An Historical Mystery

An Historical Mystery

AN HISTORICAL MYSTERY HONORE DE BALZAC PART I CHAPTER I JUDAS The autumn of the year 1803 was one of the finest in the early part of that period of the present century which we now call "Empire." Rain had refreshed the earth during the month of October so that the trees were still green and leafy in November. The French people were beginning to put faith in a secret understanding between the skies and Bonaparte then declared Consul for life--a belief in which that man owes part of his prestige; strange to say on the day the sun failed him in 1812 his luck ceased! About four in the afternoon on the fifteenth of November 1803 the sun was casting what looked like scarlet dust upon the venerable tops of four rows of elms in a long baronial avenue and sparkling on the sand and grassy places of an immense /rond-point/ such as we often see in the country where land is cheap enough to be sacrificed to ornament. The air was so pure the atmosphere so tempered that a family was sitting out of doors as if it were summer. A man dressed in a hunting-jacket of green drilling with green buttons and breeches of the same stuff and wearing shoes with thin soles and gaiters to the knee was cleaning a gun with the minute care a skilful huntsman gives to the work in his leisure hours. This man had neither game nor game- bag nor any of the accoutrements which denote either departure for a hunt or the return from it; and two women sitting near were looking at him as though beset by a terror they could ill-conceal. Any one observing the scene taking place in this leafy nook would have shuddered as the old mother-in-law and the wife of the man we speak of were now shuddering. A huntsman does not take such minute precautions with his weapon to kill small game neither does he use in the department of the Aube a heavy rifled carbine. "Shall you kill a roe-buck Michu?" said his handsome young wife trying to assume a laughing air. Before replying Michu looked at his dog which had been lying in the sun its paws stretched out and its nose on its paws in the charming attitude of a trained hunter. The animal had just raised its head and was snuffing the air first down the avenue nearly a mile long which stretched before them and then up the cross road where it entered the /rond-point/ to the left. "No" answered Michu "but a brute I do not wish to miss a lynx." The dog a magnificent spaniel white with brown spots growled. "Hah!" said Michu talking to himself "spies! the country swarms with them." Madame Michu looked appealingly to heaven. A beautiful fair woman with blue eyes composed and thoughtful in expression and made like an antique statue she seemed to be a prey to some dark and bitter grief. The husband's appearance may explain to a certain extent the evident fear of the two women. The laws of physiognomy are precise not only in their application to character but also in relation to the destinies of life. There is such a thing as prophetic physiognomy. If it were possible (and such a vital statistic would be of value to society) to obtain exact likenesses of those who perish on the scaffold the science of Lavatar and also that of Gall would prove unmistakably that the heads of all such persons even those who are innocent show prophetic signs. Yes fate sets its mark on the faces of those who are doomed to die a violent death of any kind. Now this sign this seal visible to the eye of an observer was imprinted on the expressive face of the man with the rifled carbine. Short and stout abrupt and active in his motions as a monkey though calm in temperament Michu had a white face injected with blood and features set close together like those of a Tartar--a likeness to which his crinkled red hair conveyed a sinister expression. His eyes clear and yellow as those of a tiger showed depths behind them in which the glance of whoever examined the man might lose itself and never find either warmth or motion. Fixed luminous and rigid those eyes terrified whoever gazed into them. The singular contrast between the immobility of the eyes and the activity of the body increased the chilling impression conveyed by a first sight of Michu. Action always prompt in this man was the outcome of a single thought; just as the life of animals is without reflection the outcome of instinct. Since 1793 he had trimmed his red beard to the shape of a fan. Even if he had not been (as he was during the Terror) president of a club of Jacobins this peculiarity of his head would in itself have made him terrible to behold. His Socratic face with its blunt nose was surmounted by a fine forehead so projecting however that it overhung the rest of the features. The ears well detached from the head had the sort of mobility which we find in those of wild animals which are ever on the qui-vive. The mouth half-open as the custom usually is among country-people showed teeth that were strong and white as almonds but irregular. Gleaming red whiskers framed this face which was white and yet mottled in spots. The hair cropped close in front and allowed to grow long at the sides and on the back of the head brought into relief by its savage redness all the strange and fateful peculiarities of this singular face. The neck which was short and thick seemed to tempt the axe. At this moment the sunbeams falling in long lines athwart the group lighted up the three heads at which the dog from time to time glanced up. The spot on which this scene took place was magnificently fine. The /rond-point/ is at the entrance of the park of Gondreville one of the finest estates in France and by far the finest in the departments of the Aube; it boasts of long avenues of elms a castle built from designs by Mansart a park of fifteen hundred acres enclosed by a stone wall nine large farms a forest mills and meadows. This almost regal property belonged before the Revolution to the family of Simeuse. Ximeuse was a feudal estate in Lorraine; the name was pronounced Simeuse and in course of time it came to be written as pronounced. The great fortune of the Simeuse family adherents of the House of Burgundy dates from the time when the Guises were in conflict with the Valois. Richelieu first and afterwards Louis XIV. remembered their devotion to the factious house of Lorraine and rebuffed them. Then the Marquis de Simeuse an old Burgundian old Guiser old leaguer old /frondeur/ (he inherited the four great rancors of the nobility against royalty) came to live at Cinq-Cygne. The former courtier rejected at the Louvre married the widow of the Comte de Cinq-Cygne younger branch of the famous family of Chargeboeuf one of the most illustrious names in Champagne and now as celebrated and opulent as the elder. The marquis among the richest men of his day instead of wasting his substance at court built the chateau of Gondreville enlarged the estate by the purchase of others and united the several domains solely for the purposes of a hunting-ground. He also built the Simeuse mansion at Troyes not far from that of the Cinq-Cygnes. These two old houses and the bishop's palace were long the only stone mansions at Troyes. The marquis sold Simeuse to the Duc de Lorraine. His son wasted the father's savings and some part of his great fortune under the reign of Louis XV. but he subsequently entered the navy became a vice-admiral and redeemed the follies of his youth by brilliant services. The Marquis de Simeuse son of this naval worthy perished with his wife on the scaffold at Troyes leaving twin sons who emigrated and were at the time our history opens still in foreign parts following the fortunes of the house of Conde. The /rond-point/ was the scene of the meet in the time of the "Grand Marquis"--a name given in the family to the Simeuse who built Gondreville. Since 1789 Michu lived in the hunting lodge at the entrance to the park built in the reign of Louis XIV. and called the pavilion of Cinq-Cygne. The village of Cinq-Cygne is at the end of the forest of Nodesme (a corruption of Notre-Dame) which was reached through the fine avenue of four rows of elms where Michu's dog was now suspecting spies. After the death of the Grand Marquis this pavilion fell into disuse. The vice-admiral preferred the court and the sea to Champagne and his son gave the dilapidated building to Michu for a dwelling. This noble structure is of brick with vermiculated stone-work at the angles and on the casings of the doors and windows. On either side is a gateway of finely wrought iron eaten with rust and connected by a railing beyond which is a wide and deep ha-ha full of vigorous trees its parapets bristling with iron arabesques the innumerable sharp points of which are a warning to evil-doers. The park walls begin on each side of the circumference of the /rond- point/; on the one hand the fine semi-circle is defined by slopes planted with elms; on the other within the park a corresponding half-circle is formed by groups of rare trees. The pavilion therefore stands at the centre of this round open space which extends before it and behind it in the shape of two horseshoes. Michu had turned the rooms on the lower floor into a stable a kitchen and a wood-shed. The only trace remaining of their ancient splendor was an antechamber paved with marble in squares of black and white which was entered on the park side through a door with small leaded panes such as might still be seen at Versailles before Louis-Philippe turned that Chateau into an asylum for the glories of France. The pavilion is divided inside by an old staircase of worm-eaten wood full of character which leads to the first story. Above that is an immense garret. This venerable edifice is covered by one of those vast roofs with four sides a ridgepole decorated with leaden ornaments and a round projecting window on each side such as Mansart very justly delighted in; for in France the Italian attics and flat roofs are a folly against which our climate protests. Michu kept his fodder in this garret. That portion of the park which surrounds the old pavilion is English in style. A hundred feet from the house a former lake now ...