La Grande Bretêche
The story begins at the same dinner party as ‘Another Study of Woman’ with Dr Bianchon agreeing to tell one of his ‘appalling’ stories to entertain the other guests. It’s late, but two o’clock in the morning seems an apt time, he says, for this particular story. In contrast to ‘Another Study of Woman’ Bianchon is the only narrator, and he is uninterrupted throughout the tale – but the way he tells it, it seems as if he is listening to the story himself because he uses other narrators as mouthpieces.
The tale begins in a ruined château outside Vendome, where he was staying while attending a rich patient. He portrays himself as a rather romantic soul who liked to enter the estate through gaps in the walls and sit there in quiet contemplation. There is a wild abandoned garden with a fairytale quality to it, and a sundial with the motto ‘ultimam cogita’. He tells his listeners how he ‘wove delightful romances and abandoned myself to little debauches of melancholy which enchanted me’ and he likes to frighten himself by listening to its spooky noises and imagining what horrors took place for it to have been so comprehensively destroyed.
One day however he is told by Monsiur Regnault, a notary (lawyer) that under the terms of the testratrix’s Will, he is forbidden to trespass in the garden any more. Indeed Regnault himself is constrained from visiting it even though it is his job to administer the estate. This all seems very odd and Dr Bianchon is intrigued. Despite the prohibition he is determined to find out more about the secrets of the house. He asks Regnault to explain the mystery and so the notary takes over the narration…
Regnault explains how he came to Vendome and set up practice there, marrying the niece of one of his wealthy relations. One day the Comtesse de Merret sent for him late at night because she was dying. The Comtesse had led an eccentric life: after years of living apart from her husband within the walls of La Grande Breteche, she burned everything inside it when her husband abandoned her to live a life of dissipation in Paris, dying there shortly thereafter. On her death bed she said very little and Regnault departed with her Will. It turned out that he was Executor, and although as the attending lawyer he could not be a direct beneficiary, his heirs stood to inherit La Grande Breteche on condition that it is left in its ruined state for 50 years. (The estate at Merret is left to Vendome to become a hospital and there are some other minor legacies).
Dr Bianchon is keen to know more, but soon regrets his decision to pry further because Regnault is a pompous old windbag and he doesn’t reveal anything else of interest – except at the very end when he rouses Bianchon from his apathy by making a mysterious remark as he leaves.
No sooner has Regnault departed than Dr Bianchon’s landlady appears, itching to tell him more about the story. And so the widow Madame Lepas takes over the narration.
During the Napoleonic period she had been required to provide lodging for a Spanish prisoner-of-war from the nobility. She was much taken with this Spaniard, a Count Feredia, who (like Dr Bianchon) was a devout churchgoer and also liked to while away the hours in the neglected gardens of the château. One night, however, he did not come home, and when they searched his rooms they found a large sum of money and some diamonds, with instructions to use it to pay for masses for the repose of his soul in the event of his death. Madame Lepas’s husband then found the Count’s clothes by the river bank opposite La Grande Breteche, and he burnt them, announcing that the prisoner had escaped. A search was made, but he was never found.
Madame Lepas’s husband thought that the Count had drowned, but Mme Lepas thinks otherwise. She suspects some dalliance with the Comtesse because she insisted on being buried with an ebony and silver crucifix, one which was exactly the same as one that the Spanish Count had worn. Presumably because she thinks that consorting with a POW is collaboration, Mme Lepas considers herself entitled to keep the doubloons and the diamonds.
Now the source of Mme Lepas’s information about the crucifix is Rosalie, the servant at the inn, and so Dr Bianchon seeks her out. She’s as thick as two planks and not particularly attractive but he decides to ‘make love to her’ to winkle out the secrets of the house.
Rosalie was formerly servant to Mme de Merret at La Grande Breteche and was witness to the domestic arrangements. Mme de Merret had rooms on the ground floor while her husband lived on the floor above. His routine when he came home from gambling at his club was to confirm with Rosalie that her mistress had gone to bed. However, one night when his losses had been extreme, he took it into his head to go directly to his wife, perhaps for some consolation about the card game.
He caught a glimpse of someone in the closet in his wife’s room, and when it was obvious that it wasn’t Rosalie, his suspicions were aroused. He – believing that no one as saintly as she would ever swear a falsehood on a crucifix - demanded that she swear that there was no one in the closet. She did so, betraying not only her husband but also her faith. He also asked her where she got the crucifix from. She told him that she had bought it at the jeweller Duvivier’s and that he had acquired it when the Spanish POWs were in Vendome.
He didn’t believe her, and so – without leaving his wife’s room – bribed Gorenflot (a mason in the village) and Rosalie with promises of money so that they could afford to marry – so that they would keep their silence. Gorenflot bricked up the closet, but when de Merret wasn’t looking, the Comtesse bribed Rosalie to get Gorenflot to leave a little gap in the brickwork through which the Spaniard can be seen (though not by M. de Merret.
M. de Merret sleeps in his wife’s bedroom and in the morning he tells her that he’s leaving to get a passport to Maire but of course it’s a ruse. He returns to find the brickwork partially undone. At the same time the jeweller arrives to conform that the Comtesse didn’t buy the incriminating crucifix from him. She faints away, and for 20 days M.de Merret stays in her room, during which time some ‘noise’ was heard from the closet. When the Comtesse begged to intervene, her husband refused to listen, reminding her that she ‘swore on the cross that there was no one there.’
At the conclusion of Bianchon’s tale there is silence at the dinner party, but (presumably because they have guilty consciences) some of the ladies are seen to shiver.
I suspect that the word ‘appalling’ is used here in a different sense to its modern shock-and-dismay usage but rather as ‘schlok-horror’ to denote a mock-gothic story i.e. scary stuff as entertainment.
Balzac uses the role of doctor as a character because it allows him to move in and comment on circles rich, poor and middle-class (the bourgeoise) to observe changes in post-revolutionary, post-Napoleonic society.
I am not sure because there is no synopsis on the site but I think that in 1973 as part of a TV series called Great Mysteries, La Grande Breteche was made into a film starring Orson Welles, Peter Cushing and Susannah York. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0592515/
Summarized by Lisa Hill, Dec 10, 2010