Catherine picked at her breakfast as she tried not to look like she was checking the clock on the wall. René consumed his food across the table, his eyes on the letter in his hand. He received it yesterday – a correspondence calling him away to Paris immediately, for at least two weeks. Catherine wasn’t exactly happy to see him go – she hated being left alone – but being around René came with its own set of problems.
René set down his silverware, and Catherine froze at the sudden movement. He folded up his letter and stood, looking at his wife for a moment. He walked toward her. “I’m sorry to be leaving you here so suddenly. I hope you can forgive me.”
Catherine nodded, still looking at her plate. She saw René’s hand rise into the air and flinched – but, no, he was just reaching to smooth her hair. She kept still as he pressed a kiss to her brow, and she even managed to smile at him as he drew away.
“I’ll write to you while I’m gone, and I’ll be back in a few weeks,” René called over his shoulder as he left the breakfast room. By the time Catherine found her voice to say goodbye, René was gone.
Catherine gave herself a moment to rethink her plan, a moment to talk herself out of it maybe. But the more she considered her situation, the more convinced she was that something had to change. She needed to go visit her family and talk to them. If René wouldn’t let her go, then she would have to make it happen herself. Besides, if Catherine learned anything from that strange journal it was that she couldn’t take care of everything herself. She needed someone, and it certainly wasn’t René.
Catherine stood quickly and left the room, her mind made up. She would find the strongbox in René’s study and take enough money to hire a coach to see her home. Then she would just have to ride to the nearest town and find one. As confident as she was everything would work out the way she imagined, Catherine couldn’t stop herself from slowing down as she approached the study. If René’s temper flashed over a small argument about his business trips, how angry would he be if he found out that Catherine had gone into his study? What would he do?
After a moment’s hesitation she straightened. I won’t be here for him to do anything, Catherine reminded herself. She grasped the handle and slowly twisted until it opened. The click from the latch releasing echoed in the empty hall. Catherine pushed the door open and stepped into the one room in her home that she wasn’t supposed to enter.
It was messier than she expected from René: papers lay strewn about, broken pens were on the floor, and the bin was overflowing. There was also a stain on the rug, as if someone had spilled red wine on it. Looking around Catherine didn’t see the strongbox that René sometimes brought out to the kitchen when it was time to pay the staff. Catherine moved toward the closet in the corner – perhaps it was in there – but a tug on the handle told her that the door was locked.
Catherine pulled René’s keys out of the inner pocket where she had hidden them after she took them from his bag. She knew she would need them to open the strongbox, but they would also be able to open the closet. Catherine let the door swing open and…
Were those skulls?
Catherine felt paralyzed. She heard the ticking of René’s watch still in her pocket. It seemed so slow – she couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing. Four human skulls on the shelf. Each one had a plaque with a name.
There was a little book beside them, but nothing else in the closet. It looked like a shrine. Catherine sank to the floor as the impact of what she had seen finally hit her. She darted to the door and screamed for one of the maids to fetch a constable, a watchman, anyone, and bring them as quick as possible. She ran back to the closet and grabbed the book before collapsing on the floor. Maybe it had answers. She needed answers.
But all that was in the journal were accounts of when, where, and how – not why. Two had been strangled, one drowned, and one stabbed to death, but René didn’t write a single word about why he killed them. Catherine lost track of how long she sat in front of the open closet, trying to make sense of it.
“I wondered where my keys had got off to.”
Catherine’s heart leapt into her throat at the sound of René’s voice. He was standing in the doorway, more angry than she had ever seen him. “You – You’re on your way to Paris.” Catherine’s voice shook as René stalked toward her. She tried to think, to plan, but her heartbeat pounding in her ears was so distracting.
“Only until I realized that some little thief,” René spat, “had stolen my keys. Then I had to come back and see what else she got herself into.” Silver flashed in his right hand as he took yet another step towards her.
A knife. Catherine bolted to the side, trying to get around René to the door behind him – too slow. René grabbed her arm and stabbed for her torso, missing as she twisted at the last second. Instead of burying his knife in her stomach he sliced along her side. Catherine felt a track of numbness along her waist, quickly followed by a horrible, burning pain. She screamed and hit him across the face with the only thing within reach: the watch from her pocket.
The heavy pocket watch connected solidly enough to daze René. He let go of both Catherine and the knife as he rocked back. Catherine sprinted from the room. A moment’s thought left her racing toward the kitchen.
“Get out!” she screamed at the cook as she stumbled into the kitchen. The cook looked at Catherine – bloody, winded, and reaching for a knife – and ran. Catherine’s gripped the paring knife from the cutting board and headed for the stable –
Catherine’s vision went black as she was slammed into a wall. When her eyes cleared they were inches from René’s. She couldn’t breathe. René’s hands were around her throat – strangling her. She struck at him with her hands, and the knife she was still holding, first cutting him across the face and then the neck. Bright red blood started flowing quickly from his neck – too quickly. René let Catherine go and grabbed at his neck, his face slowly turning white. Catherine crawled away from her husband toward the door only to lose consciousness in the bright sunlight outside.
The next time Catherine opened her eyes she was on the chaise in the morning room. There were several people she didn’t recognize. Her side still burned and her throat felt as if René’s fingers were still around it, but she was alive. The men – constables – asked endless questions about what happened: why was her husband dead and whose skulls were in the closet, among others. Catherine gave them the answers she had and they eventually left her her alone.
Alone again, Catherine thought to herself. All that was left was to put her life back together.
Author’s note: Here is the last chapter of my storybook! Thank you so much for following Catherine on her journey!
In this chapter the reader finally finds out what is behind René’s strange looks and quick temper. He has actually murdered his previous wives. In the original Bluebeard story, Bluebeard killed his wives in fits of rage when the broke his trust and went into the forbidden room. René is very similar. He killed his first wife accidentally during an argument, and the others either for the same reason, or for discovering his secret, as Catherine did. The wife in the Brother’s Grimm story, however, did not save herself. She was instead rescued at the perfect moment by her brothers, who were coming to escort their second sister home. That always seemed a bit farfetched to me, and I don’t like the idea of a woman who doesn’t even try to take care of herself, so I changed those details.
The names of the previous wives are all common French names from the 1800s, which was fun to look up. Also, the pocket watch that is so important in this chapter (and has made an appearance in the previous one) is meant to be an allusion to the old man from the introduction. Finally, just in case it wasn’t clear, René died because Catherine got a lucky shot at his carotid artery with her little knife. That’s why he died so quickly, and also why the blood was bright red.
Thank you again for reading! I hope you enjoyed it!
“Bluebeard” by Charles Perrault. Website: Dan Ashliman’s Folktexts
Image Source: StockUnlimited