Honore de Balzac: A Woman of Thirty


One of Napoleon's orderly staff-officers, who shall be known in this history only as the General or the Marquis, had come to spend the spring at Versailles. He made a large fortune under the Restoration; and as his place at Court would not allow him to go very far from Paris, he had taken a country house between the church and the barrier of Montreuil, on the road that leads to the Avenue de Saint-Cloud.

The house had been built originally as a retreat for the short-lived loves of some grand seigneur. The grounds were very large; the gardens on either side extending from the first houses of Montreuil to the thatched cottages near the barrier, so that the owner could enjoy all the pleasures of solitude with the city almost at his gates. By an odd piece of contradiction, the whole front of the house itself, with the principal entrance, gave directly upon the street. Perhaps in time past it was a tolerably lonely road, and indeed this theory looks all the more probable when one comes to think of it; for not so very far away, on this same road, Louis Quinze built a delicious summer villa for Mlle. de Romans, and the curious in such things will discover that the wayside casinos are adorned in a style that recalls traditions of the ingenious taste displayed in debauchery by our ancestors who, with all the license paid to their charge, sought to invest it with secrecy and mystery.

One winter evening the family were by themselves in the lonely house. The servants had received permission to go to Versailles to celebrate the wedding of one of their number. It was Christmas time, and the holiday makers, presuming upon the double festival, did not scruple to outstay their leave of absence; yet, as the General was well known to be a man of his word, the culprits felt some twinges of conscience as they danced on after the hour of return. The clocks struck eleven, and still there was no sign of the servants.

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