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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Man In The Iron Mask - Chapter XVIII - A Night at the Bastile
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The Man In The Iron Mask - Chapter XVIII - A Night at the Bastile Post by :martyr Category :Long Stories Author :Alexandre Dumas Date :February 2011 Read :2376

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The Man In The Iron Mask - Chapter XVIII - A Night at the Bastile

Pain, anguish, and suffering in human life are always in proportion to
the strength with which a man is endowed. We will not pretend to say
that Heaven always apportions to a man's capability of endurance the
anguish with which he afflicts him; for that, indeed, would not be true,
since Heaven permits the existence of death, which is, sometimes, the
only refuge open to those who are too closely pressed - too bitterly
afflicted, as far as the body is concerned. Suffering is in proportion
to the strength which has been accorded; in other words, the weak suffer
more, where the trial is the same, than the strong. And what are the
elementary principles, we may ask, that compose human strength? Is it
not - more than anything else - exercise, habit, experience? We shall
not even take the trouble to demonstrate this, for it is an axiom in
morals, as in physics. When the young king, stupefied and crushed in
every sense and feeling, found himself led to a cell in the Bastile, he
fancied death itself is but a sleep; that it, too, has its dreams as
well; that the bed had broken through the flooring of his room at Vaux;
that death had resulted from the occurrence; and that, still carrying out
his dream, the king, Louis XIV., now no longer living, was dreaming one
of those horrors, impossible to realize in life, which is termed
dethronement, imprisonment, and insult towards a sovereign who formerly
wielded unlimited power. To be present at - an actual witness, too - of
this bitterness of death; to float, indecisively, in an incomprehensible
mystery, between resemblance and reality; to hear everything, to see
everything, without interfering in a single detail of agonizing
suffering, was - so the king thought within himself - a torture far more
terrible, since it might last forever. "Is this what is termed eternity
- hell?" he murmured, at the moment the door was closed upon him, which
we remember Baisemeaux had shut with his own hands. He did not even look
round him; and in the room, leaning with his back against the wall, he
allowed himself to be carried away by the terrible supposition that he
was already dead, as he closed his eyes, in order to avoid looking upon
something even worse still. "How can I have died?" he said to himself,
sick with terror. "The bed might have been let down by some artificial
means? But no! I do not remember to have felt a bruise, nor any shock
either. Would they not rather have poisoned me at my meals, or with the
fumes of wax, as they did my ancestress, Jeanne d'Albret?" Suddenly, the
chill of the dungeons seemed to fall like a wet cloak upon Louis's
shoulders. "I have seen," he said, "my father lying dead upon his
funeral couch, in his regal robes. That pale face, so calm and worn;
those hands, once so skillful, lying nerveless by his side; those limbs
stiffened by the icy grasp of death; nothing there betokened a sleep that
was disturbed by dreams. And yet, how numerous were the dreams which
Heaven might have sent that royal corpse - him whom so many others had
preceded, hurried away by him into eternal death! No, that king was
still the king: he was enthroned still upon that funeral couch, as upon a
velvet armchair; he had not abdicated one title of his majesty. God, who
had not punished him, cannot, will not punish me, who have done
nothing." A strange sound attracted the young man's attention. He
looked round him, and saw on the mantel-shelf, just below an enormous
crucifix, coarsely painted in fresco on the wall, a rat of enormous size
engaged in nibbling a piece of dry bread, but fixing all the time, an
intelligent and inquiring look upon the new occupant of the cell. The
king could not resist a sudden impulse of fear and disgust: he moved back
towards the door, uttering a loud cry; and as if he but needed this cry,
which escaped from his breast almost unconsciously, to recognize himself,
Louis knew that he was alive and in full possession of his natural
senses. "A prisoner!" he cried. "I - I, a prisoner!" He looked round
him for a bell to summon some one to him. "There are no bells in the
Bastile," he said, "and it is in the Bastile I am imprisoned. In what
way can I have been made a prisoner? It must have been owing to a
conspiracy of M. Fouquet. I have been drawn to Vaux, as to a snare. M.
Fouquet cannot be acting alone in this affair. His agent - That voice
that I but just now heard was M. d'Herblay's; I recognized it. Colbert
was right, then. But what is Fouquet's object? To reign in my place and
stead? - Impossible. Yet who knows!" thought the king, relapsing into
gloom again. "Perhaps my brother, the Duc d'Orleans, is doing that which
my uncle wished to do during the whole of his life against my father.
But the queen? - My mother, too? And La Valliere? Oh! La Valliere, she
will have been abandoned to Madame. Dear, dear girl! Yes, it is - it
must be so. They have shut her up as they have me. We are separated
forever!" And at this idea of separation the poor lover burst into a
flood of tears and sobs and groans.

"There is a governor in this place," the king continued, in a fury of
passion; "I will speak to him, I will summon him to me."

He called - no voice replied to his. He seized hold of his chair, and
hurled it against the massive oaken door. The wood resounded against the
door, and awakened many a mournful echo in the profound depths of the
staircase; but from a human creature, none.

This was a fresh proof for the king of the slight regard in which he was
held at the Bastile. Therefore, when his first fit of anger had passed
away, having remarked a barred window through which there passed a stream
of light, lozenge-shaped, which must be, he knew, the bright orb of
approaching day, Louis began to call out, at first gently enough, then
louder and louder still; but no one replied. Twenty other attempts which
he made, one after another, obtained no other or better success. His
blood began to boil within him, and mount to his head. His nature was
such, that, accustomed to command, he trembled at the idea of
disobedience. The prisoner broke the chair, which was too heavy for him
to lift, and made use of it as a battering ram to strike against the
door. He struck so loudly, and so repeatedly, that the perspiration soon
began to pour down his face. The sound became tremendous and continuous;
certain stifled, smothered cries replied in different directions. This
sound produced a strange effect upon the king. He paused to listen; it
was the voice of the prisoners, formerly his victims, now his
companions. The voices ascended like vapors through the thick ceilings
and the massive walls, and rose in accusations against the author of this
noise, as doubtless their sighs and tears accused, in whispered tones,
the author of their captivity. After having deprived so many people of
their liberty, the king came among them to rob them of their rest. This
idea almost drove him mad; it redoubled his strength, or rather his well,
bent upon obtaining some information, or a conclusion to the affair.
With a portion of the broken chair he recommenced the noise. At the end
of an hour, Louis heard something in the corridor, behind the door of his
cell, and a violent blow, which was returned upon the door itself, made
him cease his own.

"Are you mad?" said a rude, brutal voice. "What is the matter with you
this morning?"

"This morning!" thought the king; but he said aloud, politely, "Monsieur,
are you the governor of the Bastile?"

"My good fellow, your head is out of sorts," replied the voice; "but that
is no reason why you should make such a terrible disturbance. Be quiet;

"Are you the governor?" the king inquired again.

He heard a door on the corridor close; the jailer had just left, not
condescending to reply a single word. When the king had assured himself
of his departure, his fury knew no longer any bounds. As agile as a
tiger, he leaped from the table to the window, and struck the iron bars
with all his might. He broke a pane of glass, the pieces of which fell
clanking into the courtyard below. He shouted with increasing
hoarseness, "The governor, the governor!" This excess lasted fully an
hour, during which time he was in a burning fever. With his hair in
disorder and matted on his forehead, his dress torn and covered with dust
and plaster, his linen in shreds, the king never rested until his
strength was utterly exhausted, and it was not until then that he clearly
understood the pitiless thickness of the walls, the impenetrable nature
of the cement, invincible to every influence but that of time, and that
he possessed no other weapon but despair. He leaned his forehead against
the door, and let the feverish throbbings of his heart calm by degrees;
it had seemed as if one single additional pulsation would have made it

"A moment will come when the food which is given to the prisoners will be
brought to me. I shall then see some one, I shall speak to him, and get
an answer."

And the king tried to remember at what hour the first repast of the
prisoners was served at the Bastile; he was ignorant even of this
detail. The feeling of remorse at this remembrance smote him like the
thrust of a dagger, that he should have lived for five and twenty years a
king, and in the enjoyment of every happiness, without having bestowed a
moment's thought on the misery of those who had been unjustly deprived of
their liberty. The king blushed for very shame. He felt that Heaven, in
permitting this fearful humiliation, did no more than render to the man
the same torture as had been inflicted by that man upon so many others.
Nothing could be more efficacious for reawakening his mind to religious
influences than the prostration of his heart and mind and soul beneath
the feeling of such acute wretchedness. But Louis dared not even kneel
in prayer to God to entreat him to terminate his bitter trial.

"Heaven is right," he said; "Heaven acts wisely. It would be cowardly to
pray to Heaven for that which I have so often refused my own fellow-

He had reached this stage of his reflections, that is, of his agony of
mind, when a similar noise was again heard behind his door, followed this
time by the sound of the key in the lock, and of the bolts being
withdrawn from their staples. The king bounded forward to be nearer to
the person who was about to enter, but, suddenly reflecting that it was a
movement unworthy of a sovereign, he paused, assumed a noble and calm
expression, which for him was easy enough, and waited with his back
turned towards the window, in order, to some extent, to conceal his
agitation from the eyes of the person who was about to enter. It was
only a jailer with a basket of provisions. The king looked at the man
with restless anxiety, and waited until he spoke.

"Ah!" said the latter, "you have broken your chair. I said you had done
so! Why, you have gone quite mad."

"Monsieur," said the king, "be careful what you say; it will be a very
serious affair for you."

The jailer placed the basket on the table, and looked at his prisoner
steadily. "What do you say?" he said.

"Desire the governor to come to me," added the king, in accents full of
calm and dignity.

"Come, my boy," said the turnkey, "you have always been very quiet and
reasonable, but you are getting vicious, it seems, and I wish you to know
it in time. You have broken your chair, and made a great disturbance;
that is an offense punishable by imprisonment in one of the lower
dungeons. Promise me not to begin over again, and I will not say a word
about it to the governor."

"I wish to see the governor," replied the king, still governing his

"He will send you off to one of the dungeons, I tell you; so take care."

"I insist upon it, do you hear?"

"Ah! ah! your eyes are becoming wild again. Very good! I shall take
away your knife."

And the jailer did what he said, quitted the prisoner, and closed the
door, leaving the king more astounded, more wretched, more isolated than
ever. It was useless, though he tried it, to make the same noise again
on his door, and equally useless that he threw the plates and dishes out
of the window; not a single sound was heard in recognition. Two hours
afterwards he could not be recognized as a king, a gentleman, a man, a
human being; he might rather be called a madman, tearing the door with
his nails, trying to tear up the flooring of his cell, and uttering such
wild and fearful cries that the old Bastile seemed to tremble to its very
foundations for having revolted against its master. As for the governor,
the jailer did not even think of disturbing him; the turnkeys and the
sentinels had reported the occurrence to him, but what was the good of
it? Were not these madmen common enough in such a prison? and were not
the walls still stronger? M. de Baisemeaux, thoroughly impressed with
what Aramis had told him, and in perfect conformity with the king's
order, hoped only that one thing might happen; namely, that the madman
Marchiali might be mad enough to hang himself to the canopy of his bed,
or to one of the bars of the window. In fact, the prisoner was anything
but a profitable investment for M. Baisemeaux, and became more annoying
than agreeable to him. These complications of Seldon and Marchiali - the
complications first of setting at liberty and then imprisoning again, the
complications arising from the strong likeness in question - had at last
found a very proper _denouement_. Baisemeaux even thought he had
remarked that D'Herblay himself was not altogether dissatisfied with the

"And then, really," said Baisemeaux to his next in command, "an ordinary
prisoner is already unhappy enough in being a prisoner; he suffers quite
enough, indeed, to induce one to hope, charitably enough, that his death
may not be far distant. With still greater reason, accordingly, when the
prisoner has gone mad, and might bite and make a terrible disturbance in
the Bastile; why, in such a case, it is not simply an act of mere charity
to wish him dead; it would be almost a good and even commendable action,
quietly to have him put out of his misery."

And the good-natured governor thereupon sat down to his late breakfast.

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The ungovernable fury which took possession of the king at the sight andat the perusal of Fouquet's letter to La Valliere by degrees subsidedinto a feeling of pain and extreme weariness. Youth, invigorated byhealth and lightness of spirits, requiring soon that what it loses shouldbe immediately restored - youth knows not those endless, sleepless nightswhich enable us to realize the fable of the vulture unceasingly feedingon Prometheus. In cases where the man of middle life, in his acquiredstrength of will and purpose, and the old, in their state of naturalexhaustion, find incessant augmentation of their bitter sorrow, a youngman,