The year is 1680 and terror stalks the kingdom of Louis XIV. First there was a series of murders by poisoning initiated by a special poison designed for this very purpose by the evil genius Godin de Sainte-Croix and his mistress Marquise de Brinvilliers. When Sainte-Croix died accidentally by inhaling the poisonous fumes and Marquise de Brinvilliers was tricked by Desgrais – an officer of the Marechaussée – and subsequently condemned to death, the Parisians breathed freely. But it seemed that Sainte-Croix had a few disciples and soon nobody was safe: fathers with fortunes, unloved but wealthy husbands, shrewish wives… all could be killed easily without any fuss:
Murder came gliding like an invisible, capricious spectre into the narrowest and most intimate circles of relationship, love and friendship, pouncing securely and swiftly upon its unhappy victims. Men who today, were seen in robust health, were tottering about on the morrow feeble and sick; and no skill of physicians could restore them. Wealth, a good appointment or office, a nice-looking wife, perhaps a little too young for her husband, were ample reasons for a man’s being dogged to death. The most frightful mistrust snapped the most sacred ties. The husband trembled before his wife; the father dreaded the son; the sister the brother. When your friend asked you to dinner, you carefully avoided tasting the dishes and wines which he set before you; and where joy and merriment used to reign, there were now nothing but wild looks, watching to detect the secret murderer.
Finally, the king appointed a tribunal, the Chambre Ardente, presided over by La Regine to investigate these secret crimes. Through the efforts of the officer Desgrais the king-pins were arrested but La Regine’s measures to control these crimes led to a reign of terror in which the innocents were as brutally (mis)treated as the guilty. As if all this was not enough, a fresh wave of trouble came to overwhelm the people. A gang of robbers decided to steal jewels from all those who carried gems or wore them on person. Dead bodies were found stabbed in a similar manner, sometime even on the threshold of the house they were about to enter. As the police searched in vain for the gang, Desgrais set up a trap to nab the criminal(s). One day it did seem that he was about to catch one of the robbers when the man he was chasing vanished through a wall!
Was it some supernatural being that was robbing the people? Rumours spread thick and fast. And it was in such a mood of apprehension and dread that a young man barged into the house of Mille de Scuderi (modelled on the real-life author Madeleine de Scudéry) and left a casket for her. When the casket was opened, it was seen that it contained jewels of exquisite craftsman-ship. And from then on de Scuderi finds herself involved in a tale of theft and murder…
There is a lot of swooning and trembling in the text but it is an interesting look at the life and customs of the 17th century. Worth a read.
First Line: Magdaleine de Scudéri, so famous for her charming poetical and other writings, lived in a small mansion in the Rue St. Honoré, by favour of Louis the XIVth and Madame de Maintenon.
Title: Mademoiselle de Scudéri: A Tale from the Times of Louis XIV
Original Title: Das Fräulein von Scuderi: Erzählung aus dem Zeitalter Ludwig des Vierzehnten
Author: E.T.A Hoffmann
Original Language: German
Translator: Not mentioned
Publication Details: Not available
First Published: 1819
Source: Project Gutenberg Australia
Other books read of the same author: None
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