(above: Honore de Balzac)
You might think Edgar Allan Poe’s spine-tingling tale of horror, “The Cask Of Amontillado,” set the precedent for all future stories of “entombment.” You might think that, but you’d be wrong.
Poe’s story was published in 1846 (it may be read for free online here if you’d like to revisit it). It was pre-dated, however, by some fourteen years by Honore de Balzac’s story, “The Mysterious Mansion.” Balzac’s story, included in my anthology “Great Short Stories of the World,” found its way onto my list of 52 stories for my 2013 Short Story reading project. This weekend I drew the seven of spades, which was the card to which I had assigned this story…
The Mysterious Mansion begins with an almost two page exposition on the titular dwelling and grounds. This may be one of literature’s best descriptions of the effects of nature reclaiming property from the prior ownership of man. The mansion captures the imagination and curiosity of the story’s narrator, who learns of its tale from a woman, Rosalie, who played a small part in it.
If you’d like to read the story before proceeding, it may be found online here. (It’s only about eight pages long) Otherwise – MAJOR spoiler alert! 🙂
The cruel Monsieur de Mellet suspects his wife has become involved with a Spanish grandee. One night, upon returning home early, he knocks on the door to his wife’s chamber and thinks he can hear the door to her (conveniently-sized) “walk-in” closet close before he enters, finding his wife across the room by the fireplace. At first he gives her the benefit of the doubt and rationalizes it must be the maid, Rosalie. This hopeful explanation is immediately shattered however, when Rosalie enters the room from the same door he did.
He quickly puts two and two together and makes known his intention to throw open the door to the closet and reveal the proof of his wife’s infidelity. She protests vehemently even threatening, “If you find no one in there, remember this, all will be over between us!” and eventually he says. “No, Josephine, I will not go in there. In either case it would separate us forever. hear me, I know how pure you are at heart, and that your life is a holy one… Here, take your crucifix and swear before God that there is no one in there.” (did I mention he was cruel?)
She, somewhat reluctantly, swears. He promptly sends for a mason to seal up the closet with bricks and plaster. The mason is clandestinely bribed by Josephine (via Rosalie) to leave a “crease” that will allow Josephine to later free her lover. M. Merret leaves for awhile but purposefully returns before she can have time to free the Spaniard. She feints upon his return, and he repairs the damage, staying then with her in her room for twenty days. The chilling finale:
“In the beginning (of the twenty days), when there were sounds from the walled closet, and Josephine attempted to implore his pity for the dying stranger, he replied, without permitting her to say a word: ’You have sworn on the cross that there is no one there.’ “
This final scene also reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” (yet another “literary entombment” – how many are there, I wonder. Do you know of any?”)
What about you? What, of Balzac”s works, have you read?What do you recommend?