The old man was sitting limply at a table staring at nothing in particular. A tall distinguished member of the National Gendarmerie entered from a door to the bar room. Spotting the old man at the table, he quietly made his way to the other side of the table. He reached out his hand in greeting, “Monsieur Moritz Vital, I am Inspector Boule. I understand you have a confession to make.”
The old man raised his head to look at the inspector. He said nothing for several moments. Sighing he finally spoke, “I might.”
“Monsieur, I have been advised that you are well liked and respected in this village and that you are an honorable man. Are you sure you wish to do this? You could end up in prison or hung.”
At that the old man’s face took on a haggard state and he sighed, “I could care less about what will happen to me. My sole request is that you listen to my story before we get down to the business at hand.”
Inspector Boule paused to consider this before taking a seat, “All right, Monsieur. Tell me your story.”
The old man’s face grew pensive and he seemed to slip back into another time.
My wife and I settled into this village twenty five years ago. We built a good home and when we were married three years, we welcomed our beautiful Isabella into our life. She was the light of our world, but two years later my sweet Cécile once again caught baby fever. She wanted to give Isabella a frère or sœur and it wasn’t long until she was exuberant with the knowledge that Isabella would soon be a big sister. However, when it came time to give birth, something went wrong and we lost both Cécile and little Emma. Suddenly, it was up to me to care for Isabella.
She was interested in books at a very young age and quickly learned to read. In exchange for milk and eggs, her teacher offered to teach her how to cook and sew and soon she was sewing dresses for herself and shirts and pants for me.
Isabella grew more beautiful with age and she was only twelve when she caught the eye of Gaston Bourdieur, the only son of the county tax collector. He could have had any woman he wanted at the snap of his fingers….. except Isabella. She always had her head in a book and often barely noticed his Présentoirs magnifiques, magnificent displays. That almost seemed to heighten his pursuit. He made elaborate plans to claim her as his own even to the point of throwing her a surprise wedding. He would brag in this very pub about how he would make Belle his.
Then one night, my barn burned down. I had just finished storing my harvest inside and had made plans to sell it the next week. It had been intentionally set. I wanted to suspect Gaston Bourdieur, but could not see why he would stoop to something so low and I had no proof. Losing that crop cost me big. I fell behind on paying my taxes. Then, one day, Gaston appeared with some paperwork decreeing that if the taxes were not paid in thirty days, the farm would be sold and I would be placed in prison. Isabella was horrified. She knew there was no way we could come up with the money. She begged him to reconsider.
He sneered, “There might be a way. How far would you be willing to go to save your father’s farm?”
Immediately the warning bells went off in my head. I knew where this conversation was going, “Belle, no!”
Isabella raised her chin. She reminded me so much of her mother when she did that. “What do you have in mind?”
Gaston leaned in, “I’m talking about becoming Madame Gaston Bourdieur.”
Isabella gasped and then glared at him, “Did you burn down our barn?”
Gaston narrowed his eyes, “I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what you are talking about about.”
“It would appear that I don’t really have a choice.” Isabella’s voice bore a coldness.
“Belle, please! Don’t do this!” I begged her.
Belle turned to me, her eyes glistening, “Papa, I can’t allow you to go to prison.” She embraced me.
“I’ll be okay. But if you go with him, you would be in a worse prison.”
“Papa, I cannot let you go to prison. No, I won’t! I won’t let you!” She turned to Gaston and, with head held high, leveled a hard stare, “Alright, Gaston, you win! I will marry you, but not until you release my father from this mess.”
Gaston sneered, “Done” and he ripped his papers in half, “And now,” he walked to the door, opened it and gestured someone in. His cohort, Lefou, marched in simpering a look at Belle. He was followed closely by the very nervous looking local curate, Father Jean-Baptiste.
Isabella gasped, “You want to get married now?”
Gaston jeered, “No time like the present, my dear.”
Isabella began to shake and I thought for a moment she might faint, “No, Belle!” Lefou turned to me glaring and waving a wooden cane menacingly. My cry seemed to revive her. She inhaled slowly and then raised her head conceding with the little pride she had left. Tears cascaded down my cheeks as they exchanged vows.
When they were through, Gaston pulled her roughly to him, “Now you are finally mine!” He forced his lips upon hers and when he was finished, he cast her down, “Now lets hurry. We have a honeymoon to get to.” He leered at her like a hungry lion, “I have been looking forward to this night!”
“Let me get my things!” she begged.
“You have no use for them!” he answered savagely. “You will get a whole new wardrobe that I have already had designed and constructed for you.”
“Do you dare to dispute your husband?!!” he roared, “I order you out to the carriage!” Shaking Isabella slipped out the door. Gaston pivoted to face me. His look of victory setting his face ablaze with contempt, “I will allow you to live here because I can not have it be said that I forced my father-in-law from his home, but you try to come after me, you will lose all this and your precious Belle may not live to our first anniversary. You will stay away from my wife. You will not be permitted to visit. Any attempt to contact her will risk her very life. And, just to get my point across, I will let you here with Lefou.” With that, he sauntered out the door and I could hear the carriage leaving and Lefou waved his cane ominously. Then everything went black.
My world went from colorful rainbow to a dark pit. I suddenly had to adjust to life without my shining star. It was a good month before I made an appearance in the village. Till then, my wounds from the beating I received from Lefou had healed. I could feel people staring and hear the whispers and then, suddenly someone grabbed my arm, “Monsieur!” I turned to face Father Jean-Baptiste whose eyes looked tormented.
“Monsieur,’ he repeated, “I beg your forgiveness! He forced me to marry your daughter to him.”
My smile was grim, “I have a feeling that Monsieur Gaston Bourdieur does nothing out of friendship. I just wish I knew if she was alright.”
Father Jean-Baptiste sighed and looked around. “Why don’t you ask her?” He pointed to a young maiden buying fruit from a marketplace stand. “She is a maid in his household.”
“I was told I cannot contact her or try to find anything out or he will cause her harm.” I frowned.
“Why don’t I arrange for her to meet you in the church?” the vicar suggested. “You could meet her in the confessional. Go in there now and I will send her to you.”
I considered this before nodding. Turning, I casually strolled to the Église and slipped inside. I quickly found the confessional and stepped into the one side. It wasn’t long until I could hear the Father outside whispering, “She is on her way.”
I braced myself for the bad news. I could hear the confessional open and a woman’s voice, “Forgive me, Father!”
“Monsieur, you are her father?” she asked timidly.
“Yes,” I could not contain my nervous edge, “How is my daughter? How is Isabella?”
“Oh, Monsieur,” she hesitated, “You know not what you ask.”
“Please!” I implored, “I need to know!”
She hesitated still, “Monsieur, you have begged me, but you will not like what I have to say. Monsieur Bourdieur forces himself upon her daily.” She paused at my sharp intake before continuing, “I heard him beating her several times. He keeps her locked in their suite and will only allow our butler to take her meals. And, just yesterday,” she paused, “he told her you were dead. That you died from a broken heart. And he ordered us not to tell her any different.”
I buried my face in my hands, ” Oh, Isabella!” I started sobbing.
“I’m so sorry, Monsieur!”
“No, I had hoped that he was treating her well, but I knew in my heart….” I trailed off. “Please, meet me here the first Saturday of every month and tell me how she is doing! Let no one follow you! Monsieur Bourdieur must not know!”
She agreed and hurried away.
The weeks seemed to drag until I once again found myself in the rectory. I waited an hour before the maiden arrived at the confessional, breathless, “Monsieur, I have news! Isabella appears to be carrying a child.”
I jerked my head, “A child?”
“Yes, Monsieur, and the elder Monsieur has ordered his son to discontinue the beatings so as not to hurt the heir. Also, they wish to soon present her to their class of friends and he does not want marks on her face.” The maiden continued.
“Well, that is good news, at least for several months.” I conceded.
I continued to meet the maiden for several months but the message was usually the same. Isabella was never allowed to leave the room unless accompanied by Gaston. It also became apparent that his abuse had turned psychological. He told her she was his and would never leave him or he would kill her. He also continued the lie that her father was dead. He told her that her pregnant body was fat and then proceeded to rape her telling her she owed him at least that. Gaston seemed to stop at nothing until she was totally submissive to his will. He kept her in check by threatening to take away their child once born. And then I received the message that my granddaughter was born, but that Gaston was enraged because he wanted a male. He removed the baby girl, whom he named Non Désiré and handed her to a nurse, much to Isabella begging to keep the baby.
“You have no use for the brat!” he grabbed her roughly, “Your sole job is to please me and produce male heirs!” And with that, he once again forced himself upon her. A month later she was once again pregnant. And once again, she produced another female. Enraged, he ripped the child from her and did not even wait for the nurse to leave the room before he was upon her. He blamed her for the girl and told her over and over that she would produce a male this time.
This pregnancy was much different this time. Her body never had a chance to strengthen from the first child and the third one had weakened her immensely. And then, several months later, a terrified maiden arrived at my door. She was crying. I sat her down and handed her a glass of water, coaxing her to catch her breath. She sat there a minute, before burying her face in her hands, “Oh, Monsieur, I am so sorry. So sorry!”
Dread filled my very being, “What? What are you sorry for? What has happened to my Belle? Is she sick?”
She looked down, “Isabella had the baby. It was another girl.” She paused, “Monsieur Bourdieur was so angry but then he seemed to calm down. He-” She paused, “He-” Closing her eyes, she continued, “Madame Bourdieur has jumped to her death.”
I fought the blackness that threatened to consume me, “What? How can this be?”
She looked at me with tears in her eyes, “That was what he told us to say.” Suddenly the blackness was replaced by red fury.
Almost in a trance, I grabbed my hunting rifle from above the mantle and began to load it, shoving extra shells in my pocket, “I think it best you take the very longest way home,” I advised before disappearing out the door. Saddling Philippe, I hurried to the Bourdieur estate. I slipped in unnoticed as the staff hurried to clean up Belle’s body. If I had not been told she had been the one to fall to her death, I never would have recognized her.
“Have you not cleaned up this mess yet?” I heard a familiar voice from above. I looked up to see Gaston addressing his staff, “I want this rubbish cleaned up within the hour!”
Rage consumed me as I yelled, “Gaston Bourdieur!” I raised my rifle and took aim.
He jerked his head toward me, “You! I ordered you to stay away!”
I cocked my weapon and roared, “I want to see your face as I kill you.” With that, I pulled the trigger and he fell next to my Belle. Numbly I made my way to this tavern to await your arrival.”
Inspector Boule stared at the old man for a few seconds, “You know I must take you to Paris for trial.”
Moritz nodded his head, “I understand, but I have two more requests.” The inspector looked at him, confused. The older man continued, “I want you to bury my daughter on our property next to her mother. And I want you to remove my three granddaughters from that House Of Horrors. I have a cousin whose wife was never able to bear children. Please take them there. Tonight!” The old man wrote down the address and the Inspector nodded and left the room for a few moments. When he returned, he only nodded to Moritz.
“It is done as you asked.” the inspector continued, “I supposed you must know that I will need to bind your hands.”
Moritz held out his hands and they were wrapped with a rope. The inspector led him to his waiting horse tethered to another. He pointed to the second horse, “Is there someone who can help my prisoner onto the horse?” He shouted to the onlookers. A burly man stepped up and assisted the old man. Inspector Boule had climbed his own horse and was waiting. He looked at the old man kindly, “I am sorry for the loss of your daughter.” The old man nodded and the horses were turned toward Paris.
As they passed his house, tears slid down the old man’s cheeks, “I’m sorry, Isabella.” He whispered.