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remain for whole hours contemplating its disorder. I would not, for the sake of learning the true story to which doubtless was owing the strange scene before me, question the townspeople; for there my imagination indulged itself in vague romance; and, had I known the motive, perhaps a trivial one, of its forsaken state, I might have lost the unexpressed poetry in which I revelled.
In this retreat, as I have said, I passed much of my time: I found in it the sanctity of the cloister, the peace of the grave-yard, without the dead who speak to you from their tombstones; rural life was there with its serene repose, its measured tranquillity. There I often wept; there no emotion of gaiety was possible. I have been shaken by sudden terror by the whirring passage of the hurried woodpigeon above my head. The soil is moist; you must guard against the lizard, the viper, and other tribes of noxious life whose home you invade. You must not dread the cold; in a few moments you will find its icy mantle fall unbidden on your shoulders. Place, circumstances, and disposition of mind at the time, increased my natural susceptibility. I would have trembled at a shadow. One night that I had fashioned out a tale, a drama associated with the dreary locality, the mere rustling of an antique weather-vane startled me. It struck me as the moaning of the desolate mansion.
"I do not wish to accuse you of a crime, but in the name and as executor of the late Countess de Merret, I must request you to discontinue your visits. You are a stranger, and may not be supposed to know the reasons which I have for abandoning to ruin the best house in Vendome. Its state may excuse your curiosity, but representing the injunctions of the late proprietor, I have the honor to repeat that you are requested never again to place your foot in that garden. I, myself, since the opening of the will, have never entered the house. We merely numbered the doors and windows, so as to fix the amount of taxes due to the State, and these are paid by me annually out of funds appropriated for the purpose."
"May I ask what motives occasioned this singular arrangement?"
"Sir," replied he, "you shall know all I know. One evening, now ten years ago and more, I was sent for by the Countess de Merret, then residing at her Chateau de Merret. The message was delivered by her maid, who is now a servant in this inn. You must know that a short time previously the Comte de Merret had died in Paris. He perished miserably, the victim of incessant dissipation. On the day of his departure from Vendome, the Countess abandoned Grande Bretêche. It was said that she had caused all the furniture to be burned on the lawn. For about three months the Count and his wife had lived in a strange manner. They denied themselves to all visitors, and occupied different parts of the house. After her husband's departure the Countess was only to be seen at church; she declined all communication with her friends, and was already an altered woman the day she left la Grande Bretêche for Merret. She was very ill, and had doubtless despaired of her health, for she died without seeking medical advice. Many here thought that she was not quite right in her head. My curiosity was greatly excited on learning that Madame de Merret required my professional assistance; but I was not the only one who knew it; the same evening, although it was late, it was reported about the town that I was called to Merret. The maid answered my questions vaguely; she said, however, that
the Countess had received the last offices of religion, and that apparently she would not survive the night. I reach ed the chateau at about eleven o'clock, and was introduced without delay to the bed-chamber of the Countess. dim light scarcely enabled me to distinguish objects. The Countess reposed in a large bed; on a table within her reach lay a volume of the Imitation of Christ; austere devotion seemed to have removed from the room the usual accessaries of wealth and rank. Approaching close to the bed I could see the occupant. Her face was like wax, and was shaded over by long ringlets of black and white hair. Her large black eyes exhausted by fever scarcely moved in their deep orbits. Her forehead was damp; her hands, bones covered with skin; each muscle and vein was visible. It was a pitiful sight. Although in the discharge of professional duty, I was well accustomed to death-bed scenes, I must confess that nothing I had ever witnessed, families in tears, and the last agonies of the dying, struck me so painfully as that lone and silent woman, in that vast chateau. Not a sound was heard; even the breathing of the poor lady was imperceptible. I stood still, gazing at her with a species of stupor. At last her large eyes moved; she tried to raise her hand, which fell back on the bed; the following words issued from her lips like a whisper; her voice had ceased to be a voice:
"I have expected you with great impatience."
The simple effort brought the color to her cheeks.
"Madam," said I.
She motioned me to be silent. At this moment the old nurse rose and whispered to me.
"Speak not a word. She cannot suffer the least noise."
I sat down.
it. She must have suffered much. There was joy in her parting gaze, and her dead eye retained it.
I carried away the will.
When opened, I read that the testator had appointed me her executor. She willed the whole of her property to the hospital at Vendome, with the exception of some special legacies; but now I must inform you of her directions respecting la Grande Bretêche She enjoined me to leave that house during fifty years, to date from the day of her death, in the precise state in which it then was-to forbid entrance to it to all persons-to abstain from the slightest repair, and, if necessary, to procure the services of a keeper to secure the execution of her intentions. At the expiration of the term named, the house will belong to me-to me or my heirs-that is to say, if the wishes of the testator have been complied with; if not, la Grande Bretêche will pass to her natural heirs, but still with the condition of executing certain acts set forth in a codicil annexed to the will and which is not to be opened until after the expiration of the fifty years. Such was the notary's tale.
"I must confess, sir, that you have produced on me a very deep impression. You must surely be able to form some conjecture touching the strange stipulations of the will."
not have won the hand of Madame de Merret, the richest and most beautiful heiress of these parts. The whole town was at the wedding; the bride was sweet and engaging. They seem ed to be a happy couple." "Did they live happily?" "Oh!-Yes; at least so far as could be presumed. Madame de Merret was a kind, and indeed, in every respect, an excellent person. She may have been occasionally annoyed by the hasty temper of her husband; but he was, at bottom, a good man-a little proud-"
"Nevertheless there must have been some catastrophe to bring about a violent separation ?"
"I have not spoken of any catastrophe-I know of none."
"I am now quite certain that you do."
"Well, sir, I'll tell you all. Seeing you received a visit from M. Regnault, I doubted not but that he would speak to you about Madame de Merret, and so it made me think that I would myself consult you on a matter which sorely troubles my conscience. I believe you to be a good, honest gentleman, and are indeed the first person I have met with to whom it would seem I might confide my secret."
"My dear Madame Lepas, if your secret is likely to involve me, I would rather forego the gratification of my curiosity.'
sides, the eyes of the poor young man were never seen to wander from his book.
"Don't be alarmed-listen: "At the time the Emperor sent here several Spaniards, prisoners of war, one of them, a young man on parole, by order of the government, took up his quarters in this house. He was a grandee of Spain; he had a name in os, and in dia-Bajos de Feredia, I believe. I have his name on my books, where you may read it if you please. O! he was a handsome youth, not tall, but perfectly made; small hands, of which he took exceeding care; long black hair, brilliant eye and dark complexion. His manners were polished and affable. We all loved him, and yet he was no talker; silent and pensive, he read his breviary daily, like any priest, and regularly attend the offices of the church. And where would he place himself? At two steps from Madame de Merret's chapel. As he had taken that position the first time he appeared in church, no one attributed to him any particular intention; be
"In the evening he would walk to the mountain, among the ruins of the castle; it was his sole amusement. The first days of his captivity, he frequently returned very late; but as we were all anxious to please him, there was no interference with his habits. He had a key for the door, and let himself in and out at pleasure.
"I remember one of our men telling that he had seen the Spanish grandee. swimming far out in the river, like a real fish. I ventured to caution him against danger. He seemed to regret having been seen in the water.
"At last, sir, one day, or rather one morning, he was missing. He never returned. After much searching, I found a writing in a drawer in which were fifty large gold Portuguese pieces, worth about 5000 francs; then there were diamonds of the value of about 10,000 more. The writing said that in the event of his not returning, the money and diamonds were to become our property; and that it would be unnecessary to make any search for him, as doubtless he would have succeeded in making his escape.
"In those days I still had my husband, who in the morning had gone to look about for the Spaniard; and here, sir, is the most singular part of the story. He brought back, sir, the gentleman's clothes; he found them under a large stone, on the banks of the river, nearly opposite la Grande Bretêche. It was early in the morning, and my husband met no one by the way; so, after reading the letter, he burned the clothes, and reported that the Comte de Feredia was not to be found."
"The Sub-Prefect sent the gens d'armes in pursuit, but in vain. My husband was of opinion that the poor youth was drowned. For my part, sir, I think not, and rather incline to the belief that he is concerned in some way with the history of Madame de Merret. Rosalie, now in my service, says that the crucifix by which her mistress set so much store, that she was buried with it, was of ebony incrusted with silver. Now, it is quite certain that M. de Feredia had such a crucifix with him in the first days of his stay here, and which I have not since seen!
"Tell me, sir, having heard my story,
Madame Lepas' scanty additions to the notary's story added fresh fuel to my curiosity. La Grande Bretêche with its desolate park and garden, its closed doors and windows, its deserted chambers, was present to my imagination: its mysterious history, associated with the death of three persons, perplexed and fascinated my attention.
At the very moment M. de Merret turned the handle of his wife's door, he thought he heard the door of the small closet close; and, when he entered, Madame de Merret was standing in front of the fire-place.
His first impression was that Rosalie was in the closet, but a suspicion which tolled in his ear like the sounding of bells, caused him to look round: he brought his fixed gaze on his wife's countenance, which he found both timid and confused.
Rosalie became in my estimation the most interesting person in Vendome. For the first time, I discovered in her appearance traces of deep-seated thought: I gave a meaning to each look, gesture and attitude. I won her confidence by acts of kindness, and after a brief period I succeeded in obtaining from her a full and ample disclosure of all it was my object to learn. Were I to reproduce Rosalie's narrative with all its details, a volume would scarcely suffice to contain it. It takes its place between the stories of the notary and of Madame Lepas, with the exactness of a mean term in an arithmetical proposition. In abridging it, I shall endeavor to give it a proper precision.
"You return late," said she.
In the utterance of these words, a slight alteration in her voice became M. de perceptible to a familiar ear. Merret made no answer, for on the moment Rosalie entered the room. Her presence shook his very soul. Without saying a word, he commenced pacing the room, his arms folded on his breast.
Madame de Merret occupied a room on the ground floor. A small closet of about four feet in depth had been constructed in the wall, and was used as a wardrobe. Three months previous to the evening on which occurred the events I am about to describe, Madame de Merret had been seriously indisposed; her husband occupied a room in an upper story. By one of those chances impossible to foresee, he returned, on the evening in question, two hours later than usual from the club-room which he was in the habit of frequenting. He had been that evening unlucky at play, and on reaching his house, instead of merely inquiring, according to his custom, if his wife were well, he directed his steps towards her bed-chamber, leaving his lantern on the steps of the stairRosalie, who generally received him, happened to be absent in the kitchen. His step was easy to distinguish, and distinctly resounded under the vault of the corridor.
"Have you bad news?-Are you unwell?" asked his wife in faltering tones.
"Leave me," said Madame de Merret Foreboding, doubtless, to the girl. misfortune, she wished to be alone with her husband.
As soon as Rosalie was gone, or was presumed to be gone, for she remained a few moments in the passage, M. de Merret placed himself opposite his wife, and said to her calmly, but with trembling lips and livid countenance :
"Madam, there is some one in your closet."
She looked at her husband for an inand stant with painful collectedness, replied simply: "No, sir."
The No went to his heart, for he did not believe it, and yet never had his wife appeared more pure and saintly in his eyes.
He rose and went towards the closet door; but Madame de Merret took him by the hand, stopped him, and looking at him in the most touching manner, she said in a voice of singular emotion:
"If you find no one-recollect that all is over between us."
An inconceivable dignity expressed in the attitude of the wife, brought the noble husband to a sense of the deep esteem in which he held her, and inspired him with one of those resolutions, which to be sublime, need only a vaster theatre.
"You are right, Josephine," said he, "I shall not proceed. In one case or the other we should separate for ever. Listen, I know the purity of your mind, and know that you lead a devout life. You would not, to save your life, commit a mortal sin."
At these words, she looked at him wildly.
"I swear it." "Louder," said the husband," and repeat I swear before God that there is no one in that closet."
She repeated the oath without falter
"Here is your crucifix-swear before God that there is no one in that closet. I will believe you, and will never open the closet."
M. de Merret, who had kept his eye fixed on his wife, while giving his orders, now seated himself quietly by her
Madame de Merret took the crucifix side in front of the fire. He told her
"It is well," said M. de Merret; then, after a moment's silence :
"You have there a very handsome piece of workmanship. How did you come by it ?"
And he closely examined the crucifix which was of ebony inlaid with silver, and graved with great art.
"At Duvivier's. He had purchased it from a Spanish priest who passed through Vendome last year with a company of prisoners."
"Indeed !"-said M. de Merret.
He replaced the crucifix on the mantelpiece. At the same time he rang. Rosalie came instantly. M. de Merret met her with eagerness, and taking her aside to the recess of a window which opened on the garden, he said in a low voice:
And John, who was his coachman and confidential servant, came.
"Let all the servants retire to bed," said his master.
Then, M. de Merret motioning to him, John went to his side, and he added:
"I know that Gorenflot wishes to marry you, and that you are prevented by mutual poverty from doing that which will make you happy. You have declined becoming his wife until he has established himself as a master mason. Well, go for him, and bring him here with his trowel and tools. Move so as to awake no one in his house. His fortune shall exceed your wants and expectations. Above all, leave this house without any tattling.
And M. de Merret intimated his possible displeasure by a significant gesture. Rosalie hastened away; he called her back.
"Hold, take my pass key." "John!"-called M. de Merret, with a voice of thunder in the passage.
"When they are all fast asleep fast asleep understand well!—come down and tell me."
the news he had picked up at his clubdescribed his loss at play-and when Rosalie returned, M. and Madame de Merret were conversing amicably together.
M. de Merret had recently caused some repairs to be made to the house, and so happened to have a quantity of bricks, plaster and mortar on the premises. It was this circumstance which prompted the design which he now proceeded to execute.
Gorenflot, sir, is here!" said Ro
"Let him come in."
Madame de Merret slightly changed color, on seeing the mason.
"Gorenflot," said M. de Merret, "go down to the yard and bring up a quantity of bricks sufficient to wall up the door of that closet. When you have finished the brick work, you will plaster the whole carefully over." Then, bringing the workman and Rosalie close to his side, he continued in a low voice:
"Listen, Gorenflot, you will sleep here to-night-but to-morrow morning you shall have passport for a foreign land, where you will take up your residence in a city to be named to you. I shall give you six thousand francs for your journey. You will live ten years in the same city. Should you not like it, you may seek out another, provided it be in the same country. You will pass through Paris, where you will wait my coming. There, will be secured to you, by deed, a further sum of six thousand francs, to be paid to you only on your return, and in case it shall appear that you have strictly fulfilled the conditions of our bargain. For this reward, you will be required to observe profound secresy on what you may do here this night."
"As for you, Rosalie, I purpose giv