Armand-Jean du Plessis, priest, bishop, Cardinal-Duke of Richelieu and of Fronsac, and chief minister to His Most Christian Majesty, King Louis of France, thirteenth of that name, stood at the window and gazed at the gardeners at their work in the early afternoon. He watched as they plied their craft with spades and trowels and snips. He admired their skill and focus, and from time to time he was even a bit jealous. There were days where the thought of having honest dirt on his hands and the smell of honest manure in his nostrils appealed to him more than the spiritual reek of the court. But then, there was no one who could do his work as well as him, so if he didn’t do it, things would become even worse. Although he was beginning to have hopes of young Mazarini.
Richelieu looked back over his shoulder to where Servien stood inside the door. He raised his eyebrows.
“There . . . is a visitor, Eminence.”
Richelieu considered his intendant. If he didn’t know better, he’d have thought that Servien was . . . uncertain. And that was a condition he had seldom seen in his intendant in all their years together.
“Has this visitor a name, Servien?”
“He is one Abbé Jehan Mercier, Eminence.”
A low-ranking cleric. Perhaps he was wanting to speak to the cardinal rather than the chief minister. That might be refreshing.
“Is he one of our informers?”
Richelieu frowned. “Who did he bribe to get this far?”
“He, ah, carries an introduction from your niece.”
Well, that put a different light on things. If the Marquise de Combalet sent a lower-ranked cleric to see her uncle, it behooved him to meet the man. And it explained why Servien was handling the matter instead of a porter or guard.
“Then you had best admit him, Servien. We would not want the marquise unhappy with us.”
Servien withdrew, then moments later ushered a short round figure into the room. Abbé Mercier was dressed in what was apparently his best priestly garments, but they were somewhat on the fusty and shabby side. Richelieu was almost prepared to dismiss the man as a waste of his time, but for two things: the marquise was not a fool, and the abbé’s eyes were both bright and focused.
Richelieu held out his ring. The abbé bent with a certain aplomb to kiss it, then straightened with a slight smile on his face. Richelieu was a bit intrigued and waved a hand at the chair placed before his desk.
“Please, Abbé Jehan, be seated. Servien, see to refreshment, please.” Servien beckoned to a servant. As Richelieu rounded the desk, he heard the servant offering coffee, tea, mocha, and wine. Richelieu settled into his chair as Servien took a stance against a side wall, close enough to be available to Richelieu if needed, yet far enough away to not be part of the conversation.
“Perhaps a little wine,” the abbé said in a high-pitched breathy tenor as he took his seat. Moments later, he was holding a Venetian glass of a red to rival the claret contained within it. Richelieu picked up the cup of mocha that had appeared at his elbow and took a sip. Perfect mocha in the American style. He took a larger sip, then set the cup down.
A large smile appeared on the priest’s face, transforming the roundness of it to almost beam like the sun. “I minister at and through a hospice located outside Paris, mostly for poor folk who are dying, usually of consumption. The marquise learned of the work and has become one of our largest supporters. She has, upon occasion, invited me to her salons.”
Richelieu gave a slight nod. His niece was given to works of charity, and it would be just like her to invite someone like this priest and set him in the middle of her usual salon set. On the other hand, that was another indication that there was more to Abbé Jehan than one might assume. She would not expose someone she valued to the eyes, ears, and tongues of the salons unless she was certain he could hold his own.
“So do you seek the face of the cardinal or the chief minister, Abbé Jehan?”
An expression of almost sadness crossed the priest’s face. “Perhaps both, Your Eminence.”
Richelieu made a “continue” gesture with one hand as he picked up his cup again with the other. Abbé Jehan drained the wine from his glass, then held it in both hands and leaned forward slightly.
“Your Eminence, I am concerned about the spiritual welfare of Paris, and indeed, all of France.”
That took Richelieu a bit aback. That was not what he would have expected from a man cultivated by his niece.
“In what manner?”
Mercier took a deep breath, and began, “For some time, Eminence, I have been aware of—not a flood—a current, shall we say—of works of literature that have been making their way into France from Grantville. Some of them are translations of works written mostly in English, but more than a few are works written originally in French. Or what passes for French in the up-time. And these have begun to attract attention, even notoriety.”
“Dumas,” Richelieu murmured.
The priest made a moue, then continued with, “Yes, yes, everyone is reading Dumas. And it’s not his work I’m most concerned with. Despite his licentiousness, the man supports— supported—whatever the correct phraseology should be—the proper order of things. The divinely ordained order, if you will.
“And of course, there are the adventures of Asterix the Gaul, copied from the up-time books and sent this way.” Mercier shrugged. “They are, of course, overtly pagan, but I deem them no threat. As lampoons, they have their uses, and I confess that something that sticks a thumb in the eye of the Romans as often as these stories do warms my heart a bit. They will provide no more harm than Plato or Aristotle.”
The priest held up a hand with the index finger standing alone.
“But, there is another, one whose work is becoming more widely available, whose work concerns me: Monsieur Victor Hugo.”
Richelieu raised his eyebrows and settled back in his chair, holding his cup in both hands. The abbé leaned forward a little more.
“This man apparently lived at much the same time as Dumas, yet his works were very different. His most well-known work, Les Miserables, has been discovered by some enterprising soul mining the archives of Grantville, and an effort has begun to replicate the work today and disseminate it among the people of France, in particular the people of Paris, from what I can determine. It focuses on the lives of downtrodden poor and folk who were unfortunates in a time of rebellion and strife, when the very warp and weft of Paris and France were in danger of being pulled asunder.
“If Hugo were another Dumas, or even a fabulist such as Jules Verne, I would have little concern over him or the effect of his work. But the man was no such thing. From his writings, he appears to have been at the very least a subversive republican, if not an outright anarchist. Yet he was such a writer that he can reach into the minds and hearts of men and set them aflame. Even now, every couple of weeks or so a new signature of the reproduction of Les Miserables appears, and with each appearance the circle of readers widens and deepens. Even amongst my little flock, I hear rumblings of discontent being stirred by the ladle of those pages, and I fear that they are but the merest hint of what is simmering on the fires of the times.” Mercier’s voice had grown louder and more impassioned as he spoke. He made an obvious effort to sit back and take a deep breath.
Richelieu judged that the man was seriously concerned about the matter. This was not just something he was using as an entrée to the higher levels of the court. In another man, that would have been a very likely consideration, but the abbé, despite his apparent sharpness of wit, didn’t seem to be maneuvering that direction.
The cardinal took a sip of his cooling mocha, then cradled the cup in his hands. “So, again, do you come to me as cardinal or as chief minister? What recommendations do you bring?”
“I come to you in whatever manner you stand as guardian of the spirituality of the people of France,” the priest responded with some passion. “I urge you to do what must be done to protect the souls of France from the pernicious influence of the writing of Victor Hugo. I urge you to suppress his work, to declare it unworthy of France. At the very least, I ask that you be aware of it, and have your eyes and ears follow it, lest it become a source of active unrest in the corpus of France.”
Richelieu stared over the rim of his cup at the abbé as he finished his mocha. He set the empty cup down on his desk, clasped his hands before his midriff, and focused a long gaze on the priest, who was staring back at him earnestly, apparently having spent his passion.
“As it happens,” Richelieu said at length, “we are aware of the matter you have raised. It is a matter of some concern, this wholesale importation of unauthorized works that bids to upset the normal channels of our ancien régime. So, you may take some comfort from that.”
The expression of relief that spread over Mercier’s face gave an almost palpable air within the room. The smile that appeared seemed to take a few years off of his appearance, leaving Richelieu to wonder if he had overestimated the man’s age.
“Thank you, Your Eminence,” the abbé, his tone reflecting a certain amount of both humility and gratitude. “I had hoped that my concerns were not new to you, but it is good to know that you are well-informed and already have the matter in hand.”
“Indeed,” Richelieu said. “Those who are printing these scurrilous publications cannot make a move that we are not aware of. We are simply watching to see who has become entangled in their nets.”
“Ah,” Mercier said, with a bit of a knowing nod. “Well, since that is the case, I will apologize for having bothered you with my petty concerns and take my leave. God’s blessing on you, Your Eminence.” He rose as he spoke, and Servien materialized to take the wine glass from him.
“It is of no matter, Abbé Jehan,” Richelieu responded. “And do, if you see or hear anything that bears on the matter, give us word of it. Or as much as you can without breaking the seal of the confessional, of course.”
“As you direct, Your Eminence,” the abbé responded. He gave a final bow, and allowed Servien to usher him from the room.
Richelieu chuckled when Servien slipped back into the room. “Ah, if he only knew, eh, Servien?”
“Indeed, Eminence,” the intendant responded with a small smile.
“Wait until he encounters Voltaire and Camus,” the cardinal said. Another chuckle followed. “Make note of him, Servien. He might prove to be useful.”
Servien placed a folder on the desk. “The latest report at last, Eminence.”
“Ah?” Richelieu placed a possessive hand on top of the folder. “And why was this late, Servien?”
“The local distributor said that it was delayed by some officious guard at one of the city gates.”
“Make a note of that as well, Servien.”
And with that, Servien slipped out of the room while Richelieu opened the folder. “Now, let’s see what Jean Valjean and Monsieur Thénardier have to say this week.” He bent over the folder and began to read.