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Archive for July, 2011

In looking at the calendar today, I see that, in France, they’re celebrating the fall of that infamous prison, the Bastille–the storming of which, on July 14, 1789, marks the beginning of the French Revolution.

Having said which, my researches into the supernatural haven’t taken me into France very often. I lay this partly to a mild francophobia, instilled in me by an ardent Francophile professor of European history in my college years. Of the small number of French ghost stories I’ve run across in my meanderings, only one has its origins in the horrifying bloody years of the French Revolution, and most of the actual story–and the haunting–takes place in, believe it or not, County Meath in Ireland.

I’d lay odds myself that Adele, Comtesse de la Tour-Verriere–also known as Marguerite Depres, the “old Mademoiselle” of Moyvore, is a far happier haunt in Ireland than she would be in the Paris she left, just ahead of the bloody clutch of Mme. Guillotine. You be the judge.

When the Revolution came, Adele, Comtesse de la Tour-Verriere, was only nineteen, a lovely, tiny, golden-haired, violet-eyed orphan who would, in the course of things, probably have made an advantageous marriage, lived out her life in the scandalous ancien regime, and died in her bed. Unfortunately for that scenario, the Revolution ate aristocrats with a cannibalistic glee, deeming them its first enemies, and she, along with the aunt who raised her, and a single serving maid, hid out in caves and farmhouses for nearly two years before finally reaching the seaport of Calais in the spring of 1791. They hired an English fisherman to take them across the Channel to safety.

The little fishing trawler never made it. It sank in a sudden Channel storm, taking with it its master, the aunt and maidservant, and leaving the countess clinging to a wooden plank. She was plucked, more dead than alive, from the sea by another trawler, this one bound for Ireland. The crew took her to Dublin.

A small community of escaped French aristos had established itself in Dublin, and they hospitably took in the young countess. She settled in quite happily, making her own way by giving music lessons–she was an accomplished violinist–and sewing for both her wealthy friends and, as word got around, for well-to-do Irishwomen.

She was, by virtue of her beauty and grace, taken into the social life of the Irish city as a matter of course. At a ball at Dublin Castle, one night in late summer, she met the man who would become the center of her life: a loud, red-faced, married squire from County Meath named Ranley Fitz-Martin.

The pair fell madly in love on the spot–opposites do attract–, and she became his mistress. She gave him only the slightest of descriptions of her life in France, preferring to concentrate, after the great tragedies of her young life, on their love and joy. He, in turn, told her of the huge house he, his wife, and their four children lived in at Moyvore. The attics, it appeared, were especially spacious.

Inevitably, Ranley had to go home. It was then that Adele, unwilling to lose her beloved to all save surreptitious visits to her little rooms in Dublin, told him she had thought of a way they could be together always: she could come with him to Moyvore as a seamstress–a task at which his wife, it appeared, was utterly hopeless, unable to make even the simplest repairs to the clothing the family wore–He could make an apartment for her in the vast attics, and come to visit her as he pleased.

Ranley, dubious but diverted by the idea, agreed. When he went home he took with him a little French seamstress, who hid (dyed) nut-brown hair under a mobcap and startling violet eyes behind pewter-framed spectacles; her eyes, she explained in charmingly accented English, were a bit weak, for sewing by candlelight was such a strain. The name she gave Ranley’s grateful–and thankfully unobservant–wife was Marguerite Depres, and it was by that name that Adele, Comtesse de la Tour-Verriere, was known for the rest of her days. An apartment was made for her in Moyvore’s attics, and she settled in and took up her duties immediately.

She had prudently left word in Dublin, with her aristo friends, that she was taking ship for America, where she hoped to find work as a governess. If anyone found it suspicious that she left Dublin forever at the same time Ranley Fitz-Martin returned to Moyvore, they kept their suspicions to themselves.

And so, for the next twenty-odd years, the erstwhile countess lived as a humble seamstress under the roof of her lover. His family came to love her as one of them–and if they had their suspicions about her relationship with husband and father, they kept them quiet. She took care of all the family’s sewing and mending–thanks to her, Ranley’s wife and daughter were the best-dressed women in Ireland–, helped decorate the house for the holidays at Christmas, and shared in the rearing of the Fitz-Martin children, who loved to sit with her in her attic sewing room and listen to her stories of France, and to tell her of their adventures, great and small.

Only twice did she leave Moyvore in those twenty-odd years. Once, she went to England to “take the waters” during a spell of ill health, and, sometime around 1804, she spent three months in France; disliking the new Napoleonic regime, she was glad to return to Moyvore.

In her later life, Mlle. Depres was afflicted with a bad cough and chest pains. One night in 1814, Ranley came upstairs to visit her–they were still as much in love as they had been in Dublin, long before–and found her feverish and unable to breathe. A hastily summoned doctor diagnosed pneumonia, and did his best to save her, but she died within a couple of days. The whole Fitz-Martin family mourned her, and buried her in the family plot, under that name she had used so long: Marguerite Depres.

Her attic apartment was used for storage thereafter. Some years later, a parlormaid, sent to the attic on some errand, came downstairs–puzzled but not frightened–to report that she had seen a tiny dark-haired woman with glasses making up the bed in the “old Mam’selle’s” room.

In 1860, a Fitz-Martin grandson, trying to retrieve a kite stuck on the rooftop of Moyvore, dashed into an attic room and out through a hatch onto the roof. As he made his way toward the gable where his errant kite was caught, he saw, through a window, a small woman in a white shawl. Unthinkingly, he called a greeting to her, then went on to retrieve his kite. She was gone upon his return through the hatch, but just before he shut the door, he spotted a small box, tucked into a spot along the rafters. The box proved to hold a stash of letters written by the little French seamstress during her three-month sojourn in France, so many years before. In one of them, she spoke of having fostered out a son–the spitting image, she wrote, of his father, Ranley Fitz-Martin.

For many years thereafter, there were reports of odd little tasks found done by no living hand; a chair cushion, chewed up by a puppy, found covered with an incredibly fine new cover of petit-point; a torn curtain mended with tiny, tiny stitches; a hearth swept by none of the servants; an old clock oiled and set running after many years of inactivity; a violin, carefully preserved in the music room, showed signs of cleaning, tuning, and seemingly, of having been played, though no music was ever heard.

All these things were good-naturedly conjectured, by the Fitz-Martin descendants and servants, to be the work of “the old Mam’selle”.

In 1909, a curious letter arrived in one morning’s post. It was old–very old; the paper was a bit crumbly and the delicate handwriting very oldfashioned–and bore no stamp; where a stamp should have been, there were written the words N’oubliez pasDo not forget. The letter said that there was a package for the Fitz-Martins being held at a shop on the Rue des Petits Champs in Paris. It was signed Adele de la Tour-Verriere.

One of the family made the trip to Paris. In the shop named in the letter, he was given a package that turned out to contain a portrait of the French mademoiselle, painted when she was in the first flush of her beauty, but recognizably the little seamstress. The woman who owned the little shop said that she did not know who had left the parcel there; she knew only that her family had had it in their shop for more than a century, not to be disposed of until someone bearing that letter came to claim it.

That portrait hangs now in what was once Ranley Fitz-Martin’s bedroom.

The story of la mademoiselle de Moyvore comes from James Reynolds’ 1947 book Ghosts in Irish Houses. The dates he gives are preposterous, but I think I’ve managed to make them feasible. 😉

And with that there’s only one thing left to say: Vive la France!

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