LA GRANDE BRETECHE
LA GRANDE BRETECHE
HONORE DE BALZAC
"Ah! madame" replied the doctor "I have some appalling stories in my
collection. But each one has its proper hour in a conversation--you
know the pretty jest recorded by Chamfort and said to the Duc de
Fronsac: 'Between your sally and the present moment lie ten bottles of
"But it is two in the morning and the story of Rosina has prepared
us" said the mistress of the house.
"Tell us Monsieur Bianchon!" was the cry on every side.
The obliging doctor bowed and silence reigned.
"At about a hundred paces from Vendome on the banks of the Loir"
said he "stands an old brown house crowned with very high roofs and
so completely isolated that there is nothing near it not even a fetid
tannery or a squalid tavern such as are commonly seen outside small
towns. In front of this house is a garden down to the river where the
box shrubs formerly clipped close to edge the walks now straggle at
their own will. A few willows rooted in the stream have grown up
quickly like an enclosing fence and half hide the house. The wild
plants we call weeds have clothed the bank with their beautiful
luxuriance. The fruit-trees neglected for these ten years past no
longer bear a crop and their suckers have formed a thicket. The
espaliers are like a copse. The paths once graveled are overgrown
with purslane; but to be accurate there is no trace of a path.
"Looking down from the hilltop to which cling the ruins of the old
castle of the Dukes of Vendome the only spot whence the eye can see
into this enclosure we think that at a time difficult now to
determine this spot of earth must have been the joy of some country
gentleman devoted to roses and tulips in a word to horticulture but
above all a lover of choice fruit. An arbor is visible or rather the
wreck of an arbor and under it a table still stands not entirely
destroyed by time. At the aspect of this garden that is no more the
negative joys of the peaceful life of the provinces may be divined as
we divine the history of a worthy tradesman when we read the epitaph
on his tomb. To complete the mournful and tender impressions which
seize the soul on one of the walls there is a sundial graced with
this homely Christian motto '/Ultimam cogita/.'
"The roof of this house is dreadfully dilapidated; the outside
shutters are always closed; the balconies are hung with swallows'
nests; the doors are for ever shut. Straggling grasses have outlined
the flagstones of the steps with green; the ironwork is rusty. Moon
and sun winter summer and snow have eaten into the wood warped the
boards peeled off the paint. The dreary silence is broken only by
birds and cats polecats rats and mice free to scamper round and
fight and eat each other. An invisible hand has written over it all:
"If prompted by curiosity you go to look at this house from the
street you will see a large gate with a round-arched top; the
children have made many holes in it. I learned later that this door
had been blocked for ten years. Through these irregular breaches you
will see that the side towards the courtyard is in perfect harmony
with the side towards the garden. The same ruin prevails. Tufts of
weeds outline the paving-stones; the walls are scored by enormous
cracks and the blackened coping is laced with a thousand festoons of
pellitory. The stone steps are disjointed; the bell-cord is rotten;
the gutter-spouts broken. What fire from heaven could have fallen
there? By what decree has salt been sown on this dwelling? Has God
been mocked here? Or was France betrayed? These are the questions we
ask ourselves. Reptiles crawl over it but give no reply. This empty
and deserted house is a vast enigma of which the answer is known to
"It was formerly a little domain held in fief and is known as La
Grande Breteche. During my stay at Vendome where Despleins had left
me in charge of a rich patient the sight of this strange dwelling
became one of my keenest pleasures. Was it not far better than a ruin?
Certain memories of indisputable authenticity attach themselves to a
ruin; but this house still standing though being slowly destroyed by
an avenging hand contained a secret an unrevealed thought. At the
very least it testified to a caprice. More than once in the evening I
boarded the hedge run wild which surrounded the enclosure. I braved
scratches I got into this ownerless garden this plot which was no
longer public or private; I lingered there for hours gazing at the
disorder. I would not as the price of the story to which this strange
scene no doubt was due have asked a single question of any gossiping
native. On that spot I wove delightful romances and abandoned myself
to little debauches of melancholy which enchanted me. If I had known
the reason--perhaps quite commonplace--of this neglect I should have
lost the unwritten poetry which intoxicated me. To me this refuge
represented the most various phases of human life shadowed by
misfortune; sometimes the peace of the graveyard without the dead who
speak in the language of epitaphs; one day I saw in it the home of
lepers; another the house of the Atridae; but above all I found
there provincial life with its contemplative ideas its hour-glass
existence. I often wept there I never laughed.
"More than once I felt involuntary terrors as I heard overhead the
dull hum of the wings of some hurrying wood-pigeon. The earth is dank;
you must be on the watch for lizards vipers and frogs wandering
about with the wild freedom of nature; above all you must have no
fear of cold for in a few moments you feel an icy cloak settle on
your shoulders like the Commendatore's hand on Don Giovanni's neck.
"One evening I felt a shudder; the wind had turned an old rusty
weathercock and the creaking sounded like a cry from the house at
the very moment when I was finishing a gloomy drama to account for
this monumental embodiment of woe. I returned to my inn lost in
gloomy thoughts. When I had supped the hostess came into my room with
an air of mystery and said 'Monsieur here is Monsieur Regnault.'
" 'Who is Monsieur Regnault?'
" 'What sir do you not know Monsieur Regnault?--Well that's odd'
said she leaving the room.
"On a sudden I saw a man appear tall slim dressed in black hat in
hand who came in like a ram ready to butt his opponent showing a
receding forehead a small pointed head and a colorless face of the
hue of a glass of dirty water. You would have taken him for an usher.
The stranger wore an old coat much worn at the seams; but he had a
diamond in his shirt frill and gold rings in his ears.
" 'Monsieur' said I 'whom have I the honor of addressing?'--He took
a chair placed himself in front of my fire put his hat on my table
and answered while he rubbed his hands: 'Dear me it is very cold.--
Monsieur I am Monsieur Regnault.'
" I was encouraging myself by saying to myself '/Il bondo cani!/
" 'I am' he went on 'notary at Vendome.'
" 'I am delighted to hear it monsieur' I exclaimed. 'But I am not in
a position to make a will for reasons best known to myself.'
" 'One moment!' said he holding up his hand as though to gain
silence. 'Allow me monsieur allow me! I am informed that you
sometimes go to walk in the garden of la Grande Breteche.'
" 'Yes monsieur.'
" 'One moment!' said he repeating his gesture. 'That constitutes a
misdemeanor. Monsieur as executor under the will of the late Comtesse
de Merret I come in her name to beg you to discontinue the practice.
One moment! I am not a Turk and do not wish to make a crime of it.
And besides you are free to be ignorant of the circumstances which
compel me to leave the finest mansion in Vendome to fall into ruin.
Nevertheless monsieur you must be a man of education and you should
know that the laws forbid under heavy penalties any trespass on
enclosed property. A hedge is the same as a wall. But the state in
which the place is left may be an excuse for your curiosity. For my
part I should be quite content to make you free to come and go in the
house; but being bound to respect the will of the testatrix I have
the honor monsieur to beg that you will go into the garden no more.
I myself monsieur since the will was read have never set foot in
the house which as I had the honor of informing you is part of the
estate of the late Madame de Merret. We have done nothing there but
verify the number of doors and windows to assess the taxes I have to
pay annually out of the funds left for that purpose by the late Madame
de Merret. Ah! my dear sir her will made a great commotion in the
"The good man paused to blow his nose. I respected his volubility
perfectly understanding that the administration of Madame de Merret's
estate had been the most important event of his life his reputation
his glory his Restoration. As I was forced to bid farewell to my
beautiful reveries and romances I was to reject learning the truth on
" 'Monsieur' said I 'would it be indiscreet if I were to ask you the
reasons for such eccentricity?'
"At these words an expression which revealed all the pleasure which
men feel who are accustomed to ride a hobby overspread the lawyer's
countenance. He pulled up the collar of his shirt with an air took
out his snuffbox opened it and offered me a pinch; on my refusing
he took a large one. He was happy! A man who has no hobby does not
know all the good to be got out of life. A hobby is the happy medium
between a passion and a monomania. At this moment I understood the
whole bearing of Sterne's charming passion and had a perfect idea of
the delight with which my uncle Toby encouraged by Trim bestrode his
" 'Monsieur' said Monsieur Regnault 'I was head-clerk in Monsieur
Roguin's office in Paris. A first-rate house which you may have
heard mentioned? No! An unfortunate bankruptcy made it famous.--Not
having money enough to purchase a practice in Paris at the price to
which they were run up in 1816 I came here and bought my
predecessor's business. I had relations in Vendome; among others a
wealthy aunt who allowed me to marry her daughter.--Monsieur' he
went on after a little pause 'three months after being licensed by
the Keeper of the Seals one evening as I was going to bed--it was
before my marriage--I was sent for by Madame la Comtesse de Merret to
her Chateau of Merret. Her maid a good girl who is now a servant in
this inn was waiting at my door with the Countess' own carriage. Ah!
one moment! I ought to tell you that Monsieur le Comte de Merret had