HONORE DE BALZAC
AN OLD MONASTERY
"Come deputy of the Centre forward! Quick step! march! if we want to
be in time to dine with the others. Jump marquis! there that's
right! why you can skip across a stubble-field like a deer!"
These words were said by a huntsman peacefully seated at the edge of
the forest of Ile-Adam who was finishing an Havana cigar while
waiting for his companion who had lost his way in the tangled
underbrush of the wood. At his side four panting dogs were watching
as he did the personage he addressed. To understand how sarcastic
were these exhortations repeated at intervals we should state that
the approaching huntsman was a stout little man whose protuberant
stomach was the evidence of a truly ministerial "embonpoint." He was
struggling painfully across the furrows of a vast wheat-field recently
harvested the stubble of which considerably impeded him; while to add
to his other miseries the sun's rays striking obliquely on his face
collected an abundance of drops of perspiration. Absorbed in the
effort to maintain his equilibrium he leaned now forward now back
in close imitation of the pitching of a carriage when violently
jolted. The weather looked threatening. Though several spaces of blue
sky still parted the thick black clouds toward the horizon a flock of
fleecy vapors were advancing with great rapidity and drawing a light
gray curtain from east to west. As the wind was acting only on the
upper region of the air the atmosphere below it pressed down the hot
vapors of the earth. Surrounded by masses of tall trees the valley
through which the hunter struggled felt like a furnace. Parched and
silent the forest seemed thirsty. The birds even the insects were
voiceless; the tree-tops scarcely waved. Those persons who may still
remember the summer of 1819 can imagine the woes of the poor deputy
who was struggling along drenched in sweat to regain his mocking
friend. The latter while smoking his cigar had calculated from the
position of the sun that it must be about five in the afternoon.
"Where the devil are we?" said the stout huntsman mopping his
forehead and leaning against the trunk of a tree nearly opposite to
his companion for he felt unequal to the effort of leaping the ditch
"That's for me to ask you" said the other laughing as he lay among
the tall brown brake which crowned the bank. Then throwing the end of
his cigar into the ditch he cried out vehemently: "I swear by Saint
Hubert that never again will I trust myself in unknown territory with
a statesman though he be like you my dear d'Albon a college mate."
"But Philippe have you forgotten your French? Or have you left your
wits in Siberia?" replied the stout man casting a sorrowfully comic
look at a sign-post about a hundred feet away.
"True true" cried Philippe seizing his gun and springing with a
bound into the field and thence to the post. "This way d'Albon this
way" he called back to his friend pointing to a broad paved path and
reading aloud the sign: "'From Baillet to Ile-Adam.' We shall
certainly find the path to Cassan which must branch from this one
between here and Ile-Adam."
"You are right colonel" said Monsieur d'Albon replacing upon his
head the cap with which he had been fanning himself.
"Forward then my respectable privy councillor" replied Colonel
Philippe whistling to the dogs who seemed more willing to obey him
than the public functionary to whom they belonged.
"Are you aware marquis" said the jeering soldier "that we still
have six miles to go? That village over there must be Baillet."
"Good heavens!" cried the marquis "go to Cassan if you must but
you'll go alone. I prefer to stay here in spite of the coming storm
and wait for the horse you can send me from the chateau. You've played
me a trick Sucy. We were to have had a nice little hunt not far from
Cassan and beaten the coverts I know. Instead of that you have kept
me running like a hare since four o'clock this morning and all I've
had for breakfast is a cup of milk. Now if you ever have a petition
before the Court I'll make you lose it however just your claim."
The poor discouraged huntsman sat down on a stone that supported the
signpost relieved himself of his gun and his gamebag and heaved a
"France! such are thy deputies!" exclaimed Colonel de Sucy laughing.
"Ah! my poor d'Albon if you had been like me six years in the wilds
He said no more but he raised his eyes to heaven as if that anguish
were between himself and God.
"Come march on!" he added. "If you sit still you are lost."
"How can I Philippe? It is an old magisterial habit to sit still. On
my honor! I'm tired out-- If I had only killed a hare!"
The two men presented a rather rare contrast: the public functionary
was forty-two years of age and seemed no more than thirty whereas the
soldier was thirty and seemed forty at the least. Both wore the red
rosette of the officers of the Legion of honor. A few spare locks of
black hair mixed with white like the wing of a magpie escaped from
the colonel's cap while handsome brown curls adorned the brow of the
statesman. One was tall gallant high-strung and the lines of his
pallid face showed terrible passions or frightful griefs. The other
had a face that was brilliant with health and jovially worth of an
epicurean. Both were deeply sun-burned and their high gaiters of
tanned leather showed signs of the bogs and the thickets they had just
"Come" said Monsieur de Sucy "let us get on. A short hour's march
and we shall reach Cassan in time for a good dinner."
"It is easy to see you have never loved" replied the councillor with
a look that was pitifully comic; "you are as relentless as article 304
of the penal code."
Philippe de Sucy quivered; his broad brow contracted; his face became
as sombre as the skies above them. Some memory of awful bitterness
distorted for a moment his features but he said nothing. Like all
strong men he drove down his emotions to the depths of his heart;
thinking perhaps as simple characters are apt to think that there
was something immodest in unveiling griefs when human language cannot
render their depths and may only rouse the mockery of those who do not
comprehend them. Monsieur d'Albon had one of those delicate natures
which divine sorrows and are instantly sympathetic to the emotion
they have involuntarily aroused. He respected his friend's silence
rose forgot his fatigue and followed him silently grieved to have
touched a wound that was evidently not healed.
"Some day my friend" said Philippe pressing his hand and thanking
him for his mute repentance by a heart-rending look "I will relate to
you my life. To-day I cannot."
They continued their way in silence. When the colonel's pain seemed
soothed the marquis resumed his fatigue; and with the instinct or
rather the will of a wearied man his eye took in the very depths of
the forest; he questioned the tree-tops and examined the branching
paths hoping to discover some dwelling where he could ask
hospitality. Arriving at a cross-ways he thought he noticed a slight
smoke rising among the trees; he stopped looked more attentively and
saw in the midst of a vast copse the dark-green branches of several
"A house! a house!" he cried with the joy the sailor feels in crying
Then he sprang quickly into the copse and the colonel who had fallen
into a deep reverie followed him mechanically.
"I'd rather get an omelet some cottage bread and a chair here" he
said "than go to Cassan for sofas truffles and Bordeaux."
These words were an exclamation of enthusiasm elicited from the
councillor on catching sight of a wall the white towers of which
glimmered in the distance through the brown masses of the tree trunks.
"Ha! ha! this looks to me as if it had once been a priory" cried the
marquis as they reached a very old and blackened gate through which
they could see in the midst of a large park a building constructed
in the style of the monasteries of old. "How those rascals the monks
knew how to choose their sites!"
This last exclamation was an expression of surprise and pleasure at
the poetical hermitage which met his eyes. The house stood on the
slope of the mountain at the summit of which is the village of
Nerville. The great centennial oaks of the forest which encircled the
dwelling made the place an absolute solitude. The main building
formerly occupied by the monks faced south. The park seemed to have
about forty acres. Near the house lay a succession of green meadows
charmingly crossed by several clear rivulets with here and there a
piece of water naturally placed without the least apparent artifice.
Trees of elegant shape and varied foliage were distributed about.
Grottos cleverly managed and massive terraces with dilapidated steps
and rusty railings gave a peculiar character to this lone retreat.
Art had harmonized her constructions with the picturesque effects of
nature. Human passions seemed to die at the feet of those great trees
which guarded this asylum from the tumult of the world as they shaded
it from the fires of the sun.
"How desolate!" thought Monsieur d'Albon observing the sombre
expression which the ancient building gave to the landscape gloomy as
though a curse were on it. It seemed a fatal spot deserted by man. Ivy
had stretched its tortuous muscles covered by its rich green mantle
everywhere. Brown or green red or yellow mosses and lichen spread
their romantic tints on trees and seats and roofs and stones. The
crumbling window-casings were hollowed by rain defaced by time; the
balconies were broken the terraces demolished. Some of the outside
shutters hung from a single hinge. The rotten doors seemed quite
unable to resist an assailant. Covered with shining tufts of
mistletoe the branches of the neglected fruit-trees gave no sign of
fruit. Grass grew in the paths. Such ruin and desolation cast a weird
poesy on the scene filling the souls of the spectators with dreamy
thoughts. A poet would have stood there long plunged in a melancholy
reverie admiring this disorder so full of harmony this destruction
which was not without its grace. Suddenly the brown tiles shone the
mosses glittered fantastic shadows danced upon the meadows and
beneath the trees; fading colors revived; striking contrasts
developed the foliage of the trees and shrubs defined itself more
clearly in the light. Then--the light went out. The landscape seemed
to have spoken and now was silent returning to its gloom or rather
to the soft sad tones of an autumnal twilight.
"It is the palace of the Sleeping Beauty" said the marquis beginning
to view the house with the eyes of a land owner. "I wonder to whom it
belongs! He must be a stupid fellow not to live in such an exquisite
At that instant a woman sprang from beneath a chestnut-tree standing
to the right of the gate and without making any noise passed before
the marquis as rapidly as the shadow of a cloud. This vision made him
mute with surprise.