La Grande Breteche
by Honore de Balzac
Translated By Ellen Marriage and Clara Bell
(Sequel to "Another Study of Woman.")
"Ah! madame," replied the doctor, "I have some appalling stories in my
collection. But each one has its proper hour in a conversation--you
know the pretty jest recorded by Chamfort, and said to the Duc de
Fronsac: 'Between your sally and the present moment lie ten bottles of
"But it is two in the morning, and the story of Rosina has prepared
us," said the mistress of the house.
"Tell us, Monsieur Bianchon!" was the cry on every side.
The obliging doctor bowed, and silence reigned.
"At about a hundred paces from Vendome, on the banks of the Loir,"
said he, "stands an old brown house, crowned with very high roofs, and
so completely isolated that there is nothing near it, not even a fetid
tannery or a squalid tavern, such as are commonly seen outside small
towns. In front of this house is a garden down to the river, where the
box shrubs, formerly clipped close to edge the walks, now straggle at
their own will. A few willows, rooted in the stream, have grown up
quickly like an enclosing fence, and half hide the house. The wild
plants we call weeds have clothed the bank with their beautiful
luxuriance. The fruit-trees, neglected for these ten years past, no
longer bear a crop, and their suckers have formed a thicket. The
espaliers are like a copse. The paths, once graveled, are overgrown
with purslane; but, to be accurate there is no trace of a path.
"Looking down from the hilltop, to which cling the ruins of the old
castle of the Dukes of Vendome, the only spot whence the eye can see
into this enclosure, we think that at a time, difficult now to
determine, this spot of earth must have been the joy of some country
gentleman devoted to roses and tulips, in a word, to horticulture, but
above all a lover of choice fruit. An arbor is visible, or rather the
wreck of an arbor, and under it a table still stands not entirely
destroyed by time. At the aspect of this garden that is no more, the
negative joys of the peaceful life of the provinces may be divined as
we divine the history of a worthy tradesman when we read the epitaph
on his tomb. To complete the mournful and tender impressions which
seize the soul, on one of the walls there is a sundial graced with
this homely Christian motto, 'Ultimam cogita<i>.'
"The roof of this house is dreadfully dilapidated; the outside
shutters are always closed; the balconies are hung with swallows'
nests; the doors are for ever shut. Straggling grasses have outlined
the flagstones of the steps with green; the ironwork is rusty. Moon
and sun, winter, summer, and snow have eaten into the wood, warped the
boards, peeled off the paint. The dreary silence is broken only by
birds and cats, polecats, rats, and mice, free to scamper round, and
fight, and eat each other. An invisible hand has written over it all:
"If, prompted by curiosity, you go to look at this house from the
street, you will see a large gate, with a round-arched top; the
children have made many holes in it. I learned later that this door
had been blocked for ten years. Through these irregular breaches you
will see that the side towards the courtyard is in perfect harmony
with the side towards the garden. The same ruin prevails. Tufts of
weeds outline the paving-stones; the walls are scored by enormous
cracks, and the blackened coping is laced with a thousand festoons of
pellitory. The stone steps are disjointed; the bell-cord is rotten;
the gutter-spouts broken. What fire from heaven could have fallen
there? By what decree has salt been sown on this dwelling? Has God
been mocked here? Or was France betrayed? These are the questions we
ask ourselves. Reptiles crawl over it, but give no reply. This empty
and deserted house is a vast enigma of which the answer is known to
"It was formerly a little domain, held in fief, and is known as La
Grande Breteche. During my stay at Vendome, where Despleins had left
me in charge of a rich patient, the sight of this strange dwelling
became one of my keenest pleasures. Was it not far better than a ruin?
Certain memories of indisputable authenticity attach themselves to a
ruin; but this house, still standing, though being slowly destroyed by
an avenging hand, contained a secret, an unrevealed thought. At the
very least, it testified to a caprice. More than once in the evening I
boarded the hedge, run wild, which surrounded the enclosure. I braved
scratches, I got into this ownerless garden, this plot which was no
longer public or private; I lingered there for hours gazing at the
disorder. I would not, as the price of the story to which this strange
scene no doubt was due, have asked a single question of any gossiping
native. On that spot I wove delightful romances, and abandoned myself
to little debauches of melancholy which enchanted me. If I had known
the reason--perhaps quite commonplace--of this neglect, I should have
lost the unwritten poetry which intoxicated me. To me this refuge
represented the most various phases of human life, shadowed by
misfortune; sometimes the peace of the graveyard without the dead, who
speak in the language of epitaphs; one day I saw in it the home of
lepers; another, the house of the Atridae; but, above all, I found
there provincial life, with its contemplative ideas, its hour-glass
existence. I often wept there, I never laughed.
"More than once I felt involuntary terrors as I heard overhead the
dull hum of the wings of some hurrying wood-pigeon. The earth is dank;
you must be on the watch for lizards, vipers, and frogs, wandering
about with the wild freedom of nature; above all, you must have no
fear of cold, for in a few moments you feel an icy cloak settle on
your shoulders, like the Commendatore's hand on Don Giovanni's neck.
"One evening I felt a shudder; the wind had turned an old rusty
weathercock, and the creaking sounded like a cry from the house, at
the very moment when I was finishing a gloomy drama to account for
this monumental embodiment of woe. I returned to my inn, lost in
gloomy thoughts. When I had supped, the hostess came into my room with
an air of mystery, and said, 'Monsieur, here is Monsieur Regnault.'
" 'Who is Monsieur Regnault?'
" 'What, sir, do you not know Monsieur Regnault?--Well, that's odd,'
said she, leaving the room.
"On a sudden I saw a man appear, tall, slim, dressed in black, hat in
hand, who came in like a ram ready to butt his opponent, showing a
receding forehead, a small pointed head, and a colorless face of the
hue of a glass of dirty water. You would have taken him for an usher.
The stranger wore an old coat, much worn at the seams; but he had a
diamond in his shirt frill, and gold rings in his ears.
" 'Monsieur,' said I, 'whom have I the honor of addressing?'--He took
a chair, placed himself in front of my fire, put his hat on my table,
and answered while he rubbed his hands: 'Dear me, it is very cold.--
Monsieur, I am Monsieur Regnault.'
" I was encouraging myself by saying to myself, 'Il bondo cani!<i>
" 'I am,' he went on, 'notary at Vendome.'
" 'I am delighted to hear it, monsieur,' I exclaimed. 'But I am not in
a position to make a will for reasons best known to myself.'
" 'One moment!' said he, holding up his hand as though to gain
silence. 'Allow me, monsieur, allow me! I am informed that you
sometimes go to walk in the garden of la Grande Breteche.'
" 'Yes, monsieur.'
" 'One moment!' said he, repeating his gesture. 'That constitutes a
misdemeanor. Monsieur, as executor under the will of the late Comtesse
de Merret, I come in her name to beg you to discontinue the practice.
One moment! I am not a Turk, and do not wish to make a crime of it.
And besides, you are free to be ignorant of the circumstances which
compel me to leave the finest mansion in Vendome to fall into ruin.
Nevertheless, monsieur, you must be a man of education, and you should
know that the laws forbid, under heavy penalties, any trespass on
enclosed property. A hedge is the same as a wall. But, the state in
which the place is left may be an excuse for your curiosity. For my
part, I should be quite content to make you free to come and go in the
house; but being bound to respect the will of the testatrix, I have
the honor, monsieur, to beg that you will go into the garden no more.
I myself, monsieur, since the will was read, have never set foot in
the house, which, as I had the honor of informing you, is part of the
estate of the late Madame de Merret. We have done nothing there but
verify the number of doors and windows to assess the taxes I have to
pay annually out of the funds left for that purpose by the late Madame
de Merret. Ah! my dear sir, her will made a great commotion in the
"The good man paused to blow his nose. I respected his volubility,
perfectly understanding that the administration of Madame de Merret's
estate had been the most important event of his life, his reputation,
his glory, his Restoration. As I was forced to bid farewell to my
beautiful reveries and romances, I was to reject learning the truth on
" 'Monsieur,' said I, 'would it be indiscreet if I were to ask you the
reasons for such eccentricity?'
"At these words an expression, which revealed all the pleasure which
men feel who are accustomed to ride a hobby, overspread the lawyer's
countenance. He pulled up the collar of his shirt with an air, took
out his snuffbox, opened it, and offered me a pinch; on my refusing,
he took a large one. He was happy! A man who has no hobby does not
know all the good to be got out of life. A hobby is the happy medium
between a passion and a monomania. At this moment I understood the
whole bearing of Sterne's charming passion, and had a perfect idea of
the delight with which my uncle Toby, encouraged by Trim, bestrode his
" 'Monsieur,' said Monsieur Regnault, 'I was head-clerk in Monsieur
Roguin's office, in Paris. A first-rate house, which you may have
heard mentioned? No! An unfortunate bankruptcy made it famous.--Not
having money enough to purchase a practice in Paris at the price to
which they were run up in 1816, I came here and bought my
predecessor's business. I had relations in Vendome; among others, a
wealthy aunt, who allowed me to marry her daughter.--Monsieur,' he
went on after a little pause, 'three months after being licensed by
the Keeper of the Seals, one evening, as I was going to bed--it was
before my marriage--I was sent for by Madame la Comtesse de Merret, to
her Chateau of Merret. Her maid, a good girl, who is now a servant in
this inn, was waiting at my door with the Countess' own carriage. Ah!
one moment! I ought to tell you that Monsieur le Comte de Merret had
gone to Paris to die two months before I came here. He came to a
miserable end, flinging himself into every kind of dissipation. You
" 'On the day when he left, Madame la Comtesse had quitted la Grand
Breteche, having dismantled it. Some people even say that she had
burnt all the furniture, the hangings--in short, all the chattels and
furniture whatever used in furnishing the premises now let by the said
M.--(Dear, what am I saying? I beg your pardon, I thought I was
dictating a lease.)--In short, that she burnt everything in the meadow
at Merret. Have you been to Merret, monsieur?--No,' said he, answering
himself, 'Ah, it is a very fine place.'
" 'For about three months previously,' he went on, with a jerk of his
head, 'the Count and Countess had lived in a very eccentric way; they
admitted no visitors; Madame lived on the ground-floor, and Monsieur
on the first floor. When the Countess was left alone, she was never
seen excepting at church. Subsequently, at home, at the chateau, she
refused to see the friends, whether gentlemen or ladies, who went to
call on her. She was already very much altered when she left la Grande
Breteche to go to Merret. That dear lady--I say dear lady, for it was
she who gave me this diamond, but indeed I saw her but once--that kind
lady was very ill; she had, no doubt, given up all hope, for she died
without choosing to send for a doctor; indeed, many of our ladies
fancied she was not quite right in her head. Well, sir, my curiosity
was strangely excited by hearing that Madame de Merret had need of my
services. Nor was I the only person who took an interest in the
affair. That very night, though it was already late, all the town knew
that I was going to Merret.
" 'The waiting-woman replied but vaguely to the questions I asked her
on the way; nevertheless, she told me that her mistress had received
the Sacrament in the course of the day at the hands of the Cure of
Merret, and seemed unlikely to live through the night. It was about
eleven when I reached the chateau. I went up the great staircase.
After crossing some large, lofty, dark rooms, diabolically cold and
damp, I reached the state bedroom where the Countess lay. From the
rumors that were current concerning this lady (monsieur, I should
never end if I were to repeat all the tales that were told about her),
I had imagined her a coquette. Imagine, then, that I had great
difficulty in seeing her in the great bed where she was lying. To be
sure, to light this enormous room, with old-fashioned heavy cornices,
and so thick with dust that merely to see it was enough to make you
sneeze, she had only an old Argand lamp. Ah! but you have not been to
Merret. Well, the bed is one of those old world beds, with a high
tester hung with flowered chintz. A small table stood by the bed, on
which I saw an "Imitation of Christ," which, by the way, I bought for
my wife, as well as the lamp. There were also a deep armchair for her
confidential maid, and two small chairs. There was no fire. That was
all the furniture, not enough to fill ten lines in an inventory.
" 'My dear sir, if you had seen, as I then saw, that vast room,
papered and hung with brown, you would have felt yourself transported
into a scene of a romance. It was icy, nay more, funereal,' and he
lifted his hand with a theatrical gesture and paused.
" 'By dint of seeking, as I approached the bed, at last I saw Madame
de Merret, under the glimmer of the lamp, which fell on the pillows.
Her face was as yellow as wax, and as narrow as two folded hands. The
Countess had a lace cap showing her abundant hair, but as white as
linen thread. She was sitting up in bed, and seemed to keep upright
with great difficulty. Her large black eyes, dimmed by fever, no
doubt, and half-dead already, hardly moved under the bony arch of her
eyebrows.--There,' he added, pointing to his own brow. 'Her forehead
was clammy; her fleshless hands were like bones covered with soft
skin; the veins and muscles were perfectly visible. She must have been
very handsome; but at this moment I was startled into an indescribable
emotion at the sight. Never, said those who wrapped her in her shroud,
had any living creature been so emaciated and lived. In short, it was
awful to behold! Sickness so consumed that woman, that she was no more
than a phantom. Her lips, which were pale violet, seemed to me not to
move when she spoke to me.
" 'Though my profession has familiarized me with such spectacles, by
calling me not infrequently to the bedside of the dying to record
their last wishes, I confess that families in tears and the agonies I
have seen were as nothing in comparison with this lonely and silent
woman in her vast chateau. I heard not the least sound, I did not
perceive the movement which the sufferer's breathing ought to have
given to the sheets that covered her, and I stood motionless, absorbed
in looking at her in a sort of stupor. In fancy I am there still. At
last her large eyes moved; she tried to raise her right hand, but it
fell back on the bed, and she uttered these words, which came like a
breath, for her voice was no longer a voice: "I have waited for you
with the greatest impatience." A bright flush rose to her cheeks. It
was a great effort to her to speak.
" ' "Madame," I began. She signed to me to be silent. At that moment
the old housekeeper rose and said in my ear, "Do not speak; Madame la
Comtesse is not in a state to bear the slightest noise, and what you
say might agitate her."
" 'I sat down. A few instants after, Madame de Merret collected all
her remaining strength to move her right hand, and slipped it, not
without infinite difficulty, under the bolster; she then paused a
moment. With a last effort she withdrew her hand; and when she brought
out a sealed paper, drops of perspiration rolled from her brow. "I
place my will in your hands--Oh! God! Oh!" and that was all. She
clutched a crucifix that lay on the bed, lifted it hastily to her
lips, and died.
" 'The expression of her eyes still makes me shudder as I think of it.
She must have suffered much! There was joy in her last glance, and it
remained stamped on her dead eyes.
" 'I brought away the will, and when it was opened I found that Madame
de Merret had appointed me her executor. She left the whole of her
property to the hospital at Vendome excepting a few legacies. But
these were her instructions as relating to la Grande Breteche: She
ordered me to leave the place, for fifty years counting from the day
of her death, in the state in which it might be at the time of her
death, forbidding any one, whoever he might be, to enter the
apartments, prohibiting any repairs whatever, and even settling a
salary to pay watchmen if it were needful to secure the absolute
fulfilment of her intentions. At the expiration of that term, if the
will of the testatrix has been duly carried out, the house is to
become the property of my heirs, for, as you know, a notary cannot
take a bequest. Otherwise la Grande Breteche reverts to the heirs-at-
law, but on condition of fulfilling certain conditions set forth in a
codicil to the will, which is not to be opened till the expiration of
the said term of fifty years. The will has not been disputed, so----'
And without finishing his sentence, the lanky notary looked at me with
an air of triumph; I made him quite happy by offering him my
" 'Monsieur,' I said in conclusion, 'you have so vividly impressed me
that I fancy I see the dying woman whiter than her sheets; her
glittering eyes frighten me; I shall dream of her to-night.--But you
must have formed some idea as to the instructions contained in that
" 'Monsieur,' said he, with comical reticence, 'I never allow myself
to criticise the conduct of a person who honors me with the gift of a
"However, I soon loosened the tongue of the discreet notary of
Vendome, who communicated to me, not without long digressions, the
opinions of the deep politicians of both sexes whose judgments are law
in Vendome. But these opinions were so contradictory, so diffuse, that
I was near falling asleep in spite of the interest I felt in this
authentic history. The notary's ponderous voice and monotonous accent,
accustomed no doubt to listen to himself and to make himself listened
to by his clients or fellow-townsmen, were too much for my curiosity.
Happily, he soon went away.
" 'Ah, ha, monsieur,' said he on the stairs, 'a good many persons
would be glad to live five-and-forty years longer; but--one moment!'
and he laid the first finger of his right hand to his nostril with a
cunning look, as much as to say, 'Mark my words!--To last as long as
that--as long as that,' said he, 'you must not be past sixty now.'
"I closed my door, having been roused from my apathy by this last
speech, which the notary thought very funny; then I sat down in my
armchair, with my feet on the fire-dogs. I had lost myself in a
romance a la Radcliffe, constructed on the juridical base given me
by Monsieur Regnault, when the door, opened by a woman's cautious
hand, turned on the hinges. I saw my landlady come in, a buxom, florid
dame, always good-humored, who had missed her calling in life. She was
a Fleming, who ought to have seen the light in a picture by Teniers.
" 'Well, monsieur,' said she, 'Monsieur Regnault has no doubt been
giving you his history of la Grande Breteche?'
" 'Yes, Madame Lepas.'
" 'And what did he tell you?'
"I repeated in a few words the creepy and sinister story of Madame de
Merret. At each sentence my hostess put her head forward, looking at
me with an innkeeper's keen scrutiny, a happy compromise between the
instinct of a police constable, the astuteness of a spy, and the
cunning of a dealer.
" 'My good Madame Lepas,' said I as I ended, 'you seem to know more
about it. Heh? If not, why have you come up to me?'
" 'On my word, as an honest woman----'
" 'Do not swear; your eyes are big with a secret. You knew Monsieur de
Merret; what sort of man was he?'
" 'Monsieur de Merret--well, you see he was a man you never could see
the top of, he was so tall! A very good gentleman, from Picardy, and
who had, as we say, his head close to his cap. He paid for everything
down, so as never to have difficulties with any one. He was hot-
tempered, you see! All our ladies liked him very much.'
" 'Because he was hot-tempered?' I asked her.
" 'Well, may be,' said she; 'and you may suppose, sir, that a man had
to have something to show for a figurehead before he could marry
Madame de Merret, who, without any reflection on others, was the
handsomest and richest heiress in our parts. She had about twenty
thousand francs a year. All the town was at the wedding; the bride was
pretty and sweet-looking, quite a gem of a woman. Oh, they were a
handsome couple in their day!'
" 'And were they happy together?'
" 'Hm, hm! so-so--so far as can be guessed, for, as you may suppose,
we of the common sort were not hail-fellow-well-met with them.--Madame
de Merret was a kind woman and very pleasant, who had no doubt
sometimes to put up with her husband's tantrums. But though he was
rather haughty, we were fond of him. After all, it was his place to
behave so. When a man is a born nobleman, you see----'
" 'Still, there must have been some catastrophe for Monsieur and
Madame de Merret to part so violently?'
" 'I did not say there was any catastrophe, sir. I know nothing about
" 'Indeed. Well, now, I am sure you know everything.'
" 'Well, sir, I will tell you the whole story.--When I saw Monsieur
Regnault go up to see you, it struck me that he would speak to you
about Madame de Merret as having to do with la Grande Breteche. That
put it into my head to ask your advice, sir, seeming to me that you
are a man of good judgment and incapable of playing a poor woman like
me false--for I never did any one a wrong, and yet I am tormented by
my conscience. Up to now I have never dared to say a word to the
people of these parts; they are all chatter-mags, with tongues like
knives. And never till now, sir, have I had any traveler here who
stayed so long in the inn as you have, and to whom I could tell the
history of the fifteen thousand francs----'
" 'My dear Madame Lepas, if there is anything in your story of a
nature to compromise me,' I said, interrupting the flow of her words,
'I would not hear it for all the world.'
" 'You need have no fears,' said she; 'you will see.'
"Her eagerness made me suspect that I was not the only person to whom
my worthy landlady had communicated the secret of which I was to be
the sole possessor, but I listened.
" 'Monsieur,' said she, 'when the Emperor sent the Spaniards here,
prisoners of war and others, I was required to lodge at the charge of
the Government a young Spaniard sent to Vendome on parole.
Notwithstanding his parole, he had to show himself every day to the
sub-prefect. He was a Spanish grandee--neither more nor less. He had a
name in os and dia, something like Bagos de Feredia. I wrote his
name down in my books, and you may see it if you like. Ah! he was a
handsome young fellow for a Spaniard, who are all ugly they say. He
was not more than five feet two or three in height, but so well made;
and he had little hands that he kept so beautifully! Ah! you should
have seen them. He had as many brushes for his hands as a woman has
for her toilet. He had thick, black hair, a flame in his eye, a
somewhat coppery complexion, but which I admired all the same. He wore
the finest linen I have ever seen, though I have had princesses to
lodge here, and, among others, General Bertrand, the Duc and Duchesse
d'Abrantes, Monsieur Descazes, and the King of Spain. He did not eat
much, but he had such polite and amiable ways that it was impossible
to owe him a grudge for that. Oh! I was very fond of him, though he
did not say four words to me in a day, and it was impossible to have
the least bit of talk with him; if he was spoken to, he did not
answer; it is a way, a mania they all have, it would seem.
" 'He read his breviary like a priest, and went to mass and all the
services quite regularly. And where did he post himself?--we found
this out later.--Within two yards of Madame de Merret's chapel. As he
took that place the very first time he entered the church, no one
imagined that there was any purpose in it. Besides, he never raised
his nose above his book, poor young man! And then, monsieur, of an
evening he went for a walk on the hill among the ruins of the old
castle. It was his only amusement, poor man; it reminded him of his
native land. They say that Spain is all hills!
" 'One evening, a few days after he was sent here, he was out very
late. I was rather uneasy when he did not come in till just on the
stroke of midnight; but we all got used to his whims; he took the key
of the door, and we never sat up for him. He lived in a house
belonging to us in the Rue des Casernes. Well, then, one of our
stable-boys told us one evening that, going down to wash the horses in
the river, he fancied he had seen the Spanish Grandee swimming some
little way off, just like a fish. When he came in, I told him to be
careful of the weeds, and he seemed put out at having been seen in the
" 'At last, monsieur, one day, or rather one morning, we did not find
him in his room; he had not come back. By hunting through his things,
I found a written paper in the drawer of his table, with fifty pieces
of Spanish gold of the kind they call doubloons, worth about five
thousand francs; and in a little sealed box ten thousand francs worth
of diamonds. The paper said that in case he should not return, he left
us this money and these diamonds in trust to found masses to thank God
for his escape and for his salvation.
" 'At that time I still had my husband, who ran off in search of him.
And this is the queer part of the story: he brought back the
Spaniard's clothes, which he had found under a big stone on a sort of
breakwater along the river bank, nearly opposite la Grande Breteche.
My husband went so early that no one saw him. After reading the
letter, he burnt the clothes, and, in obedience to Count Feredia's
wish, we announced that he had escaped.
" 'The sub-prefect set all the constabulary at his heels; but, pshaw!
he was never caught. Lepas believed that the Spaniard had drowned
himself. I, sir, have never thought so; I believe, on the contrary,
that he had something to do with the business about Madame de Merret,
seeing that Rosalie told me that the crucifix her mistress was so fond
of that she had it buried with her, was made of ebony and silver; now
in the early days of his stay here, Monsieur Feredia had one of ebony
and silver which I never saw later.--And now, monsieur, do not you say
that I need have no remorse about the Spaniard's fifteen thousand
francs? Are they not really and truly mine?'
" 'Certainly.--But have you never tried to question Rosalie?' said I.
" 'Oh, to be sure I have, sir. But what is to be done? That girl is
like a wall. She knows something, but it is impossible to make her
"After chatting with me for a few minutes, my hostess left me a prey
to vague and sinister thoughts, to romantic curiosity, and a religious
dread, not unlike the deep emotion which comes upon us when we go into
a dark church at night and discern a feeble light glimmering under a
lofty vault--a dim figure glides across--the sweep of a gown or of a
priest's cassock is audible--and we shiver! La Grande Breteche, with
its rank grasses, its shuttered windows, its rusty iron-work, its
locked doors, its deserted rooms, suddenly rose before me in fantastic
vividness. I tried to get into the mysterious dwelling to search out
the heart of this solemn story, this drama which had killed three
"Rosalie became in my eyes the most interesting being in Vendome. As I
studied her, I detected signs of an inmost thought, in spite of the
blooming health that glowed in her dimpled face. There was in her soul
some element of ruth or of hope; her manner suggested a secret, like
the expression of devout souls who pray in excess, or of a girl who
has killed her child and for ever hears its last cry. Nevertheless,
she was simple and clumsy in her ways; her vacant smile had nothing
criminal in it, and you would have pronounced her innocent only from
seeing the large red and blue checked kerchief that covered her
stalwart bust, tucked into the tight-laced bodice of a lilac- and
white-striped gown. 'No,' said I to myself, 'I will not quit Vendome
without knowing the whole history of la Grande Breteche. To achieve
this end, I will make love to Rosalie if it proves necessary.'
" 'Rosalie!' said I one evening.
" 'Your servant, sir?'
" 'You are not married?' She started a little.
" 'Oh! there is no lack of men if ever I take a fancy to be
miserable!' she replied, laughing. She got over her agitation at once;
for every woman, from the highest lady to the inn-servant inclusive,
has a native presence of mind.
" 'Yes; you are fresh and good-looking enough never to lack lovers!
But tell me, Rosalie, why did you become an inn-servant on leaving
Madame de Merret? Did she not leave you some little annuity?'
" 'Oh yes, sir. But my place here is the best in all the town of
"This reply was such an one as judges and attorneys call evasive.
Rosalie, as it seemed to me, held in this romantic affair the place of
the middle square of the chess-board: she was at the very centre of
the interest and of the truth; she appeared to me to be tied into the
knot of it. It was not a case for ordinary love-making; this girl
contained the last chapter of a romance, and from that moment all my
attentions were devoted to Rosalie. By dint of studying the girl, I
observed in her, as in every woman whom we make our ruling thought, a
variety of good qualities; she was clean and neat; she was handsome, I
need not say; she soon was possessed of every charm that desire can
lend to a woman in whatever rank of life. A fortnight after the
notary's visit, one evening, or rather one morning, in the small
hours, I said to Rosalie:
" 'Come, tell me all you know about Madame de Merret.'
" 'Oh!' she said, 'I will tell you; but keep the secret carefully.'
" 'All right, my child; I will keep all your secrets with a thief's
honor, which is the most loyal known.'
" 'If it is all the same to you,' said she, 'I would rather it should
be with your own.'
"Thereupon she set her head-kerchief straight, and settled herself to
tell the tale; for there is no doubt a particular attitude of
confidence and security is necessary to the telling of a narrative.
The best tales are told at a certain hour--just as we are all here at
table. No one ever told a story well standing up, or fasting.
"If I were to reproduce exactly Rosalie's diffuse eloquence, a whole
volume would scarcely contain it. Now, as the event of which she gave
me a confused account stands exactly midway between the notary's
gossip and that of Madame Lepas, as precisely as the middle term of a
rule-of-three sum stands between the first and third, I have only to
relate it in as few words as may be. I shall therefore be brief.
"The room at la Grande Breteche in which Madame de Merret slept was on
the ground floor; a little cupboard in the wall, about four feet deep,
served her to hang her dresses in. Three months before the evening of
which I have to relate the events, Madame de Merret had been seriously
ailing, so much so that her husband had left her to herself, and had
his own bedroom on the first floor. By one of those accidents which it
is impossible to foresee, he came in that evening two hours later than
usual from the club, where he went to read the papers and talk
politics with the residents in the neighborhood. His wife supposed him
to have come in, to be in bed and asleep. But the invasion of France
had been the subject of a very animated discussion; the game of
billiards had waxed vehement; he had lost forty francs, an enormous
sum at Vendome, where everybody is thrifty, and where social habits
are restrained within the bounds of a simplicity worthy of all praise,
and the foundation perhaps of a form of true happiness which no
Parisian would care for.
"For some time past Monsieur de Merret had been satisfied to ask
Rosalie whether his wife was in bed; on the girl's replying always in
the affirmative, he at once went to his own room, with the good faith
that comes of habit and confidence. But this evening, on coming in, he
took it into his head to go to see Madame de Merret, to tell her of
his ill-luck, and perhaps to find consolation. During dinner he had
observed that his wife was very becomingly dressed; he reflected as he
came home from the club that his wife was certainly much better, that
convalescence had improved her beauty, discovering it, as husbands
discover everything, a little too late. Instead of calling Rosalie,
who was in the kitchen at the moment watching the cook and the
coachman playing a puzzling hand at cards, Monsieur de Merret made his
way to his wife's room by the light of his lantern, which he set down
at the lowest step of the stairs. His step, easy to recognize, rang
under the vaulted passage.
"At the instant when the gentleman turned the key to enter his wife's
room, he fancied he heard the door shut of the closet of which I have
spoken; but when he went in, Madame de Merret was alone, standing in
front of the fireplace. The unsuspecting husband fancied that Rosalie
was in the cupboard; nevertheless, a doubt, ringing in his ears like a
peal of bells, put him on his guard; he looked at his wife, and read
in her eyes an indescribably anxious and haunted expression.
" 'You are very late,' said she.--Her voice, usually so clear and
sweet, struck him as being slightly husky.
"Monsieur de Merret made no reply, for at this moment Rosalie came in.
This was like a thunder-clap. He walked up and down the room, going
from one window to another at a regular pace, his arms folded.
" 'Have you had bad news, or are you ill?' his wife asked him timidly,
while Rosalie helped her to undress. He made no reply.
" 'You can go, Rosalie,' said Madame de Merret to her maid; 'I can put
in my curl-papers myself.'--She scented disaster at the mere aspect of
her husband's face, and wished to be alone with him. As soon as
Rosalie was gone, or supposed to be gone, for she lingered a few
minutes in the passage, Monsieur de Merret came and stood facing his
wife, and said coldly, 'Madame, there is some one in your cupboard!'
She looked at her husband calmly, and replied quite simply, 'No,
"This 'No' wrung Monsieur de Merret's heart; he did not believe it;
and yet his wife had never appeared purer or more saintly than she
seemed to be at this moment. He rose to go and open the closet door.
Madame de Merret took his hand, stopped him, looked at him sadly, and
said in a voice of strange emotion, 'Remember, if you should find no
one there, everything must be at an end between you and me.'
"The extraordinary dignity of his wife's attitude filled him with deep
esteem for her, and inspired him with one of those resolves which need
only a grander stage to become immortal.
" 'No, Josephine,' he said, 'I will not open it. In either event we
should be parted for ever. Listen; I know all the purity of your soul,
I know you lead a saintly life, and would not commit a deadly sin to
save your life.'--At these words Madame de Merret looked at her
husband with a haggard stare.--'See, here is your crucifix,' he went
on. 'Swear to me before God that there is no one in there; I will
believe you--I will never open that door.'
"Madame de Merret took up the crucifix and said, 'I swear it.'
" 'Louder,' said her husband; 'and repeat: "I swear before God that
there is nobody in that closet." ' She repeated the words without
" 'That will do,' said Monsieur de Merret coldly. After a moment's
silence: 'You have there a fine piece of work which I never saw
before,' said he, examining the crucifix of ebony and silver, very
" 'I found it at Duvivier's; last year when that troop of Spanish
prisoners came through Vendome, he bought it of a Spanish monk.'
" 'Indeed,' said Monsieur de Merret, hanging the crucifix on its nail;
and he rang the bell.
"He had to wait for Rosalie. Monsieur de Merret went forward quickly
to meet her, led her into the bay of the window that looked on to the
garden, and said to her in an undertone:
" 'I know that Gorenflot wants to marry you, that poverty alone
prevents your setting up house, and that you told him you would not be
his wife till he found means to become a master mason.--Well, go and
fetch him; tell him to come here with his trowel and tools. Contrive
to wake no one in his house but himself. His reward will be beyond
your wishes. Above all, go out without saying a word--or else!' and he
"Rosalie was going, and he called her back. 'Here, take my latch-key,'
" 'Jean!' Monsieur de Merret called in a voice of thunder down the
passage. Jean, who was both coachman and confidential servant, left
his cards and came.
" 'Go to bed, all of you,' said his master, beckoning him to come
close; and the gentleman added in a whisper, 'When they are all asleep
--mind, asleep--you understand?--come down and tell me.'
"Monsieur de Merret, who had never lost sight of his wife while giving
his orders, quietly came back to her at the fireside, and began to
tell her the details of the game of billiards and the discussion at
the club. When Rosalie returned she found Monsieur and Madame de
Merret conversing amiably.
"Not long before this Monsieur de Merret had had new ceilings made to
all the reception-rooms on the ground floor. Plaster is very scarce at
Vendome; the price is enhanced by the cost of carriage; the gentleman
had therefore had a considerable quantity delivered to him, knowing
that he could always find purchasers for what might be left. It was
this circumstance which suggested the plan he carried out.
" 'Gorenflot is here, sir,' said Rosalie in a whisper.
" 'Tell him to come in,' said her master aloud.
"Madame de Merret turned paler when she saw the mason.
" 'Gorenflot,' said her husband, 'go and fetch some bricks from the
coach-house; bring enough to wall up the door of this cupboard; you
can use the plaster that is left for cement.' Then, dragging Rosalie
and the workman close to him--'Listen, Gorenflot,' said he, in a low
voice, 'you are to sleep here to-night; but to-morrow morning you
shall have a passport to take you abroad to a place I will tell you
of. I will give you six thousand francs for your journey. You must
live in that town for ten years; if you find you do not like it, you
may settle in another, but it must be in the same country. Go through
Paris and wait there till I join you. I will there give you an
agreement for six thousand francs more, to be paid to you on your
return, provided you have carried out the conditions of the bargain.
For that price you are to keep perfect silence as to what you have to
do this night. To you, Rosalie, I will secure ten thousand francs,
which will not be paid to you till your wedding day, and on condition
of your marrying Gorenflot; but, to get married, you must hold your
tongue. If not, no wedding gift!'
" 'Rosalie,' said Madame de Merret, 'come and brush my hair.'
"Her husband quietly walked up and down the room, keeping an eye on
the door, on the mason, and on his wife, but without any insulting
display of suspicion. Gorenflot could not help making some noise.
Madame de Merret seized a moment when he was unloading some bricks,
and when her husband was at the other end of the room to say to
Rosalie: 'My dear child, I will give you a thousand francs a year if
only you will tell Gorenflot to leave a crack at the bottom.' Then she
added aloud quite coolly: 'You had better help him.'
"Monsieur and Madame de Merret were silent all the time while
Gorenflot was walling up the door. This silence was intentional on the
husband's part; he did not wish to give his wife the opportunity of
saying anything with a double meaning. On Madame de Merret's side it
was pride or prudence. When the wall was half built up the cunning
mason took advantage of his master's back being turned to break one of
the two panes in the top of the door with a blow of his pick. By this
Madame de Merret understood that Rosalie had spoken to Gorenflot. They
all three then saw the face of a dark, gloomy-looking man, with black
hair and flaming eyes.
"Before her husband turned round again the poor woman had nodded to
the stranger, to whom the signal was meant to convey, 'Hope.'
"At four o'clock, as the day was dawning, for it was the month of
September, the work was done. The mason was placed in charge of Jean,
and Monsieur de Merret slept in his wife's room.
"Next morning when he got up he said with apparent carelessness, 'Oh,
by the way, I must go to the Maire for the passport.' He put on his
hat, took two or three steps towards the door, paused, and took the
crucifix. His wife was trembling with joy.
" 'He will go to Duvivier's,' thought she.
"As soon as he had left, Madame de Merret rang for Rosalie, and then
in a terrible voice she cried: 'The pick! Bring the pick! and set to
work. I saw how Gorenflot did it yesterday; we shall have time to make
a gap and build it up again.'
"In an instant Rosalie had brought her mistress a sort of cleaver;
she, with a vehemence of which no words can give an idea, set to work
to demolish the wall. She had already got out a few bricks, when,
turning to deal a stronger blow than before, she saw behind her
Monsieur de Merret. She fainted away.
" 'Lay madame on her bed,' said he coldly.
"Foreseeing what would certainly happen in his absence, he had laid
this trap for his wife; he had merely written to the Maire and sent
for Duvivier. The jeweler arrived just as the disorder in the room had
" 'Duvivier,' asked Monsieur de Merret, 'did not you buy some
crucifixes of the Spaniards who passed through the town?'
" 'No, monsieur.'
" 'Very good; thank you,' said he, flashing a tiger's glare at his
wife. 'Jean,' he added, turning to his confidential valet, 'you can
serve my meals here in Madame de Merret's room. She is ill, and I
shall not leave her till she recovers.'
"The cruel man remained in his wife's room for twenty days. During the
earlier time, when there was some little noise in the closet, and
Josephine wanted to intercede for the dying man, he said, without
allowing her to utter a word, 'You swore on the Cross that there was
no one there.' "
After this story all the ladies rose from table, and thus the spell
under which Bianchon had held them was broken. But there were some
among them who had almost shivered at the last words.
The following personage appears in other stories of the Human Comedy.
The Atheist's Mass
The Commission in Lunacy
A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
A Bachelor's Establishment
The Secrets of a Princess
The Government Clerks
A Study of Woman
Scenes from a Courtesan's Life
The Seamy Side of History
The Magic Skin
A Second Home
A Prince of Bohemia
Letters of Two Brides
The Muse of the Department
The Imaginary Mistress
The Middle Classes
The Country Parson
In addition, M. Bianchon narrated the following:
Another Study of Woman