Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 11: No 2) >> An Early Novel of Detection, Marie de Berniere >> Page 14

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Scholarship | 2003
Transcription childhood, although she has sought forgiveness through agonized private prayer in
her closet.
In a note Brandon warns her to "distrust even the walls of your chamber"
(81), and he sends her and her servants to her country estate while the Tennesseans
seek a secret passage. A door which "conducts, through a closed passage, to the
chief saloon, was locked, if you remember, when we tried it, fancying that the
Egyptian might have escaped that way.... We must look elsewhere for his mode
of disappearance" (147). They discover a latch in the fireplace that opens to a
dumb-waiter within her closet "in which a good-sized man may comfortably stand"
(155). Exploring the passage, they find a room containing the "mask of death .. .
of . . . Colonel de Berniere . . . [and] the Egyptian garment with which the
scoundrel simulated [Brandon] at the ball" (156). Descending in the dumb waiter
they arrive "in a deep damp cell" and travel underground "into the precincts of
other habitations. There we followed, through damp, dark avenues, snails and
worms lying in our path, and glimmering upon the walls, which were coated with
damp and slime" (159), an architectural feature Simms vouches for in a footnote,
as he often did in recording quirky historical facts (160).
The denouement: On cue Marie returns from her plantation and locks
herself into her room for the night. From an "ancient lumber closet, beneath the
stairs," the Tennesseans have contrived a mechanism that, when pulled, will both
alert them in their "secret crypt" under the stairs and bar any intruder's "egress
from [Marie's] apartment" (177). Upon her signal, then, they rush to her rescue as
she cries, "Save me, my friends. He is here! My enemy. He who pursues me... .
he spoke to me from that direction," pointing to the closet (179). Seeing no one,
Brandon "stooped into the fireplace a n d drew down the ghost, ... and dragged
him from his hiding-place.... There stood the living embodiment of the excellent
father, Paul Roquetti! .... The good father, this time, wore no death's head; but
he carried it in his hand" (180). Having offended both "the laws of the Church and
those of the' land" (185), the corrupt priest has married a wealthy woman passing
„as a widow with another name,” and they have seven children. Brandon turns him
over to the Church (187). The most Gothic touch to this denouement occurs
when Marie lets her "long hair free .... voluminous and soft upon her shoulders.
But it was mottled with gray!" (188).
As a visitor studies architectural idiosyncrasies and exposes terrifying
midnight pranks, his meticulous application of skepticism in a tale of ratiocination
results in love renewed. Couched in irrational guilt, runaway gossip, lingering
legends of ghosts, and steadfast love, this work the may well have been earliest
serialized "detective" novel (1852); it is most likely the first American book-length
detective story. Another of Simms's experimental fictions, with roots in Gothicism
and serialization, Marie de Berniere created an aura of mystery the kind that still
intrigues popular audiences.