Tales of To-day
The Gallery of Grondo
The President of our taletelling divan opened his portfolio with the gravity of a prime-minister, and the next engraving drawn from it represented the celebrated Gallery of Grondo, hewn by almost miraculous labour through solid rocks. According to the established rules of our lottery, the old kirk-minister was required to tell a tale adapted to this scene, or in some way relating to it; and after a little pause, he gave us the first fruit of his memory.
During the short truce of 1801, an English commoner of noble but decayed estate removed his family to Languedoc. Liberal principles, neutral conduct, and, above all, his purchase of a good estate with an avowed intention to domesticate himself as a French citizen, gained him the privilege of tranquillity. Ten years peaceably spent gave him also a kind of familiarity with the municipal officers of the town, which enabled him to afford both aid and personal courtesy to the numerous English prisoners whose ill-fortune brought them there. He had a sprightly wife, of manners decidedly French, and a niece too lovely in his opinion to walk unprotected on the banks of the Garonne, then nightly infested by troops of freebooters, composed partly of disbanded royalists and desperate republicans. Gabrielle chose to pursue her evening walks with the careless courage of fifteen; and her aunt conceiving terror a more powerful impulse than reason, contrived what she thought sufficient to alarm her niece’s imagination effectually. She placed a pair of huge sabots or peasant’s shoes under the fringe of her bed, with such accompaniments as at a sudden glance by a dim light might seem the figure of a man. Then, without communicating her stratagem to her more discreet husband, she seated herself in her dressing-room to await its consequences.
All remained silent till an hour after, when Gabrielle, entering her aunt’s room with a composed countenance, enquired for her femme-de-chambre. The woman was summoned, and the child, with singular presence of mind and calmness, desired her to bring all her fellow-servants into the gallery. Madame Vermont, aware of her own finesse, permitted the assemblage without question; and when the whole household had collected in the corridor, the young heroine informed them that she had discovered an intruder, and had locked him in her chamber. She offered the key to the English valet, who, after a little demur, referred the honour of the first entry to the cook, and he to the groom. After much debate, a formidable procession, headed by Gabrielle herself, entered the chamber, and the groom, armed with a long sword and a broom, drew forth the terrible effigy. Peals of laughter and many hints of cowardice followed among the servants, but the keen and bold eye of their young mistress observed one face less natural in its expression of mirth than the rest. She had firmness and discretion enough to join in the general raillery, and to keep her observations secret till she found an opportunity of revealing them to her uncle. He understood and valued them. Several nights after this adventure, he watched in silence and darkness, but saw nothing of the man he suspected. More than a month had passed, and the jests excited among the household seemed to increase in bitterness; but the superiors of the family affected no regard, till they were disturbed one night by shrieks and murmurs. M. Vermont’s questions were answered by a singular story. The fille-de-chambre of Madame, piqued by jests on her lover’s cowardice, had been urged to try his affection and strength of mind by another stratagem. On his return from a trifling journey, Durand was told that his beloved had suddenly expired, and was already prepared for interment. He was a Swiss of simple manners and strong affections. First he rebuked his fellow-servants for their falsehoods, and next insisted on seeing the pretended corpse. She had allowed herself to be equipped and extended in a winding-sheet on her bed, to which the contrivers of the farce led Durand with a single candle and faces properly composed. They were prepared for a shout of mirth at his agony of grief, when the servant who carried the light perceived the body was really stiff in death. Screams of terror and surprise followed this discovery, and revealed the abettors of this criminal mockery, Nannette was dead, and her master, after viewing the body, dismissed the spectators with a severe reproach, for inciting her to practise the presumptuous fraud, which had probably, by overstraining her weak nerves, produced the death she counterfeited. So he assured his household, but he perceived evidences of a different cause. His suspicions rested on Durand himself, and he fixed them by remarking the changes in his countenance when asked to watch beside the body. However, Durand accepted the task; and when every other person in the house had gone to rest, our Englishman, belting on his sabre and holding a loaded pistol in his hand, entered the chamber where the body lay. The Swiss sat beside it with his head resting on his knees, and hardly raised himself when his master stood before him. “Durand!” said he, “I am not now to learn that you have had some secret reason for destroying this young woman—I know your journey was a pretence—you were concealed in or about my chateau all day, and I expect nothing from you but a confession of your motives.”—The young man raised his eyes, and, starting up, laid both his hands on the forehead of the dead woman. “I declare,” he answered, “before him whom I will not name, that I loved this creature better than my life; but I could not save without betraying——” He stopped short, and Vermont deliberately laid his brace of loaded pistols on the table. “You see, Durand, I treat you as a brave man, for I put myself into your hands; and I do not seek to intimidate you by these weapons, which I disdain to use against an unarmed adversary. You have eaten my bread and slept under my roof—I have no other defence against you and your accomplices.”—The Swiss fell at his master’s feet, and wept. Presently taking up the pistols, he placed them both again in Vermont’s hands, adding, “Nothing but an oath could hold me silent after this. Sir, if I dare not break an oath, I deserve your trust. It is true men assemble at your house unknown to you—I am one of the band, and our names are made safe by a bond sealed with our blood. They are robbers, but no article of your property or secret of your family ever fell into their keeping. Nannette discovered their meeting in your barn last night, and my oath bound me to sacrifice her life—There was no other way to save yours and your family’s!”—Saying this, he fell again at his master’s knees, and wept bitterly. Vermont was struck with the extent of his danger, and the terrible nature even of the faith that seemed to preserve him. But his English habits of reserve prevented the gush of feeling which would have opened his heart, and he only answered, “I trust you, Durand!—remember it.” And without another question or remark, he returned to his apartment and his wife with a cool countenance, and made no allusion to his discovery.
Durand remained another year in M. Vermont’s household, and his master had sufficient courage and magnanimity to forbear either nightly watching or appearance of restraint in his daily intercourse with his servant. At the termination of this year Durand gave a public and ordinary notice of removal, which was accepted without comment, and he departed unobserved.
Fifteen months passed after this event, and the family of M. Vermont removed to Orleans, where the fury of faction became deep and dangerous during the crisis of 1815. Vermont, now a domiciliated subject of France, and interested in her internal politics, was arrested by order of the power that prevailed during the Hundred Days, and lodged in the Conciergerie. The charge against him amounted to a secret correspondence with England, and a treasonous admission of an English spy into his house. On the day of his arrest, Marshal N. received a billet from one of his agents, a man who had stood by the Emperor’s carriage at that memorable and unparalleled moment when he received news of his deposition, and alighted to hold council on the roadside in darkness with the few friends that then adhered to him.
“I need not remind you of what passed on the road to Fontainbleau: I have only one favour to ask in return. Your wife has some secret apartments and a cabriole to spare—They will accommodate two persons who will be with you on the morning of the 20th.”
On the 20th, a cabriole was seen passing through the road to Fontainbleau, towards the maisonette inhabited by a relative of the Marshal. The lady who presided there was one of the numerous regiment of female allies to whom M. Fouche honestly ascribed the most successful intrigues of his police. Madame de Sevrac had distinguished herself by undertaking to procure from a German author the manuscript of a very powerful appeal obnoxious to French politics. She had been furnished with unlimited drafts, and with the title of a baroness, to seduce the literary man; but his genius, his courage, and, above all, his affection, so touched the intriguante, that she brought off the manuscript without surrendering the author. Therefore she was held in high esteem by her employers, for they knew she had that degree of honour which is necessary even among the wicked. She was, as this anecdote implies, a woman capable of right-feeling herself, and of assuming the demeanour which ought to accompany it. Her admirable taste was exercised in preparing apartments for the mysterious visitors who came to her accredited by such high authority. Late at night they arrived; and she had the pleasure of seeing a young man whose countenance promised employment for her talents, accompanied only by a sister, whose manners were very well calculated to be a foil to . The lady’s name was Gabrielle, and her age appeared more than thirty; but her eyes were wild and her gestures abrupt. She answered no questions, and never spoke except to her brother, who seemed much younger, and of gentle temper. The accomplished mistress of the mansion had received instructions to accommodate them in the most retired manner three days, and to expedite their departure on the fourth, without enquiring whither they went, or by whom their cabriole was driven. This was enough for an agent of espionage, but not enough for a woman who retained her taste for adventure. Gaston, as the young man’s sister called him, was probably but little experienced in female blandishments, and the adroit coquette addressed herself with great skill to his vanity and his better feelings. It was surprising, considering her experience, that she did not observe how readily young Gaston listened to her flatteries, and availed himself of her indirect intimations of compassion. When she saw, or thought she saw, her victim struggling with his fear and his desire to reveal the secret which seemed so precious, she affected to praise the sublime instinct of generous hearts, and assumed that air of self-denial which commands so much more confidence than curiosity. “Alas, madam!” said Gaston, as they sat together at supper on the night appointed for his journey, “... this unfortunate person, whom I call sister, is in fact my betrothed wife. She is insane. Judge of my anxiety and my interest in her escape when you hear the cause. I was her father’s ward, and her daily companion, but circumstances prevented our public union. She suddenly received my visits with airs of aversion and chagrin, which her parents mistook for girlish coquetry, but I knew and regretted the secret motive. She believed her infant dead, but I had preserved it from the death she designed for it, and had the happiness of seeing it flourish under the care of a woodcutter’s wife in the forest of Vincennes. One evening, when its third birth-day had arrived, I tempted her to walk there with me under pretence of eating fruit at the forest-hut, and while the woodman’s wife was sent away to gather some, I observed her eyes fixing on the sleeping child. She praised its beauty, took it on her lap, and I thought the instinct of a mother had prevailed. I ventured to say, “This is our son!”—but instantly bursting into a frightful laugh, she grasped it tightly for an instant, and hurled it from her. I remember nothing more—nothing except looking round for some weapon to revenge its death. When I returned to my senses, the woodcutter’s wife was standing at my feet weeping over her dead foster-child—its miserable mother had fled into the forest. She was found in the stupor of that fatal madness which arises from shame, pride, and despair. The secret could not be preserved, and I am conveying her thus privately beyond the reach of a public executioner.”
Madame de Sevrac was extremely touched by this narrative. She loved the excitement of tragic stories, and especially such as evinced those violent passions which had been her instruments through life.—Gabrielle’s crime gave her that strong hold on Madame de Sevrac’s compassion which naturally results from sympathy and similar debasement; and the generous part of her woman’s nature revived in her behalf. The coldness, the melancholy, and the impenetrable reserve of this unfortunate woman had dignity in them, and Gaston’s tender solicitude for her safety gave him the most powerful charm in the eyes of his entertainer. Nothing so strongly touches and amends the feelings of an erring woman as commiseration shewn to a sister-sinner. Madame de Sevrac suddenly besought Gaston’s protection, and offered to quit with him both her native country and the vile profession which her splendid establishment concealed. Gaston appeared more touched and agitated by her protestations of remorse and reformation than by her former blandishments. They had few moments to debate in, and the conference ended in admitting her into their cabriole in the disguise of a fille-de-chambre. Madame de Sevrac perceived, even by the dim moonlight which guided it, how deep and strange a sullenness had overcast Gabrielle’s face. She attributed it to jealous aversion; and when from time to time the supposed lunatic stole a malicious glance at her, she could not avoid suspecting that her insanity was not real. Their journey was rapid and safe till they reached the frontiers of --------, where some powerful agents of the French government presided. The evil genius of Madame de Sevrac returned, and habits of intrigue prevailed over the momentary instinct of good. She stole at midnight from the inn where they rested, and made herself known to the lieutenant of police in the town, professing that she travelled under secret orders from M. Fouche to resign one of her companions to the custody of the -------- government. She did not dare to tell the story of the infant’s murder, because she began to doubt whether such an incident had really occurred; and she had not sagacity enough to perceive that Gaston represented Gabrielle as a criminal and a lunatic only to excuse the wild and stern singularity of her aspect, and to misguide suspicion. She knew the fact involved no particular claim on this officer’s aid: but she stated certain mysterious truths which induced him to agree that a party of his agents should surround the carriage in the Gallery of Grondo, and secure the female refugee. Thus assured of her rival’s removal, this dangerous woman returned to her companions, and when they renewed their journey, proposed to disguise herself in male attire, and drive their cabriolet herself. Gaston expressed some slight reluctance, which she overcame by alleging the danger of crossing that mountainous road with a bribed hireling, and by remarking the suspicious comments excited at the last post town by their imperfect passports. The cabriolet set forth, driven by Madame de Sevrac in a postillion’s attire: and as it plunged into the stupendous defile called the Gallery of Grondo, she fixed her eyes on a white cross near which her agents were stationed, and drove rapidly towards it. The sides of this terrible gallery are formed of perpendicular rock, and the road itself winds through it, divided on each side by a deep and dark gulf from the mass of granite whence it has been hewn. The cabriolet was within a hundred yards of the cross, when Gaston suddenly sprang from it, seized the driver’s arm, and held a pistol to her forehead. Conscious of her own treachery, and affrighted by what seemed the supernatural strength of insanity, Madame de Sevrac dropped the reins, and was dragged from her seat by her assailant. With a vigour and speed not resistable by a woman, Gaston bound their perfidious companion to a tree, stripped her of her horseman’s coat, and putting it on, assumed the driver’s place in the cabriolet. A long whistle and repeated shouts were heard as the cabriolet flew past the cross, and a moment after a ball entered Gaston’s side. Still the carriage was driven rapidly till it reached the post-house at the end of the Gallery. There Madame Vermont, released by the connivance of Marshal N. awaited her husband’s arrival. She knew that he had escaped from France in female attire under the name of Gaston, and she well knew the faithful friend who had assumed that new name to escort him. She opened the door herself, and found him lying at the bottom of the cabriolet in a deep swoon. Covered with blood, the pretended Gaston assisted in placing him in his wife’s arms, exclaiming, “Ah, master! Durand has deserved his death, but he has also deserved your trust.” And falling at his feel as he spoke, the faithful Swiss expired.