(The Gondreville Mystery)


Il devait être quelque personnage official…

Furne, 1846, t. XII, p. 238
Signatures :  Bertall ; F. Leblanc


The Gondreville Mystery by Honoré de Balzac


Une Ténébreuse  Affaire
The Gondreville Mystery
Also translated as: A Dark Affair
Also translated as: An Historical Mystery
Also translated as: Murky Business
Also translated as: A Shady Business

Many of the stories Balzac writes feature an aristocratic family that has somehow survived the Revolution coming to terms with their new place in society.  Great estates were broken up and sold by the state, and the new buyers were men of property but lacked the traditions that the Royalist Balzac admired.  So while he was ever alert to the foppish behaviour of the aristocracy, the author’s sympathies usually lie with the noble families of old.

In The Gondreville Mystery, also known as An Historical Mystery, Michu was made bailiff of Gondreville by its new owner after the Marquise of Simeuse and his wife perished on the guillotine by order of the revolutionary tribunal of Troyes.

Michu’s new position is dubious because Madame Marthe Michu’s father was president of this tribunal.  When the estate was sold as national property to a man called Marion, grandson of a former bailiff in the Simeuse family, he made Michu bailiff because he was afraid of him. Marthe’s father, a tanner, was mixed up in some conspiracy and committed suicide to escape execution.  The locals are not impressed by Michu’s disloyalty and regard him as a Brutus because the old Marquise was very good to him and showered him with favours. So public opinion was against Michu as a scapegoat for these events during the revolution and he was blamed for his father-in-law’s suicide.

Michu takes exception to Marion selling eventually selling the estate to Malin, because he wants to buy it himself. (He has 800 000 francs to buy it with but won’t say where he got it from). He threatens to kill Marion if he doesn’t cancel the sale. But the sale goes through and Marion who is influential in Paris arranges for Michu to be watched by a peasant called Violette (who has improved his position with graft). He has spied on Michu for Malin for years, using the lad Gaucher for information (though the boy didn’t realise the use being made of the gossip he passes on).

People suspected him of fraud but he had actually acquired his money through inheritance of his father-in-law’s estate and from savings. However eventually when he bought a farm suspicion lessened – but they still worry about Michu’s reputation for violence because he pulls a gun on a farmer who picked up a mysterious document that he dropped.  His wife Marthe is suspicious of him too but after ten years have gone by (!) she she realises that she had misjudged him: he serves Laurence, the Comtesse de Cinq-Cygne and is trying to save her and her two sons (the Simeuse brothers, Paul-Marie and Marie-Paul) from a mysterious conspiracy to do with this estate.

The orphan Laurence is beautiful (of course) but gives the false impression that she’s not very bright.  When necessary, she can be a biblical Judith indeed.   Her guardian is a relation also persecuted during the Revolution, Monsieur d’Hauteserre.  He has his hands full trying to protect the interests of his own sons who are fighting for the Royalist cause, and he is paranoid about being arrested himself.  Laurence despises this cowardice and within the walls of her own home flaunts her admiration for Charlotte Corday and other emblems of the Royalist cause. Balzac says that she is like Diana Vernon in sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy – and with good reason.  She has seen her entire family die and her inheritance wasted because of the Revolution.

What she has left is the farm Cinq-Cygne (Five Swans) and her guardian prudently manages it for her so she could be comfortably off.  Unfortunately that they have nowhere else to go and so the estate has to provide an annuity for them and they all live very frugally. She is respected in the village and her clandestine activities go unremarked until things settle down under Napoleon’s government and they have time to scrutinise what she gets up to.

At this time those opposed to Napoleon hoped to oust him through a vast coalition of Russian, Austrian and Prussian forces, though Napoleon had trounced the Prussians at Austerlitz. Within Paris there were assassination plans and Laurence dreamed of committing this act herself, so great was her hatred of the man. More realistically, accompanied by her page Gothard, she was active as a guide for would-be assassins coming from England.  So Laurence is a traitor or a member of the resistance, depending on your point-of-view. (She is motivated entirely by self-interest: she wants to defeat Bonaparte so that the fortunes of her cousins can be restored).

Balzac says the historical record isn’t clear about whether the Duc d’Enghien was involved in the plot or not.  At the time this story opens, the conspiracy is hotting up: Laurence’s twin cousins the Simeuse, and the two d’Hauteserres brothers have landed and she guides them, dressed as workmen, through the forest taking refuge with sympathisers as they travel. They are to meet up at the rendezvous point with 25 other young men who have entered France via Switzerland in order to execute the plot.  The leaders of this plot were M de Polignac and M de Riviere and they afterwards never would reveal the names of the other conspirators. Someone in the group betrayed them to the police, who were therefore watching them but left the conspirators at liberty so that more could be found out about them.

Political opponents often have to put aside their differences to the spirit of unity to achieve a goal, and so in this case the Chouans are part of the plot too.  (They feature in the first Balzac story that I read, and jolly confusing it was too!)  Clearly Balzac feels that had more of the nobility fought fo the Royalist cause they may have triumphed; he is scornful about these ‘noble gentlemen’ who kept their heads down when it mattered and then came out in triumph during the Restoration, ‘proud of their discreet attachment to the monarchy and who, after 1830 recovered their estates’.(Kindle location 650).  At the time of the plot, d’Hauteserre’s fortunes are improving, and he has been able to buy furniture and effects pillaged from the great houses during the Revolution. They worry about Laurent and are not entirely convinced that her long journeys are for hunting, and they would like her to persuade their sons to give up their royalist sympathies so that everything can be peaceful and prosperous again.

I’m not sure about the ins-and-outs of this period, but I gather that Fouche was a favourite of Napoleon’s in the beginning but fell out of favour and ended up in exile. His replacement as head of police was Cochon, the Comte d Lapparent.  Like all usurpers, Napoleon was mistrusted by those who gave him power, and his own love of power was his downfall. Fouche, still in power at this time, didn’t trust Malin and wondered what he stood to gain.  Why didn’t he hand over whatever information he had about the goings-on at Gondreville?  Fouche knew how Malin had swindled the Simeuse brothers out of the estate; he sends Corentin to suss things out, and when they work out what’s going on they send the Mayor Goulard who ‘runs with the Royalist hare and holds with the republican hounds’ to ‘warn’ them so that they panic and can easily be captured. At the same time, Michu finds out about Fouche and Corentin’s forces and he sends Marthe to (genuinely) warn Laurence.

Laurence flees just as Corentin arrives, much to the astonishment of all except for Mme Goujet, the canny old wife of the Abbé.

It turns out that Michu has played the part of a Brutus in order to deflect suspicion.  He is guardian of the Simeuse brothers’ interests and has been since asked to do so by their parents.  He could not save them, but has been sending the young men money from the estate. The document that made Michu produce his gun proved all this and that was why he demanded it back with menaces. He could initially not buy Gondreville back without suspicion, and had planned to buy it later, but Marion selling it to Malin messed up his plans. He takes Laurence to a well-hidden secret refuge in the Forest of Nodesme.  There they plan how to rescue the four young men, and Laurence rides back to lure Corentin and Peyrade off course.

Back at the house, Corentin takes the Abbé aside.  He explains that he and Peyrade are at cross-purposes.  Napoleon, the First Consul, doesn’t want the young men killed, whereas Peyrade, who is Fouche’s man, does .  There is actually a law which enables a pardon for emigrés provided they have not fought for the Royalist cause.  He suggests that the Abbé applies for one of these, back-dated, because the young men will certainly be caught, but the Abbé refuses. Laurence arrives just as Peyrade discovers an incriminating box which she grabs and throws into the fire, but he pushes her onto the sofa and grabs it back out again. It contains locks of hair and miniatures belonging to the old Marquise and his wife before their execution, and love-letters from her cousins – Laurence threw this precious box into the fire to gain time for Michu to escape.

Alas, Corentin and  Peyrade have figured out that Michu is involved, and they confirm it by Laurence’s reaction when they let her know they’ve caught him (though they haven’t, not yet).  When they do catch up with him they quickly deduce his role, but can’t prove anything and they head back to Paris with nothing to show for their trouble except that Michu loses his job and gets a new one at Cinq-Cygne. Cataclysmic events in the capital (the trials of Polignac, Riviere and Moreau) divert interest from Gondreville and things settle down for a while.

Part 2

The four escapees, however, are still in the woods, sustained by supplies provided by Laurence and her loyal helpers. When the dramas in Paris were over and Napoleon was installed as Emperor the subject of pardons for such emigrés came up, though not without some dispute from Malin who had his own reasons for not wanting the Simeuse twins to resume their lives.  They are notified prematurely that all is well, and this enables Michu to unwittingly reveal the hiding-place in the forest.  The freedom bestowed is only partial and still subjects the young men to restrictions of various kinds.

The Simeuse twins are young and handsome but with different temperaments, though possibly a little haughty as befits their noble ancestry.  Laurence loves them both, and can’t choose between them.  Likewise Robert and Adrien d’Hauteserre are also young and handsome, but with different temperaments. Adrien falls for Laurence straight away, knowing that he has no hope of ousting his twin rivals.  (Fortunately Robert only sees her as a sister, otherwise there would be four of them in love with her)

Meanwhile great events are shake Europe.  The English have defeated Napoleon at Trafalgar and the rest of Europe is arming against him and his expansionist plans.  The elder d’Hauteserre wants the young men to join the army in France’s defence but they would prefer to see their enemy Napoleon defeated than defend their country with him as its ruler.  The Marquise de Chargeboeuf, the one who interceded for their pardon, comes to warn the Simeuse twins not to treat Gondreville as if it is their own because they are in danger partly because their opposition to Napoleon is remembered and his clemency is considered inexplicable, and partly because Senator Malin is a low-bred man who will never forgive them for having bested him. An emigré is always a danger to those who now have his property.

De Chargeboeuf advises them to send Michu away because of rumours that he had tried to kill Malin and Malin is now a powerful man but they are outraged and send him away with his pleas to negotiate and compromise ignored. They imprudently make scornful remarks about Napoleon’s court in the hearing of others, and when tackled about hunting in Gondreville they dismiss the complaint because they ‘can’t get rid in two weeks of ideas [they’ve] had for centuries’. (Kindle location 1710).

Nevertheless Michu decides to sell his farm and leave, but they have to retrieve the Simeuse twins fortune from where it is hidden first.  On that very day five masked men break into Gondreville and attack Malin and his household, and of course Michu  and the Simeuse and d’Hauteserre brothers are all suspects. The matter was dealt with by the soon-to-be obsolete Code de Brumaire which made prosecution and jury one and the same – and the prosecutor was Lechesneau, a mate of Malin.  Jokes made about their strange hunt (meaning the retrieval of the money), the strange way in which the servants were all sent away to a fair to ensure no curious witnesses could be around and the fact that they have been using plaster to hide something behind a wall all tell against the suspects, and although the Abbé comes to warn them of their impending arrest they are too busy arguing about who will marry Laurence to flee – and are captured.

Balzac reminds his readers that the days of a despot like Napoleon were different, and he was livid about the disappearance of the man he had made Senator and Comte de Gondreville.  Supposition became certainty and to please the emperor by resolving the guilt of the five accused became a high priority.  The attack on the senator seemed like an attack on the public interest, and the five were accused of every crime around the place. The young people had failed to take account of the hostility of people who had done well under the new regime…only the old Marquise de Chargeboeuf that they had mocked stood beside them and organised legal assistance, a young lawyer called Bordin. He reluctantly tells them that the case cannot be defended, all they can do is try to reduce the penalty from death to imprisonment.

But who, asks Laurence (and the bewildered reader!) were the five who captured Malin, and where is he?  Things are going well in court and acquittal is expected when this question comes up …

Marthe’s evidence at the trial has the answer, but nobody’s very interested in it.  Michu had said from the outset that it would be hard to resist getting his revenge on Malin, and it seems it is he who has captured the man and imprisoned him in a cave.  Marthe gets a note from him in prison, telling her to take food to Malin because he has only got supplies for five days, and they want him alive.  Marthe is arrested and brought along to the court where it transpires that someone had imitated Michu’s writing – and at the same time Malin is found mysteriously released and wandering along the road a free man. He provides crucial evidence that convicts Michu and he is sentenced to death; the brothers get between ten and twenty-four years at hard labour.

There is but one last resort, and Laurence swallows her pride and goes to the Emperor himself to beg for mercy.  It is the eve of a great battle, and she is mollified in her hatred by the simplicity of the arrangements for Napoleon and by his clemency (though as it turns out he does not pardon Michu).  The price is that the four young men must join the army, and they all die except for Adrien, who returns, wounded, to marry Laurence (who is by then 32 years of age).

Two children are born, and by the time comes for them to marry, Laurence is living in Paris.  The dowry  her daughter Berthe brings with her makes her a prize for the sons of society women like the Princesse de Cadignan.  However when the Princesse inadvertently brings into her salon the man announced as the Comte of Gondreville, Laurence leaves in a huff and the marriage prospects vanish.

An explanation is then in order.  It’s very complicated and only those really interested in the machinations surrounding Napoleon and his court need bother with the ins-and-outs of it.  What’s important for this tale is that it turns out that Malin was present when senior and powerful conspirators were plotting what was to be done if Napoleon were defeated on the battlefield.  Because he knew their identities, he gained preferment in the government, but they feared him.  They arranged for his kidnap so that they could get certain papers from his house, and the four young men – and Michu – were the victims who paid for the crime.

Summarised by Lisa Hill, January 20, 2011