The three musketeers have little to do because they are not yet involved in the siege, so they ride out to a neighboring inn. On the way back, they challenge an approaching rider who, in turn, challenges them with a voice of absolute authority. It is the cardinal. Surprisingly, he knows the names of each of the three musketeers; because his mission is secret, he asks them to accompany him in order that his safety be guaranteed. He knows their reputations for bravery, loyalty, and trustworthiness.
They learn that he is going to the inn which they just left, and they tell him about some rogues who tried to break into a lady's room. The musketeers were obliged to disperse these unsavory characters. The cardinal is pleased; the lady is the very person whom he is to meet. He asks the musketeers to wait for him in a room below while he goes up to talk to the lady.
In the musketeers' room, there is a broken stovepipe and, by accident, Athos discovers that he can hear the conversation between the cardinal and Milady. Porthos and Aramis also draw up their chairs and listen. They hear the cardinal tell Milady that she is to go to London to contact Buckingham and let him know that as soon as he attacks France, the cardinal will bring about the queen's ruin. Milady is also to tell Buckingham that the cardinal knows about his activities with the queen, and he describes each meeting which the duke has had with the queen, including a description of the clothes that the duke wore on each occasion. The cardinal also knows the truth about the diamond tags.
Furthermore, the cardinal's men have intercepted an Englishman who had letters on him (one from Madame de Chevreuse, Aramis's beloved) which compromise the queen because they prove that the queen is capable of loving the king's enemies and of conspiring with the enemies of France — charges which could imprison the queen for life. The cardinal is aware that the duke will do almost anything to protect the queen, but if the duke refuses, the cardinal indicates to Milady that she is to kill him — and make it look like the work of a fanatic. Milady agrees and, in return, she requests that her enemies be killed — first, Constance Bonacieux; and then, and even more important, she wants d'Artagnan killed. She will provide evidence that d'Artagnan has been in collusion with Buckingham; afterward, the cardinal will see to it that d'Artagnan disappears forever. Then she asks for, and receives, a valuable letter from the cardinal stating that whatever the bearer of the letter does, that person is doing so for the benefit of the cardinal and for France.
After hearing this, Athos makes ready to leave. He tells Aramis and Porthos to tell the cardinal that he has gone forward to scout the road — just in case there are unknown dangers. After the cardinal and the two remaining musketeers have left the inn, Athos returns to Milady's room and confronts her. She is horrified when she realizes that Athos is Count de La Fere, her husband, the man who tried to hang her and left her for dead.
Athos charges her with all of the vile, infamous things she has done and reviews her recent vengeful actions. Milady is stunned by his minutely detailed knowledge of her evil machinations, and Athos threatens her life if she doesn't cease trying to kill d'Artagnan. Milady defies Athos and vows that d'Artagnan will certainly die after she has made certain that Constance Bonacieux is dead. Athos draws his pistol and is about to kill her, but instead, he takes the letter which the cardinal wrote for her, and leaves.
In these chapters, we have an ambiguous view of the cardinal. His request to the three musketeers, his acknowledgment that they are loyal and brave men, and his affirmation of the trust he has in them indicate that he is a man who recognizes good qualities in others. However, when the cardinal learns from Milady that d'Artagnan has been in collusion with Buckingham, he is determined to make sure that d'Artagnan is punished.
In Chapter 44, the device of having the three musketeers overhear the conversation between the cardinal and Milady is an easy, often used fictional gimmick that good writers rarely use. In the romantic fiction of the nineteenth century, however, it was a favorite device. Sometimes a person hid behind a screen in the same room, or behind a shrub outside, or listened through a broken stovepipe, as we see here. (Actually, this "stovepipe device" is an anachronism on Dumas's part because the time period for the novel is the 1620s, and the stovepipe was not invented until the 1760s, by Benjamin Franklin in America. Dumas's novel was written in 1843-44, when the stovepipe was an established feature of many households.)
While the cardinal is giving Milady instructions, we are once again aware of how all-powerful and omniscient he is. He reveals that he knows almost every movement which the duke has ever made in France, including the duke's role in the intricate misadventures of the diamond tags. The cardinal is a shrewd diplomat; he knows that the duke will go to almost any length to protect Anne of Austria, the queen of France, and since there is an allegiance between England, Spain, Austria, and Lorraine against France, he must take drastic measures to assure France's safety and protect her powers. His ability to find the right methods to accomplish these things is what makes him such a powerful and feared man.
In Chapter 45, we learn Athos's real name — Count de La Fere and we should recall that in the preface, Dumas wrote that he found a manuscript by Count de La Fere that recounts the events of this novel. During Athos's confrontation with Milady (alias Anne de Breuil, alias Countess de La Fere, alias Lady de Winter), he is stunned at the depths of her evil nature, her vile soul, and her infamous behavior. He thought he had killed her once and although he is on the verge of killing her now, he relents. He merely takes away her valuable "letter of protection," a letter which d'Artagnan will put to profitable use later on in the novel.