An Historical Mystery

Author: Honore de Balzac

Chapter III the Mask Thrown Off

A few moments later Michu returned home, his face pale, his features contracted.

"What is the matter?" said his wife, frightened.

"Nothing," he replied, seeing Violette whose presence silenced him.

Michu took a chair and sat down quietly before the fire, into which he threw a letter which he drew from a tin tube such as are given to soldiers to hold their papers. This act, which enabled Marthe to draw a long breath like one relieved of a great burden, greatly puzzled Violette. The bailiff laid his gun on the mantel-shelf with admirable composure. Marianne the servant, and Marthe’s mother were spinning by the light of a lamp.

"Come, Francois," said the father, presently, "it is time to go to bed."

He lifted the boy roughly by the middle of his body and carried him off.

"Run down to the cellar," he whispered, when they reached the stairs. "Empty one third out of two bottles of the Macon wine, and fill them up with the Cognac brandy which is on the shelf. Then mix a bottle of white wine with one half brandy. Do it neatly, and put the three bottles on the empty cask which stands by the cellar door. When you hear me open the window in the kitchen come out of the cellar, run to the stable, saddle my horse, mount it, and go and wait for me at Poteaudes-Gueux—That little scamp hates to go to bed," said Michu, returning; "he likes to do as grown people do, see all, hear all, and know all. You spoil my people, pere Violette."

"Goodness!" cried Violette, "what has loosened your tongue? I never heard you say as much before."

"Do you suppose I let myself be spied upon without taking notice of it? You are on the wrong side, pere Violette. If, instead of serving those who hate me, you were on my side I could do better for you than renew that lease of yours."

"How?" said the peasant, opening wide his avaricious eyes.

"I’ll sell you my property cheap."

"Nothing is cheap when we have to pay," said Violette, sententiously.

"I want to leave the neighborhood, and I’ll let you have my farm of Mousseau, the buildings, granary, and cattle for fifty thousand francs."


"Does that suit you?"

"Hang it! I must think—"

"We’ll talk about it—I shall want earnest money."

"I have no money."

"Well, a note."

"Can’t give it."

"Tell me who sent you here to-day."

"I am on my way back from where I spent this afternoon, and I only stopped in to say good-evening."

"Back without your horse? What a fool you must take me for! You are lying, and you shall not have my farm."

"Well, to tell you the truth, it was monsieur Grevin who sent me. He said ’Violette, we want Michu; do you go and get him; if he isn’t at home, wait for him.’ I saw I should have to stay here all this evening."

"Are those sharks from Paris still at the chateau?"

"Ah! that I don’t know; but there were people in the salon."

"You shall have my farm; we’ll settle the terms now. Wife, go and get some wine to wash down the contract. Take the best Roussillon, the wine of the ex-marquis,—we are not babes. You’ll find a couple of bottles on the empty cask near the door, and a bottle of white wine."

"Very good," said Violette, who never got drunk. "Let us drink."

"You have fifty thousand francs beneath the floor of your bedroom under your bed, pere Violette; you will give them to me two weeks after we sign the deed of sale before Grevin—" Violette stared at Michu and grew livid. "Ah! you came here to spy upon a Jacobin who had the honor to be president of the club at Arcis, and you imagine he will let you get the better of him! I have eyes, I saw where your tiles have been freshly cemented, and I concluded that you did not pry them up to plant wheat there. Come, drink."

Violette, much troubled, drank a large glass of wine without noticing the quality; terror had put a hot iron in his stomach, the brandy was not hotter than his cupidity. He would have given many things to be safely home and able to change the hiding-place of his treasure. The three women smiled.

"Do you like that wine?" said Michu, refilling his glass.

"Yes, I do."

After a good half-hour’s decision on the time when the buyer might take possession, and on the various punctilios which the peasantry bring forward when concluding a bargain,—in the midst of assertions and counter-assertions, the filling and emptying of glasses, the giving of promises and denials, Violette suddenly fell forward with his head on the table, not tipsy, but dead-drunk. The instant that Michu saw his eyes blur he opened the window.

"Where’s that scamp, Gaucher?" he said to his wife.

"In bed."

"You, Marianne," said the bailiff to his faithful servant, "stand in front of his door and watch him. You, mother, stay down here, and keep an eye on this spy; keep your eyes and ears open and don’t unfasten the door to any one but Francois. It is a question of life or death," he added, in a deep voice. "Every creature beneath my roof must remember that I have not quitted it this night; all of you must assert that—even though your heads were on the block. Come," he said to Marthe, "come, wife, put on your shoes, take your coat, and let us be off! No questions—I go with you."

For the last three quarters of an hour the man’s demeanor and glance were of despotic authority, all-powerful, irresistible, drawn from the same mysterious source from which great generals on fields of battle who inflame an army, great orators inspiring vast audiences, and (it must be said) great criminals perpetrating bold crimes derive their inspiration. At such times invincible influence seems to exhale from the head and issue from the tongue; the gesture even can inject the will of the one man into others. The three women knew that some dreadful crisis was at hand; without warning of its nature they felt it in the rapid actions of the man, whose countenance shone, whose forehead spoke, whose brilliant eyes glittered like stars; they saw it in the sweat that covered his brow to the roots of his hair, while more than once his voice vibrated with impatience and fury. Marthe obeyed passively. Armed to the teeth and with his gun over his shoulder Michu dashed into the avenue, followed by his wife. They soon reached the cross-roads where Francois was in waiting hidden among the bushes.

"The boy is intelligent," said Michu, when he caught sight of him.

These were his first words. His wife had rushed after him, unable to speak.

"Go back to the house, hide in a thick tree, and watch the country and the park," he said to his son. "We have all gone to bed, no one is stirring. Your grandmother will not open the door until you ask her to let you in. Remember every word I say to you. The life of your father and mother depends on it. No one must know we did not sleep at home."

After whispering these words to the boy, who instantly disappeared in the forest like an eel in the mud, Michu turned to his wife.

"Mount behind me," he said, "and pray that God be with us. Sit firm, the beast may die of it." So saying he kicked the horse with both heels, pressing him with his powerful knees, and the animal sprang forward with the rapidity of a hunter, seeming to understand what his master wanted of him, and crossed the forest in fifteen minutes. Then Michu, who had not swerved from the shortest way, pulled up, found a spot at the edge of the woods from which he could see the roofs of the chateau of Cinq-Cygne lighted by the moon, tied his horse to a tree, and followed by his wife, gained a little eminence which overlooked the valley.

The chateau, which Marthe and Michu looked at together for a moment, makes a charming effect in the landscape. Though it has little extent and is of no importance whatever as architecture, yet archaeologically it is not without a certain interest. This old edifice of the fifteenth century, placed on an eminence, surrounded on all sides by a moat, or rather by deep, wide ditches always full of water, is built in cobble-stones buried in cement, the walls being seven feet thick. Its simplicity recalls the rough and warlike life of feudal days. The chateau, plain and unadorned, has two large reddish towers at either end, connected by a long main building with casement windows, the stone mullions of which, being roughly carved, bear some resemblance to vine-shoots. The stairway is outside the house, at the middle, in a sort of pentagonal tower entered through a small arched door. The interior of the ground-floor together with the rooms on the first storey were modernized in the time of Louis XIV., and the whole building is surmounted by an immense roof broken by casement windows with carved triangular pediments. Before the castle lies a vast green sward the trees of which had recently been cut down. On either side of the entrance bridge are two small dwellings where the gardeners live, connected across the road by a paltry iron railing without character, evidently modern. To right and left of the lawn, which is divided in two by a paved road-way, are the stables, cow-sheds, barns, woodhouse, bakery, poultry-yard, and the offices, placed in what were doubtless the remains of two wings of the old building similar to those that were still standing. The two large towers, with their pepper-pot roofs which had not been rased, and the belfry of the middle tower, gave an air of distinction to the village. The church, also very old, showed near by its pointed steeple, which harmonized well with the solid masses of the castle. The moon brought out in full relief the various roofs and towers on which it played and sparkled.

Michu gazed at this baronial structure in a manner that upset all his wife’s ideas about him; his face, now calm, wore a look of hope and also a sort of pride. His eyes scanned the horizon with a glance of defiance; he listened for sounds in the air. It was now nine o’clock; the moon was beginning to cast its light upon the margin of the forest and to illumine the little bluff on which they stood. The position struck him as dangerous and he left it, fearful of being seen. But no suspicious noise troubled the peace of the beautiful valley encircled on this side by the forest of Nodesme. Marthe, exhausted and trembling, was awaiting some explanation of their hurried ride. What was she engaged in? Was she to aid in a good deed or an evil one? At that instant Michu bent to his wife’s ear and whispered:—

"Go the house and ask to speak to the Comtesse de Cinq-Cygne; when you see her beg her to speak to you alone. If no one can overhear you, say to her: ’Mademoiselle, the lives of your two cousins are in danger, and he who can explain the how and why is waiting to speak to you.’ If she seems afraid, if she distrusts you, add these words: ’They are conspiring against the First Consul and the conspiracy is discovered.’ Don’t give your name; they distrust us too much."

Marthe raised her face towards her husband and said:—

"Can it be that you serve them?"

"What if I do?" he said, frowning, taking her words as a reproach.

"You don’t understand me," cried Marthe, seizing his large hand and falling on her knees beside him as she kissed it and covered it with her tears.

"Go, go, you shall cry later," he said, kissing her vehemently.

When he no longer heard her step his eyes filled with tears. He had distrusted Marthe on account of her father’s opinions; he had hidden the secrets of his life from her; but the beauty of her simple nature had suddenly appeared to him, just as the grandeur of his had, as suddenly, revealed itself to her. Marthe had passed in a moment from the deep humiliation caused by the degradation of the man whose name she bore, to the exaltation given by a sense of his nobleness. The change was instantaneous, without transition; it was enough to make her tremble. She told him later that she went, as it were, through blood from the pavilion to the edge of the forest, and there was lifted to heaven, in a moment, among the angels. Michu, who had known he was not appreciated, and who mistook his wife’s grieved and melancholy manner for lack of affection, and had left her to herself, living chiefly out of doors and reserving all his tenderness for his boy, instantly understood the meaning of her tears. She had cursed the part which her beauty and her father’s will had forced her to take; but now happiness, in the midst of this great storm, played, with a beautiful flame like a vivid lightning about them. And it was lightning! Each thought of the last ten years of misconception, and they blamed themselves only. Michu stood motionless, his elbow on his gun, his chin on his hand, lost in deep reverie. Such a moment in a man’s life makes him willing to accept the saddest moments of a painful past.

Marthe, agitated by the same thoughts as those of her husband, was also troubled in heart by the danger of the Simeuse brothers; for she now understood all, even the faces of the two Parisians, though she still could not explain to herself her husband’s gun. She darted forward like a doe, and soon reached the road to the chateau. There she was surprised by the steps of a man following behind her; she turned, with a cry, and her husband’s large hand closed her mouth.

"From the hill up there I saw the silver lace of the gendarmes’ hats. Go in by the breach in the moat between Mademoiselle’s tower and the stables. The dogs won’t bark at you. Go through the garden and call the countess by the window; order them to saddle her horse, and ask her to come out through the breach. I’ll be there, after discovering what the Parisians are planning, and how to escape them."

Danger, which seemed to be rolling like an avalanche upon them, gave wings to Marthe’s feet.


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Chicago: Honore de Balzac, "Chapter III the Mask Thrown Off," An Historical Mystery, trans. Marriage, Ellen in An Historical Mystery Original Sources, accessed February 6, 2023,

MLA: de Balzac, Honore. "Chapter III the Mask Thrown Off." An Historical Mystery, translted by Marriage, Ellen, in An Historical Mystery, Original Sources. 6 Feb. 2023.

Harvard: de Balzac, H, 'Chapter III the Mask Thrown Off' in An Historical Mystery, trans. . cited in , An Historical Mystery. Original Sources, retrieved 6 February 2023, from