LA GRANDE BRETECHE
(Sequel to "Another Study of Woman.")
By Honore De Balzac
Translated by Ellen Marriage and Clara Bell
LA GRANDE BRETECHE
"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 champagne.'"
"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.'
"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: 'Mystery.'
"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 none.
"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 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.'
"'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 official
"'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 hobby-horse.
"'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 understand?
"'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
"'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
"'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 congratulations.
"'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 extraordinary will.'
"'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
"'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
"'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 it.'
"'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 water.
"'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
"'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 talk.'
"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 persons.
"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
"'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
"'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 Vendome.'
"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, monsieur.'
"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 flinching.
"'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 artistically wrought.
"'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 frowned.
"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
"'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
"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
"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 been
"'Duvivier,' asked Monsieur de Merret, 'did not you buy some crucifixes of
the Spaniards who passed through the town?'
"'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
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.