A man relates a story which began as he was traveling from Paris to Moulins. He was on an outside seat from lack of funds. The gentleman sitting next to him was outside by choice. They began talking as travelers will and soon found out that they were both enamoured of an older married woman. The confidences knew no limits after that discovery and they tried to top each other with the pains to which they had gone to see their loves.
Outside of Pouilly the coach overturned and the narrator’s acquaintance was killed. Prior to dying he charged his companion with the mission of breaking the news to his loved one and returning her letters.
After retrieving the letters from the home of his companion and proceeding to the home of Countess de Montperson, the first thoughts of the narrator are of himself as he plans a witty, clever conversation. Soon he begins to realize what devastating news it is that he has to deliver.
The narrator sees the couple. The Count seems untidy and rumpled while his wife is graceful and delicate. She resembles the Comtesse de Lignolles and the Marquise de B—- of Louvet’s romance. (Les Aventures de Faublas, 1787-90 by Jean Baptiste Louvet de Couvray) One woman is described as lively and childlike, the other as maternal and affectionate.
The Count, upon being taken aside and told of the death in coach accident, cries, “My wife will be in despair.” The narrator is invited to dinner and then the Count leaves him alone with the Countess.
Upon being told of the tragedy, the Countess utters a sharp cry, leans momentarily against a tree and flees to the chateau. She does not appear at the dinner table.
There are five place settings and the narrator takes the one that would have been that of his traveling companion. The other seat is for their uncle, the canon of Saint-Denis. The Count neither waits for his wife nor worries about her. He stuffs himself, prompting his daughter to mischievously remark, “Papa will make himself ill!”
As the Count continues gorging himself, the housemaid enters. She is concerned at not being able to locate the Countess. The narrator and the canon jump up in alarm and rush into the garden. The Count stands in the doorway and tells them not to trouble themselves.
As they search for the Countess, the narrator relates the story of the accident to the canon and the house-maid who is very devoted to her mistress. They hear muffled sobbing from one of the outbuildings and find the Countess buried in the hay. She is carried to her room and the announcement is made that she has a sick headache.
In the dining-room, the Count, going against doctor’s orders, has demolished the remains of the dinner.
As they are retiring for the night, the Countess wishes to see the narrator, but is unable to speak. Later in the night, she comes to his room wanting to know all the details. He is amazed at the difference in her appearance. Upon being given the letters, she cries that she has burned all his letters and has nothing left of him. The narrator then gives her a lock of hair which he had cut.
The narrator spends several hours with the Countess the next day and then the Count accompanies him on his way as far as Moulins. The Counts says he owes some money and asks the narrator if he can impose upon him to deliver it for him. The twenty-five louis d’ors pay the expenses of the journey to Paris.
. . . and only when, on my arrival, I went to the address indicated to repay the amount to M. de Montpersan’s correspondent, did I understand the ingenious delicacy with which Juliette had obliged me. Was not all the genius of a loving woman revealed in such a way of lending, in her reticence with regard to a poverty easily guessed?
The narrator’s final thoughts:
And what rapture to have this adventure to tell to a woman who clung to you more closely in dread, saying, “Oh, my dear, not you! YOU must not die!”
Summary by Dagny, May 2008