On a tempestuous night, Pierre de la Motte leaves Paris to escape his creditors and prosecution by the law. Descended from an ancient house, he is a man whose passions often prove stronger than his conscience. Having dissipated his own fortune and that of his wife, he has engaged in various questionable schemes that have brought him at last to disgrace and made this flight necessary. Leaving Paris with his wife and two faithful servants, he hopes to find a refuge in some village of the southern provinces. The departure is so sudden that the couple have had no time to say farewell to their son Louis, who is on duty with his regiment in Germany.
Several leagues from the city, the coachman, Peter, loses his way while driving them across a wild heath. La Motte sees in the distance the lighted window of a small, ancient house. He dismounts and walks there in the hope of securing directions from the residents. A grim-visaged man opens the door at his knock, ushers him into a desolate apartment, and abruptly leaves, locking the door behind him. Over the howling of the wind, la Motte can hear rough voices close at hand and the muffled sobbing of a woman.
The door is at last unlocked, and the forbidding ruffian reappears, dragging by the hand a beautiful girl of about eighteen. The man puts a pistol to la Motte’s chest and offers him his choice between death or taking the girl with him. When the girl begs him to take pity on her, la Motte is moved by her tears as much as by his own danger, and he readily assents. Other men appear, and the now blindfolded prisoners are taken on horseback to the edge of the heath, where la Motte’s carriage waits. La Motte and the girl are put into the carriage, and Peter quickly drives them away from the threats and curses of the wild crew. The agitated girl, thrust so strangely into the company of la Motte and his wife, gives her name only as Adeline. Not wishing to add to her distress and filled with pity for her, they do not pursue any further questioning.
Several days later, the travelers reach the vast forest of Fontanville. As the sun is setting, they are awed to see against the ruddy sky the towers of an ancient abbey. Soon after, when one of the carriage wheels breaks and the vehicle is overturned, they decide to return to the abbey. During their explorations of the empty building, they discover a suite of apartments still habitable and of more modern date than the rest of the structure. Despite his wife’s misgivings, la Motte decides to make the secluded abbey his place of refuge.
Peter is dispatched to a nearby village for provisions and furniture, and he returns with the report that the ruins are the property of a nobleman living on a distant estate. The country people also claim that a mysterious prisoner was once confined there, and although no one knows his fate, his ghost is said to haunt the scene of his imprisonment. For seventeen years, the natives of the region have not dared to approach the old abbey.
La Motte is well pleased with all that he hears; before long, he and his household have made their quarters comfortable. La Motte spends most of his mornings out of doors, either hunting or fishing, and his afternoons and evenings with his family. Sometimes he reads, but more often he simply sits in gloomy silence. Only Adeline has the power to enliven his spirits when he grows moody and depressed. She has fully recovered from her terrifying experience and has a sweet, lively disposition and diligent habits. After a time, she confides the story of her life to Madame de la Motte, whom she has begun to look upon as a mother.
She is the only child of the poor but reputable Chevalier de St. Pierre. With her mother dead, she was reared in a convent, after which her father had intended that she should marry. When she refused, he rebuked her for her obstinacy, and one day he took her not to his magnificent house in Paris but to that lonely house on the heath. There she had been turned over to the care of brutal keepers. Only the arrival of la Motte, she believes, saved her from an unknown but terrible fate.
After a month in the forest refuge, la Motte regains a measure of his tranquillity and even cheerfulness, much to the delight of his wife and their ward. Then his mood suddenly changes again. As if he were being preyed upon by some guilty secret or deep remorse, he avoids his family and spends many hours alone in the forest. Peter, the faithful servant, tries to follow his master on more than one occasion, but la Motte always eludes his follower and, at one particular place, disappears as if the trees and rocks have swallowed him. About that time, Peter brings a report from the village that a stranger in the neighborhood has been inquiring for his master. Greatly disturbed, la Motte remembers a trapdoor he had observed in one of the decaying chambers of the abbey. With the hope that it might lead to a good hiding place, he explores the passageway to which the trapdoor gives access and finally comes to a room containing a large chest of ancient design. Throwing open the lid, he is horrified to find a human skeleton. He insists that his family join him in the hidden apartments he has discovered, but he tells the others nothing about the gruesome remains in the chest.
When he ventures out of hiding the next day, la Motte sees a stranger in the abbey and returns quickly to his place of concealment. The group’s provisions are running low, however, and at last it is decided that Adeline should reconnoiter the ruins to learn whether the stranger, assumed to be an officer of the law, has gone away. In the cloisters, she encounters a young man in military uniform. Although she tries to flee, he overtakes her and demands to know the whereabouts of Pierre de la Motte. Adeline’s relief is as great as her joy when the stranger turns out to be Louis de la Motte, whose filial affection has drawn him to his father’s side.
Unfortunately, Louis’s growing fondness for Adeline completely destroys Madame de la Motte’s liking for her. To avoid the older woman’s coldness, Adeline begins to spend much of her time in the forest, where she composes poems inspired by the beauty of the landscape and her own gentle melancholy. One day, while she is singing some stanzas of her own composition, a strange voice echoes hers. Startled to find a...
(The entire section is 2602 words.)