1636: The Cardinal Virtues – Snippet 05

“Beringhien,” Louis said. “Who brought this note?”

“Madame de Chevreuse, Sire,” he answered. “She was most furtive.”

“Indeed.” He took the letter and tucked it into his doublet. “I can imagine.”

“Is there anything amiss, Majesty?”

“The queen requests my presence. She — she wishes me to visit her cabinet.” He stood in the middle of the room, arms hanging loosely at his sides. His valet was hesitant to speak; in the candlelight he could see a faint sweat on his master’s brow.

Finally Louis walked to the sideboard, where a crystal decanter and two goblets were laid. Beringhien moved to pour wine for the king, but Louis waved him away. He poured wine into a glass, spilling some onto the table. He took a long drink.

“Shall I send word that you are not available, Majesty?”

“No — no. I shall go.” He walked slowly past, holding out the glass. Beringhien took it from him and watched as he went through the door and into the hall.


As the king stood outside the queen’s chamber, he wondered to himself what Anne intended. There had been so many ploys, so many embarrassments, so many times that his discomfort and awkwardness had made him an object of ridicule among her ladies. He had thought that this progress was evidence that in the end Anne was truly what she had said — the queen of France: not his tormentor, not an estranged, bitter, childless Spaniard. He couldn’t be wrong — could he? Not after all this?

He knocked at the door. Madame de Chevreuse opened it, a candle in her hand.

“Majesty,” she said, bowing. “The queen will be so happy to see you.” She beckoned him within. He hesitated, then crossed the threshold. The duchess closed the door behind him and gestured toward the bedroom. There were no ladies in sight; the sitting-room was empty. Madame de Chevreuse handed him the candle, bowed again, and withdrew into the shadows.

He knew what was intended as he took the candle-holder in his hand. He felt like walking away; he felt like running. He was sweating and shivering: and even if there was no one watching while he stood there.

Then he realized that this was a test as well. If he walked away from this, everyone would know and the deception they’d planned at Fontainebleau would be seen as a transparent lie.

If this was one last act of spite by his queen, then he would have to accept it and play it to the end.

He walked slowly toward the bedroom. In the dim light, he could see the queen of France alone on her bed, waiting.


The cardinal was not amused.

Pierre Corneille was a thorough courtier and accustomed to swings in a patron’s mood, whether king or cardinal; he kept his eyes averted and did not speak.

Richelieu paced back and forth, leaving the poet to stand uncomfortably before him.

“You’re quite sure?”

“It is without doubt, Eminence. The king left his chambers and made his way to those of the queen.”


“He was only accompanied by the duchess, Eminence. She brought him the note.”

Richelieu extended his hand. Corneille reached within his doublet and drew out the scented page. It had been a trifling thing to slip in and purloin it. The distracted king and his dullard valet would probably not even notice it was gone.

Corneille handed it to the cardinal, a slight odor of the queen’s scent wafting up from it. Richelieu did not seem to take notice other than a slight wrinkling of his patrician nose. He opened it and scanned its contents.

When he was done he flourished it in front of the poet. “Do you know what this means?”

“I am not sure, Eminence.”

“It means — ah.” Richelieu made as if to toss it aside, thought better of it and lowered his hand. “It means that our lady queen continues to be the same devious soul she has always been. She seeks to seduce him. Seduce him! Mother of God. I cannot imagine.”

“Eminence, the king went willingly to her chamber –”

Richelieu held his hand up.

“Do you question our sovereign?”

“No, of course not, but . . .”


Corneille’s experience as a courtier gave him the intuition to know when his tongue had outrun his good sense. He realized that this was one of those times. One false word, one improper inclination and . . .

“Nothing, Eminence. Nothing at all. I ask your indulgence if I have spoken out of turn.”

Richelieu did not answer: he made him stand there at least a minute longer than was necessary. Corneille enjoyed being one of the favored poets at court — but as always, there was no doubt that it was as easy to lose that position as it was hard to gain it in the first place.

“You have a mission, Monsieur Corneille. You will ride to Fontainebleau and present yourself to Monseigneur Mazarin and with my compliments deliver a note which I shall compose. You will be sure to do this right away, before the royal party arrives.”

“But — Eminence — they are due to arrive there this night.”

“Then you should undertake to find a fast horse, Monsieur. And you should depart at once to fulfill this mission.”


From the window overlooking the courtyard, Jules Mazarin watched for the approach of the royal procession.

By the late afternoon light he opened and reread the letter from Cardinal Richelieu that the foppish poet Corneille had delivered a few hours earlier. The poet had ridden all night from Paris to Fontainebleau to bring it. Exhausted, Corneille had come into the palace looking for him: he made sure to be found in the chapel, assuming the proper air of sanctity and humility. He didn’t know how much Corneille knew about the reason for Mazarin’s presence here at the palace, but there was no reason to cause further idle gossip. Now, he assumed, the poet was in some tavern in Melun recovering from the stress that the cardinal had imposed on him.

Richelieu’s letter was considerate. Ruthless, but considerate.

There is some possibility that the king lay with his queen last night. There is also some possibility that our monarch will have become so discomfited by her approach that he may be unwilling to proceed. I will not pretend that it makes our task and your position any easier. Indeed, it may make it quite perilous.

It only slightly reassured him to think that Richelieu was concerned for his welfare. But His Eminence was two days’ ride away, and wouldn’t be subject to summary prosecution should the king’s mood turn against their plan.

And what a plan! To bring an heir to the kingdom of France they had decided — the four of them: king and queen, cardinal and . . . tool of the state, he supposed . . . to allow the tool to lie with the queen in the hope that this union would be more successful than the ones King Louis himself had attempted.

Was there something wrong with the royal seed? The cardinal had suggested that up-timer science considered it a distinct possibility: not that Louis did not want to father a child, but that he did not have the capability to do so. There were some at the court who said, behind their hands or in private gossip, that the king . . . walked on the other side of the avenue. Women seemed to make him nervous, especially the queen.

Mazarin looked back down at the cardinal’s letter.

I rely upon your discretion and your judgment to complete the task that is so crucial to the realm. Even more, I rely on the blessing of the Almighty to guide our counsels and vouchsafe our success.

Corneille had his stresses. But Mazarin himself had some stress coming. Assuming he wasn’t clapped in irons as soon as the royal party arrived, he would have to ask the queen the crucial question: did she sleep with her king?

It was a question that he would rather not ask.

In the distance he could see the dust rising off the road, caught by the slanting rays of late afternoon light — the horsemen and carriages carrying the king and queen and entourage.

All Mazarin could think of was an up-timer expression.