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Title: The Mysterious Mansion
Author: Honor De Balzac
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0605131.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2006
Date most recently updated: August 2006

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The Mysterious Mansion
Honor De Balzac

About a hundred yards from the town of Vendme, on the borders of the
Loire, there is an old gray house, surmounted by very high gables, and
so completely isolated that neither tanyard nor shabby hostelry, such
as you may find at the entrance to all small towns, exists in its
immediate neighborhood.

In front of this building, overlooking the river, is a garden, where
the once well-trimmed box borders that used to define the walks now
grow wild as they list. Several willows that spring from the Loire
have grown as rapidly as the hedge that encloses it, and half conceal
the house. The rich vegetation of those weeds that we call foul adorns
the sloping shore. Fruit trees, neglected for the last ten years, no
longer yield their harvest, and their shoots form coppices. The wall-
fruit grows like hedges against the walls. Paths once graveled are
overgrown with moss, but, to tell the truth, there is no trace of a
path. From the height of the hill, to which cling the ruins of the old
castle of the Dukes of Vendme, the only spot whence the eye can
plunge into this enclosure, it strikes you that, at a time not easy to
determine, this plot of land was the delight of a country gentleman,
who cultivated roses and tulips and horticulture in general, and who
was besides a lover of fine fruit. An arbor is still visible, or
rather the dbris of an arbor, where there is a table that time has
not quite destroyed. The aspect of this garden of bygone days suggests
the negative joys of peaceful, provincial life, as one might
reconstruct the life of a worthy tradesman by reading the epitaph on
his tombstone. As if to complete the sweetness and sadness of the
ideas that possess one's soul, one of the walls displays a sun-dial
decorated with the following commonplace Christian inscription:
"Ultimam cogita!" The roof of this house is horribly dilapidated, the
shutters are always closed, the balconies are covered with swallows'
nests, the doors are perpetually shut, weeds have drawn green lines in
the cracks of the flights of steps, the locks and bolts are rusty.
Sun, moon, winter, summer, and snow have worn the paneling, warped the
boards, gnawed the paint. The lugubrious silence which reigns there is
only broken by birds, cats, martins, rats and mice, free to course to
and fro, to fight and to eat each other. Everywhere an invisible hand
has graven the word mystery.

Should your curiosity lead you to glance at this house from the side
that points to the road, you would perceive a great door which the
children of the place have riddled with holes. I afterward heard that
this door had been closed for the last ten years. Through the holes
broken by the boys you would have observed the perfect harmony that
existed between the faades of both garden and courtyard. In both the
same disorder prevails. Tufts of weed encircle the paving-stones.
Enormous cracks furrow the walls, round whose blackened crests twine
the thousand garlands of the pellitory. The steps are out of joint,
the wire of the bell is rusted, the spouts are cracked. What fire from
heaven has fallen here? What tribunal has decreed that salt should be
strewn on this dwelling? Has God been blasphemed, has France been here
betrayed? These are the questions we ask ourselves, but get no answer
from the crawling things that haunt the place. The empty and deserted
house is a gigantic enigma, of which the key is lost. In bygone times
it was a small fief, and bears the name of the Grande Bretche.

I inferred that I was not the only person to whom my good landlady had
communicated the secret of which I was to be the sole recipient, and I
prepared to listen.

"Sir," she said, "when the Emperor sent the Spanish prisoners of war
and others here, the Government quartered on me a young Spaniard who
had been sent to Vendme on parole. Parole notwithstanding he went out
every day to show himself to the sous-prfet. He was a Spanish
grandee! Nothing less! His name ended in os and dia, something like
Burgos de Frdia. I have his name on my books; you can read it if you
like. Oh! but he was a handsome young man for a Spaniard; they are all
said to be ugly. He was only five feet and a few inches high, but he
was well-grown; he had small hands that he took such care of; ah! you
should have seen! He had as many brushes for his hands as a woman for
her whole dressing apparatus! He had thick black hair, a fiery eye,
his skin was rather bronzed, but I liked the look of it. He wore the
finest linen I have ever seen on any one, although I have had
princesses staying here, and, among others, General Bertrand, the Duke
and Duchess d'Abrants, Monsieur Decazes, and the King of Spain. He
didn't eat much; but his manners were so polite, so amiable, that one
could not owe him a grudge. Oh! I was very fond of him, although he
didn't open his lips four times in the day, and it was impossible to
keep up a conversation with him. For if you spoke to him, he did not
answer. It was a fad, a mania with them all, I heard say. He read his
breviary like a priest, he went to Mass and to all the services
regularly. Where did he sit? Two steps from the chapel of Madame de
Merret. As he took his place there the first time he went to church,
nobody suspected him of any intention in so doing. Besides, he never
raised his eyes from his prayer-book, poor young man!

After that, sir, in the evening he would walk on the mountains, among
the castle ruins. It was the poor man's only amusement, it reminded
him of his country. They say that Spain is all mountains! From the
commencement of his imprisonment he stayed out late. I was anxious
when I found that he did not come home before midnight; but we got
accustomed to this fancy of his. He took the key of the door, and we
left off sitting up for him. He lodged in a house of ours in the Rue
des Casernes. After that, one of our stable-men told us that in the
evening when he led the horses to the water, he thought he had seen
the Spanish grandee swimming far down the river like a live fish. When
he returned, I told him to take care of the rushes; he appeared vexed
to have been seen in the water. At last, one day, or rather one
morning, we did not find him in his room; he had not returned. After
searching everywhere, I found some writing in the drawer of a table,
where there were fifty gold pieces of Spain that are called doubloons
and were worth about five thousand francs; and ten thousand francs'
worth of diamonds in a small sealed box. The writing said, that in
case he did not return, he left us the money and the diamonds, on
condition of paying for Masses to thank God for his escape, and for
his salvation. In those days my husband had not been taken from me; he
hastened to seek him everywhere.

"And now for the strange part of the story. He brought home the
Spaniard's clothes, that he had discovered under a big stone, in a
sort of pilework by the river-side near the castle, nearly opposite to
the Grande Bretche. My husband had gone there so early that no one
had seen him. After reading the letter, he burned the clothes, and
according to Count Fdria's desire we declared that he had escaped.
The sous--prfet sent all the gendarmerie in pursuit of him; but
brust! they never caught him. Lepas believed that the Spaniard had
drowned himself. I, sir, don't think so; I am more inclined to believe
that he had something to do with the affair of Madame de Merret,
seeing that Rosalie told me that the crucifix, that her mistress
thought so much of, that she had it buried with her, was of ebony and
silver. Now in the beginning of his stay here, Monsieur de Fdria had
one in ebony and silver, that I never saw him with later. Now, sir,
don't you consider that I need have no scruples about the Spaniard's
fifteen thousand francs, and that I have a right to them?"

"Certainly; but you haven't tried to question Rosalie?" I said.

"Oh, yes, indeed, sir; but to no purpose! the girl's like a wall. She
knows something, but it is impossible to get her to talk."

After exchanging a few more words with me, my landlady left me a prey
to vague and gloomy thoughts, to a romantic curiosity, and a religious
terror not unlike the profound impression produced on us when by
night, on entering a dark church, we perceive a faint light under high
arches; a vague figure glides by--the rustle of a robe or cassock is
heard, and we shudder.

Suddenly the Grande Bretche and its tall weeds, its barred windows,
its rusty ironwork, its closed doors, its deserted apartments,
appeared like a fantastic apparition before me. I essayed to penetrate
the mysterious dwelling, and to find the knot of its dark story--the
drama that had killed three persons. In my eyes Rosalie became the
most interesting person in Vendme. As I studied her, I discovered the
traces of secret care, despite the radiant health that shone in her
plump countenance. There was in her the germ of remorse or hope; her
attitude revealed a secret, like the attitude of a bigot who prays to
excess, or of the infanticide who ever hears the last cry of her
child. Yet her manners were rough and ingenuous--her silly smile was
not that of a criminal, and could you but have seen the great kerchief
that encompassed her portly bust, framed and laced in by a lilac and
blue cotton gown, you would have dubbed her innocent. No, I thought, I
will not leave Vendme without learning the history of the Grande
Bretche. To gain my ends I will strike up a friendship with Rosalie,
if needs be. "Rosalie," said I, one evening.


"You are not married?"

She started slightly.

"Oh, I can find plenty of men, when the fancy takes me to be made
miserable," she said, laughing.

She soon recovered from the effects of her emotion, for all women,
from the great lady to the maid of the inn, possess a composure that
is peculiar to them.

"You are too good-looking and well favored to be short of lovers. But
tell me, Rosalie, why did you take service in an inn after leaving
Madame de Merret? Did she leave you nothing to live on?"

"Oh, yes! But, sir, my place is the best in all Vendme."

The reply was one of those that judges and lawyers would call evasive.
Rosalie appeared to me to be situated in this romantic history like
the square in the midst of a chessboard. She was at the heart of the
truth and chief interest; she seemed to me to be bound in the very
knot of it. The conquest of Rosalie was no longer to be an ordinary
siege--in this girl was centered the last chapter of a novel,
therefore from this moment Rosalie became the object of my preference.

One morning I said to Rosalie: "Tell me all you know about Madame de

"Oh!" she replied in terror, "do not ask that of me, Monsieur Horace."

Her pretty face fell--her clear, bright color faded--and her eyes lost
their innocent brightness.

"Well, then," she said, at last, "if you must have it so, I will tell
you about it; but promise to keep my secret!"

"Done! my dear girl, I must keep your secret with the honor of a
thief, which is the most loyal in the world."

Were I to transcribe Rosalie's diffuse eloquence faithfully, an entire
volume would scarcely contain it; so I shall abridge.

The room occupied by Madame de Merret at the Bretche was on the
ground floor. A little closet about four feet deep, built in the
thickness of the wall, served as her wardrobe. Three months before the
eventful evening of which I am about to speak, Madame de Merret had
been so seriously indisposed that her husband had left her to herself
in her own apartment, while he occupied another on the first floor. By
one of those chances that it is impossible to foresee, he returned
home from the club (where he was accustomed to read the papers and
discuss politics with the inhabitants of the place) two hours later
than usual. His wife supposed him to be at home, in bed and asleep.
But the invasion of France had been the subject of a most animated
discussion; the billiard-match had been exciting, he had lost forty
francs, an enormous sum for Vendme, where every one hoards, and where
manners are restricted within the limits of a praiseworthy modesty,
which perhaps is the source of the true happiness that no Parisian
covets. For some time past Monsieur de Merret had been satisfied to
ask Rosalie if his wife had gone to bed; and on her reply, which was
always in the affirmative, had immediately gained his own room with
the good temper engendered by habit and confidence. On entering his
house, he took it into his head to go and tell his wife of his
misadventure, perhaps by way of consolation. At dinner he found Madame
de Merret most coquettishly attired. On his way to the club it had
occurred to him that his wife was restored to health, and that her
convalescence had added to her beauty. He was, as husbands are wont to
be, somewhat slow in making this discovery. Instead of calling
Rosalie, who was occupied just then in watching the cook and coachman
play a difficult hand at brisque, Monsieur de Merret went to his
wife's room by the light of a lantern that he deposited on the first
step of the staircase. His unmistakable step resounded under the
vaulted corridor. At the moment that the Count turned the handle of
his wife's door, he fancied he could hear the door of the closet I
spoke of close; but when he entered Madame de Merret was alone before
the fireplace. The husband thought ingenuously that Rosalie was in the
closet, yet a suspicion that jangled in his ear put him on his guard.
He looked at his wife and saw in her eyes I know not what wild and
hunted expression.

"You are very late," she said. Her habitually pure, sweet voice seemed
changed to him. Monsieur de Merret did not reply, for at that moment
Rosalie entered. It was a thunderbolt for him. He strode about the
room, passing from one window to the other, with mechanical motion and
folded arms.

"Have you heard bad news, or are you unwell?" inquired his wife
timidly, while Rosalie undressed her.

He kept silent.

"You can leave me," said Madame de Merret to her maid; "I will put my
hair in curl papers myself."

From the expression of her husband's face she foresaw trouble, and
wished to be alone with him. When Rosalie had gone, or was supposed to
have gone (for she stayed in the corridor for a few minutes), Monsieur
de Merret came and stood in front of his wife, and said coldly to her:

"Madame, there is someone in your closet!" She looked calmly at her
husband and replied simply:

"No, sir."

This answer was heartrending to Monsieur de Merret; he did not believe
in it. Yet his wife had never appeared to him purer or more saintly
than at that moment. He rose to open the closet door; Madame de Merret
took his hand, looked at him with an expression of melancholy, and
said in a voice that betrayed singular emotion:

"If you find no one there, remember this, all will be over between
us!" The extraordinary dignity of his wife's manner restored the
Count's profound esteem for her, and inspired him with one of those
resolutions that only lack a vaster stage to become immortal.

"No," said he, "Josephine, I will not go there. In either case it
would separate us forever. Hear me, I know how pure you are at heart,
and that your life is a holy one. You would not commit a mortal sin to
save your life."

At these words Madame de Merret turned a haggard gaze upon her

"Here, take your crucifix," he added. "Swear to me before God that
there is no one in there; I will believe you, I will never open that

Madame de Merret took the crucifix and said:

"I swear."

"Louder," said the husband, "and repeat 'I swear before God that there
is no one in that closet'."

She repeated the sentence calmly.

"That will do," said Monsieur de Merret, coldly.

After a moment of silence:

"I never saw this pretty toy before," he said, examining the ebony
crucifix inlaid with silver, and most artistically chiseled.

"I found it at Duvivier's, who bought it of a Spanish monk when the
prisoners passed through Vendme last year."

"Ah!" said Monsieur de Merret, as he replaced the crucifix on the
nail, and he rang. Rosalie did not keep him waiting. Monsieur de
Merret went quickly to meet her, led her to the bay window that opened
on to the garden and whispered to her:

"Listen! I know that Gorenflot wishes to marry you, poverty is the
only drawback, and you told him that you would be his wife if he found
the means to establish himself as a master mason. Well! go and fetch
him, tell him to come here with his trowel and tools. Manage not to
awaken any one in his house but himself; his fortune will be more than
your desires. Above all, leave this room without babbling, otherwise--
" He frowned. Rosalie went away, he recalled her.

"Here, take my latchkey," he said. "Jean!" then cried Monsieur de
Merret, in tones of thunder in the corridor. Jean, who was at the same
time his coachman and his confidential servant, left his game of cards
and came.

"Go to bed, all of you," said his master, signing to him to approach;
and the Count added, under his breath: "When they are all asleep--
asleep, d'ye hear?--you will come down and tell me." Monsieur de
Merret, who had not lost sight of his wife all the time he was giving
his orders, returned quietly to her at the fireside and began to tell
her of the game of billiards and the talk of the club. When Rosalie
returned she found Monsieur and Madame de Merret conversing very

The Count had lately had all the ceilings of his reception rooms on
the ground floor repaired. Plaster of Paris is difficult to obtain in
Vendme; the carriage raises its price. The Count had therefore bought
a good deal, being well aware that he could find plenty of purchasers
for whatever might remain over. This circumstance inspired him with
the design he was about to execute.

"Sir, Gorenflot has arrived," said Rosalie in low tones.

"Show him in," replied the Count in loud tones.

Madame de Merret turned rather pale when she saw the mason.

"Gorenflot," said her husband, "go and fetch bricks from the
coachhouse, and bring sufficient to wall up the door of this closet;
you will use the plaster I have over to coat the wall with." Then
calling Rosalie and the workman aside:

"Listen, Gorenflot," he said in an undertone, "you will sleep here to-
night. But to-morrow you will have a passport to a foreign country, to
a town to which I will direct you. I shall give you six thousand
francs for your journey. You will stay ten years in that town; if you
do not like it, you may establish yourself in another, provided it be
in the same country. You will pass through Paris, where you will await
me. There I will insure you an additional six thousand francs by
contract, which will be paid to you on your return, provided you have
fulfilled the conditions of our bargain. This is the price for your
absolute silence as to what you are about to do to-night. As to you,
Rosalie, I will give you ten thousand francs on the day of your
wedding, on condition of your marrying Gorenflot; but if you wish to
marry, you must hold your tongues; or--no dowry."

"Rosalie," said Madame de Merret, "do my hair."

The husband walked calmly up and down, watching the door, the mason,
and his wife, but without betraying any insulting doubts. Madame de
Merret chose a moment when the workman was unloading bricks and her
husband was at the other end of the room to say to Rosalie: "A
thousand francs a year for you, my child, if you can tell Gorenflot to
leave a chink at the bottom." Then out loud, she added coolly:

"Go and help him!"

Monsieur and Madame de Merret were silent all the time that Gorenflot
took to brick up the door. This silence, on the part of the husband,
who did not choose to furnish his wife with a pretext for saying
things of a double meaning, had its purpose; on the part of Madame de
Merret it was either pride or prudence. When the wall was about half-
way up, the sly workman took advantage of a moment when the Count's
back was turned, to strike a blow with his trowel in one of the glass
panes of the closet-door. This act informed Madame de Merret that
Rosalie had spoken to Gorenflot.

All three then saw a man's face; it was dark and gloomy with black
hair and eyes of flame. Before her husband turned, the poor woman had
time to make a sign to the stranger that signified: Hope!

At four o'clock, toward dawn, for it was the month of September, the
construction was finished. The mason was handed over to the care of
Jean, and Monsieur de Merret went to bed in his wife's room.

On rising the following morning, he said carelessly:

"The deuce! I must go to the Mairie for the passport." He put his hat
on his head, advanced three steps toward the door, altered his mind
and took the crucifix.

His wife trembled for joy. "He is going to Duvivier," she thought. As
soon as the Count had left, Madame de Merret rang for Rosalie; then in
a terrible voice:

"The trowel, the trowel!" she cried, "and quick to work! I saw how
Gorenflot did it; we shall have time to make a hole and to mend it

In the twinkling of an eye, Rosalie brought a sort of mattock to her
mistress, who with unparalleled ardor set about demolishing the wall.
She had already knocked out several bricks and was preparing to strike
a more decisive blow when she perceived Monsieur de Merret behind her.
She fainted.

"Lay Madame on her bed," said the Count coldly. He had foreseen what
would happen in his absence and had set a trap for his wife; he had
simply written to the mayor, and had sent for Duvivier. The jeweller
arrived just as the room had been put in order.

"Duvivier," inquired the Count, "did you buy crucifixes of the
Spaniards who passed through here?"

"No, sir."

"That will do, thank you," he said, looking at his wife like a tiger.
"Jean," he added, "you will see that my meals are served in the
Countess's room; she is ill, and I shall not leave her until she has

The cruel gentleman stayed with his wife for twenty days. In the
beginning, when there were sounds in the walled closet, and Josephine
attempted to implore his pity for the dying stranger, he replied,
without permitting her to say a word:

"You have sworn on the cross that there is no one there."


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