It was evident that without suspecting it, and actuated solely by thei_hivalrous and adventurous character, our three friends had just rendered _ervice to someone the cardinal honored with his special protection.
Now, who was that someone? That was the question the three Musketeers put t_ne another. Then, seeing that none of their replies could throw any light o_he subject, Porthos called the host and asked for dice.
Porthos and Aramis placed themselves at the table and began to play. Atho_alked about in a contemplative mood.
While thinking and walking, Athos passed and repassed before the pipe of th_tove, broken in halves, the other extremity passing into the chamber above; and every time he passed and repassed he heard a murmur of words, which a_ength fixed his attention. Athos went close to it, and distinguished som_ords that appeared to merit so great an interest that he made a sign to hi_riends to be silent, remaining himself bent with his ear directed to th_pening of the lower orifice.
"Listen, Milady," said the cardinal, "the affair is important. Sit down, an_et us talk it over."
"Milady!" murmured Athos.
"I listen to your Eminence with greatest attention," replied a female voic_hich made the Musketeer start.
"A small vessel with an English crew, whose captain is on my side, awaits yo_t the mouth of Charente, at fort of the Point. He will set sail tomorro_orning."
"I must go thither tonight?"
"Instantly! That is to say, when you have received my instructions. Two men, whom you will find at the door on going out, will serve you as escort. Yo_ill allow me to leave first; then, after half an hour, you can go away i_our turn."
"Yes, monseigneur. Now let us return to the mission with which you wish t_harge me; and as I desire to continue to merit the confidence of you_minence, deign to unfold it to me in terms clear and precise, that I may no_ommit an error."
There was an instant of profound silence between the two interlocutors. It wa_vident that the cardinal was weighing beforehand the terms in which he wa_bout to speak, and that Milady was collecting all her intellectual facultie_o comprehend the things he was about to say, and to engrave them in he_emory when they should be spoken.
Athos took advantage of this moment to tell his two companions to fasten th_oor inside, and to make them a sign to come and listen with him.
The two Musketeers, who loved their ease, brought a chair for each o_hemselves and one for Athos. All three then sat down with their head_ogether and their ears on the alert.
"You will go to London," continued the cardinal. "Arrived in London, you wil_eek Buckingham."
"I must beg your Eminence to observe," said Milady, "that since the affair o_he diamond studs, about which the duke always suspected me, his Grac_istrusts me."
"Well, this time," said the cardinal, "it is not necessary to steal hi_onfidence, but to present yourself frankly and loyally as a negotiator."
"Frankly and loyally," repeated Milady, with an unspeakable expression o_uplicity.
"Yes, frankly and loyally," replied the cardinal, in the same tone. "All thi_egotiation must be carried on openly."
"I will follow your Eminence's instructions to the letter. I only wait til_ou give them."
"You will go to Buckingham in my behalf, and you will tell him I am acquainte_ith all the preparations he has made; but that they give me no uneasiness, since at the first step he takes I will ruin the queen."
"Will he believe that your Eminence is in a position to accomplish the threa_hus made?"
"Yes; for I have the proofs."
"I must be able to present these proofs for his appreciation."
"Without doubt. And you will tell him I will publish the report of Bois-Rober_nd the Marquis de Beautru, upon the interview which the duke had at th_esidence of Madame the Constable with the queen on the evening Madame th_onstable gave a masquerade. You will tell him, in order that he may no_oubt, that he came there in the costume of the Great Mogul, which th_hevalier de Guise was to have worn, and that he purchased this exchange fo_he sum of three thousand pistoles."
"All the details of his coming into and going out of the palace—on the nigh_hen he introduced himself in the character of an Italian fortune teller—yo_ill tell him, that he may not doubt the correctness of my information; tha_e had under his cloak a large white robe dotted with black tears, death'_eads, and crossbones—for in case of a surprise, he was to pass for th_hantom of the White Lady who, as all the world knows, appears at the Louvr_very time any great event is impending."
"Is that all, monseigneur?"
"Tell him also that I am acquainted with all the details of the adventure a_miens; that I will have a little romance made of it, wittily turned, with _lan of the garden and portraits of the principal actors in that nocturna_omance."
"I will tell him that."
"Tell him further that I hold Montague in my power; that Montague is in th_astille; that no letters were found upon him, it is true, but that tortur_ay make him tell much of what he knows, and even what he does not know."
"Then add that his Grace has, in the precipitation with which he quit the Isl_f Re, forgotten and left behind him in his lodging a certain letter fro_adame de Chevreuse which singularly compromises the queen, inasmuch as i_roves not only that her Majesty can love the enemies of the king but that sh_an conspire with the enemies of France. You recollect perfectly all I hav_old you, do you not?"
"Your Eminence will judge: the ball of Madame the Constable; the night at th_ouvre; the evening at Amiens; the arrest of Montague; the letter of Madame d_hevreuse."
"That's it," said the cardinal, "that's it. You have an excellent memory, Milady."
"But," resumed she to whom the cardinal addressed this flattering compliment,
"if, in spite of all these reasons, the duke does not give way and continue_o menace France?"
"The duke is in love to madness, or rather to folly," replied Richelieu, wit_reat bitterness. "Like the ancient paladins, he has only undertaken this wa_o obtain a look from his lady love. If he becomes certain that this war wil_ost the honor, and perhaps the liberty, of the lady of his thoughts, as h_ays, I will answer for it he will look twice."
"And yet," said Milady, with a persistence that proved she wished to se_learly to the end of the mission with which she was about to be charged, "i_e persists?"
"If he persists?" said the cardinal. "That is not probable."
"It is possible," said Milady.
"If he persists—" His Eminence made a pause, and resumed: "If h_ersists—well, then I shall hope for one of those events which change th_estinies of states."
"If your Eminence would quote to me some one of these events in history," sai_ilady, "perhaps I should partake of your confidence as to the future."
"Well, here, for example," said Richelieu: "when, in 1610, for a cause simila_o that which moves the duke, King Henry IV, of glorious memory, was about, a_he same time, to invade Flanders and Italy, in order to attack Austria o_oth sides. Well, did there not happen an event which saved Austria? Wh_hould not the king of France have the same chance as the emperor?"
"Your Eminence means, I presume, the knife stab in the Rue de la Feronnerie?"
"Precisely," said the cardinal.
"Does not your Eminence fear that the punishment inflicted upon Ravaillac ma_eter anyone who might entertain the idea of imitating him?"
"There will be, in all times and in all countries, particularly if religiou_ivisions exist in those countries, fanatics who ask nothing better than t_ecome martyrs. Ay, and observe—it just occurs to me that the Puritans ar_urious against Buckingham, and their preachers designate him as th_ntichrist."
"Well?" said Milady.
"Well," continued the cardinal, in an indifferent tone, "the only thing to b_ought for at this moment is some woman, handsome, young, and clever, who ha_ause of quarrel with the duke. The duke has had many affairs of gallantry; and if he has fostered his amours by promises of eternal constancy, he mus_ikewise have sown the seeds of hatred by his eternal infidelities."
"No doubt," said Milady, coolly, "such a woman may be found."
"Well, such a woman, who would place the knife of Jacques Clement or o_availlac in the hands of a fanatic, would save France."
"Yes; but she would then be the accomplice of an assassination."
"Were the accomplices of Ravaillac or of Jacques Clement ever known?"
"No; for perhaps they were too high-placed for anyone to dare look for the_here they were. The Palace of Justice would not be burned down for everybody, monseigneur."
"You think, then, that the fire at the Palace of Justice was not caused b_hance?" asked Richelieu, in the tone with which he would have put a questio_f no importance.
"I, monseigneur?" replied Milady. "I think nothing; I quote a fact, that i_ll. Only I say that if I were named Madame de Montpensier, or the Queen Mari_e Medicis, I should use less precautions than I take, being simply calle_ilady Clarik."
"That is just," said Richelieu. "What do you require, then?"
"I require an order which would ratify beforehand all that I should thin_roper to do for the greatest good of France."
"But in the first place, this woman I have described must be found who i_esirous of avenging herself upon the duke."
"She is found," said Milady.
"Then the miserable fanatic must be found who will serve as an instrument o_od's justice."
"He will be found."
"Well," said the cardinal, "then it will be time to claim the order which yo_ust now required."
"Your Eminence is right," replied Milady; "and I have been wrong in seeing i_he mission with which you honor me anything but that which it really is—tha_s, to announce to his Grace, on the part of your Eminence, that you ar_cquainted with the different disguises by means of which he succeeded i_pproaching the queen during the fete given by Madame the Constable; that yo_ave proofs of the interview granted at the Louvre by the queen to a certai_talian astrologer who was no other than the Duke of Buckingham; that you hav_rdered a little romance of a satirical nature to be written upon th_dventures of Amiens, with a plan of the gardens in which those adventure_ook place, and portraits of the actors who figured in them; that Montague i_n the Bastille, and that the torture may make him say things he remembers, and even things he has forgotten; that you possess a certain letter fro_adame de Chevreuse, found in his Grace's lodging, which singularl_ompromises not only her who wrote it, but her in whose name it was written.
Then, if he persists, notwithstanding all this—as that is, as I have said, th_imit of my mission—I shall have nothing to do but to pray God to work _iracle for the salvation of France. That is it, is it not, monseigneur, and _hall have nothing else to do?"
"That is it," replied the cardinal, dryly.
"And now," said Milady, without appearing to remark the change of the duke'_one toward her—"now that I have received the instructions of your Eminence a_oncerns your enemies, Monseigneur will permit me to say a few words to him o_ine?"
"Have you enemies, then?" asked Richelieu.
"Yes, monseigneur, enemies against whom you owe me all your support, for _ade them by serving your Eminence."
"Who are they?" replied the duke.
"In the first place, there is a little intrigante named Bonacieux."
"She is in the prison of Nantes."
"That is to say, she was there," replied Milady; "but the queen has obtaine_n order from the king by means of which she has been conveyed to a convent."
"To a convent?" said the duke.
"Yes, to a convent."
"And to which?"
"I don't know; the secret has been well kept."
"But I will know!"
"And your Eminence will tell me in what convent that woman is?"
"I can see nothing inconvenient in that," said the cardinal.
"Well, now I have an enemy much more to be dreaded by me than this littl_adame Bonacieux."
"Who is that?"
"What is his name?"
"Oh, your Eminence knows him well," cried Milady, carried away by her anger.
"He is the evil genius of both of us. It is he who in an encounter with you_minence's Guards decided the victory in favor of the king's Musketeers; it i_e who gave three desperate wounds to de Wardes, your emissary, and who cause_he affair of the diamond studs to fail; it is he who, knowing it was I wh_ad Madame Bonacieux carried off, has sworn my death."
"Ah, ah!" said the cardinal, "I know of whom you speak."
"I mean that miserable d'Artagnan."
"He is a bold fellow," said the cardinal.
"And it is exactly because he is a bold fellow that he is the more to b_eared."
"I must have," said the duke, "a proof of his connection with Buckingham."
"A proof?" cried Milady; "I will have ten."
"Well, then, it becomes the simplest thing in the world; get me that proof, and I will send him to the Bastille."
"So far good, monseigneur; but afterwards?"
"When once in the Bastille, there is no afterward!" said the cardinal, in _ow voice. "Ah, pardieu!" continued he, "if it were as easy for me to get ri_f my enemy as it is easy to get rid of yours, and if it were against suc_eople you require impunity—"
"Monseigneur," replied Milady, "a fair exchange. Life for life, man for man; give me one, I will give you the other."
"I don't know what you mean, nor do I even desire to know what you mean,"
replied the cardinal; "but I wish to please you, and see nothing out of th_ay in giving you what you demand with respect to so infamous a creature—th_ore so as you tell me this d'Artagnan is a libertine, a duelist, and _raitor."
"An infamous scoundrel, monseigneur, a scoundrel!"
"Give me paper, a quill, and some ink, then," said the cardinal.
"Here they are, monseigneur."
There was a moment of silence, which proved that the cardinal was employed i_eeking the terms in which he should write the note, or else in writing it.
Athos, who had not lost a word of the conversation, took his two companions b_he hand, and led them to the other end of the room.
"Well," said Porthos, "what do you want, and why do you not let us listen t_he end of the conversation?"
"Hush!" said Athos, speaking in a low voice. "We have heard all it wa_ecessary we should hear; besides, I don't prevent you from listening, but _ust be gone."
"You must be gone!" said Porthos; "and if the cardinal asks for you, wha_nswer can we make?"
"You will not wait till he asks; you will speak first, and tell him that I a_one on the lookout, because certain expressions of our host have given m_eason to think the road is not safe. I will say two words about it to th_ardinal's esquire likewise. The rest concerns myself; don't be uneasy abou_hat."
"Be prudent, Athos," said Aramis.
"Be easy on that head," replied Athos; "you know I am cool enough."
Porthos and Aramis resumed their places by the stovepipe.
As to Athos, he went out without any mystery, took his horse, which was tie_ith those of his friends to the fastenings of the shutters, in four word_onvinced the attendant of the necessity of a vanguard for their return, carefully examined the priming of his pistols, drew his sword, and took, lik_ forlorn hope, the road to the camp.