insnare him; possible, in some unknown retreat, to sustain the unhappy wretch in some suitable manner?"
"Monseigneur!" said Aramis, smiling.
"I admit that whoever would do thus much for me would seem more than mortal in my eyes; but as you tell me I am a prince, brother of a king, how can you restore me the rank and power which my mother and my brother have deprived me of? And as, to effect this, I must pass a life of war and hatred, how will you make me prevail in those combats--render me invulnerable by my enemies? Ah! monsieur, reflect upon this; place me, to-morrow, in some dark cavern in a mountain's base; yield me the delight of hearing in freedom the sounds of river and plain, of beholding in freedom the sun of the blue heavens, or the stormy sky, and it is enough. Promise me no more than this, for, indeed, more you cannot give, and it would be a crime to deceive me, since you call yourself my friend?"
Aramis waited in silence.
"Monseigneur," he resumed, after a moment's reflection, "I admire the firm, sound sense which dictates your words; I am happy to have discovered my monarch's mind?"
"Again, again! oh! for mercy's sake," cried the prince, pressing his icy hands upon his clammy brow, "do not play with me! I have no need to be a king to be the happiest of men?"
"But I, monseigneur, wish you to be a king for the good of humanity?"
"Ah!" said the prince, with fresh distrust inspired by the word, "ah! with what, then, has humanity to reproach my brother?"
"I forgot to say, monseigneur, that if you would allow me to guide you, and if you consent to become the most powerful monarch on earth, you will have promoted the interests of all the friends whom I devote to the success of your cause, and these friends are numerous."
"Less numerous than powerful, monseigneur?"
"It is impossible; I will explain, I swear before Heaven, on that day that I see you sitting on the throne of France?"
"But my brother?"
"You shall decree his fate. Do you pity him?"
"Him, who leaves me to perish in a dungeon? No, I pity him not?"
"So much'the better?"
"He might have himself come to this prison, have taken me by the hand and have said, 'My brother, Heaven created us to love, not to contend with one another. I come to you. A barbarous prejudice has condemned you to pass your days in obscurity, far from all men, and deprived of every joy. I will make you sit down beside me; I will buckle round your waist our father's sword. Will you take advantage of this reconciliation to put down or to restrain me? Will you employ that sword to spill my blood?' 'Oh! never,' I would have replied to him. 'I look on you as my preserver, and will respect you as my master. You give me far more than Heaven bestowed; for through you I possess liberty and the privilege of loving and being loved in this world.'"
"And you would have kept your word, monseigneur?"
"On my life! While now--now that I have guilty ones to punish?"
"In what manner, monseigneur?"
"What do you say as to the resemblance that Heaven has given me to my brother?"
"I say that there was in that likeness a providential instruction which the king ought to have heeded; I say that your mother committed a crime in rendering those different in happiness and fortune whom nature created so similar in her womb; and I conclude that the object of punishment should be only to restore the equilibrium?"
"By which you mean----"
"That if I restore you to your place on your brother's throne, he shall take yours in prison?"
"Alas! there is so much suffering in prison, especially to a man who has drunk so deeply of the cup of enjoyment?"
"Your royal highness will always be free to act as you
may desire; and if it seems good to you, after punishment,
"Good. And now, are you aware of one thing, monsieur?"
"Tell me, my prince?"
"It is that I will hear nothing further from you till I am clear of the Bastile?"
"I was going to say to your highness that I should only have the pleasure of seeing you once again?"
"The day when my prince leaves these gloomy walls?"
"Heavens! how will you give me notice of it?"
"By myself coming to fetch you?"
"My prince, do not leave this chamber save with me, or if in my absence you are compelled to do so, remember that I am not concerned in it?"
"And so I am not to speak a word of this to any one whatever, save to you?"
"Save only to me?"
Aramis bowed very low; the prince offered his hand.
"Monsieur," he said, in a tone that issued from his heart, "one word more, my last. If you have sought me for my destruction, if you are only a tool in the hands of my enemies, if from our conference, in which you have sounded the depths of my mind, anything worse than captivity result, that is to say, if death befall me, still receive my blessing, for you will have ended my troubles and given me repose from the tormenting fever that has preyed upon me these eight years?"
"Monseigneur, wait the result ere you judge me," said Aramis.
"I say that, in such a case, I bless and forgive you. If, on the other hand, you are come to restore me to that position in the sunshine of fortune and glory to which I was destined by Heaven; if by your means I am enabled to live in the memory of man, and confer luster on my race by deeds of valor, or by solid benefits bestowed upon my people; if, from my present depths of sorrow, aided by your generous hand, I raise myself to the very height of honor, then to you, whom I thank with blessings, to you will I offer half my power and my glory; though you would still be but partly recompensed, and your share must always remain incomplete, since I could not divide with you the happiness received at your hands."
"Monseigneur," replied Aramis, moved by the pallor and excitement of the young man, "the nobleness of your heart fills me with joy and admiration. It is not you who will have to thank me, but rather the nation whom you will render happy, the posterity whose name you will make glorious. Yes; I shall indeed have bestowed upon you more than life, as I shall have given you immortality?"
The prince offered his hand to Aramis, who sank upon his knee and kissed it.
"It is the first act of homage paid to our future king," said he. "When I see you again, I shall say, 'Good-day, sire.'"
"Till then," said the young man, pressing his wan and wasted fingers over his heart--"till then, no more dreams, no more strain upon my life--it would break! Oh, monsieur, how small is my prison--how low the window--how narrow are the doors! To think that so much pride, splendor, and happiness should be able to enter in and remain here!"
"Your royal highness makes me proud," said Aramis, "since you infer it is I who brought all this?"
And he rapped immediately on the door. The jailer came to open it with Baisemeaux, who, devoured by fear and uneasiness, was beginning, in spite of himself, to listen at the door. Happily, neither of the speakers had forgotten to smother his voice, even in the most passionate outbreaks.
"What a confessor!" said the governor, forcing a laugh. "Who would believe that a mere recluse, a man almost dead, could have committed crimes so numerous, and so long to tell of?"
Aramis made no reply. He was eager to leave the Bastile, where the secret which overwhelmed him seemed to double the weight of the walls. As soon as they reached Baise-meaux's quarters:
"Let us proceed to business, my dear governor," said Aramis.
"Alas!" replied Baisemeaux.
"You have to ask me for my receipt for one hundred and fifty thousand livres," said the bishop.
"And to pay over the first third of the sum," added the poor governor, with a sigh, taking three steps toward his iron strong box.
"Here is the receipt," said Aramis.
"And here is the money," returned Baisemeaux, with a threefold sigh.
"The other instructed me only to give a receipt; it said nothing about receiving the money," rejoined Aramis. "Adieu, Monsieur le Gouverneur?"
And he departed, leaving Baisemeaux almost more than stifled with joy and surprise at this regal present so liberally bestowed by die confessor-extraordinary to the Bastile.
All new material in the edition is copyright 1998 by Tom Doherty
Excerpted from The Man in the Iron Mask by Dumas, Alexandre Copyright © 1998 by Dumas, Alexandre. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) was the author of more than ninety plays and many novels--most famously the Three Musketeers trilogy and The Count of Monte Cristo.
Francine du Plessix Gray is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-finalist At Home with the Marquis de Sade, among other works.
Joachim Neugroschel has won three PEN translation awards and the French-American translation prize.
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