Denis de Beaulieu, a young cavalier, is precocious in the arts of chivalry and war. Not yet twenty-two years old, he has already killed a man in battle and is confident as he goes about his affairs. One dark, unsettled September night in 1429, Denis finds himself alone in a territory jointly occupied by Burgundian and English troops. Although he is there under safe conduct, that means little in the brutal realities of the Hundred Years’ War. His situation is perilous and, after visiting a friend, he becomes lost in the unfamiliar surroundings on his return to his inn. The streets are narrow and pitch dark; he is filled with claustrophobic terror and fears being assaulted as he tries to find his way back to the security of his lodgings.
In the silent darkness of his ominous journey, Denis comes on an impressive house of some great family, ornamented by pinnacles and turrets with a chapel projecting from the main structure. The door is sheltered within a deep porch and overhung by two gargoyles. The house reminds Denis of his own house at Bourges. As he seeks to retrace his steps, he encounters a party of men-at-arms who would think nothing of killing him and leaving him where he falls. Discovered by the drunken soldiers, Denis beats a frantic retreat, taking refuge within the porch of the great house that he has just left, ready to defend himself to the death. As he draws his sword and leans against the great door, it opens before his weight and he enters as if rescued by Providence. No sooner is he within the great house than the door closes of its own accord, leaving him in absolute darkness. Saved from the marauding soldiers, Denis now faces a new fear: being trapped within a strange house.
Following a thin shaft of light up a staircase, Denis finds himself in a large apartment. Directly facing him as he enters the strongly lighted room, seated on a high chair beside the chimney, is the Sire de Malétroit, who resembles a bull, goat, or domestic boar rather than a human being. His beautiful white hair hangs straight around his head, like a saint’s. His hands appear untouched by age and are at once fleshy and delicate; his tapered, sensual fingers are like those of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s women. All the while, the Sire de Malétroit sits patiently on his chair like the statue of a god, contemplating Denis. In a musical murmur, he invites Denis to enter, saying he has been expecting him all evening. Having never seen the master of the house, Denis is bewildered and insists there is some mistake. When Malétroit continues to speak to Denis as an expected visitor, the young man thinks he is dealing with a lunatic. His confusion is heightened by a hurried sound of voices praying behind a wall hanging directly opposite him. When Malétroit refers to Denis as his dear nephew, the young man momentarily loses control, calling the old man a liar and threatening to force his way out of the house with his sword. Denis is told that if he tries to escape, he will be bound hand and foot by the sire’s armed retainers.
At this point, the wall hanging covering the chapel door is lifted, and Denis, escorted by Malétroit and a tall priest, beholds a young girl attired in bridal finery kneeling in front of the altar, and he begins to realize his desperate situation. Malétroit explains that his family honor has been compromised by a young man who has...
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been secretly courting his niece, standing near her daily in the church and writing her letters. He set a trap for this man in the ingenious contrivance of the door. Now that Denis has fallen into the trap, Malétroit thinks that he is the guilty party, whom he will force to marry his niece and restore the family honor. Even if Denis is not the man, however, he now shares the family’s disgraceful secret; if Malétroit cannot wipe away the dishonor, at least he can stop the scandal by forcing the marriage. He gives Denis two hours to agree to marry Blanche or be hanged, and he leaves the two alone in the chapel for the allotted time.
Denis and Blanche spend this time together talking about love, honor, shame, marriage under duress, the uncertainty of life, and the transience of reputation. Their feelings for each other change several times, until they terminate in mutual trust, love, and respect. Denis will marry Blanche, not to redeem her honor, and she will marry him, not to save his life—they will marry because they truly love each other. At the end of the two hours, Malétroit enters the chapel, observes the two embracing and kissing, and wishes his new nephew a good morning.