This is one of those well-plotted short stories that make me enjoy Balzac's La Comedie Humaine so much.
It's another story-within-a-story, told (as they so often are) in the afterglow of a fine dinner as an amusing anecdote to frighten the ladies.This time the original story-teller is a German merchant called Hermann but his tale is retold by the narrator, who makes occasional snide remarks about the German's style and accuracy.Despite what he says in his opening remarks, the Frenchman certainly doesn't trust Germans not if his narky remarks are anything to go by:
He was the type of the sons of that pure and noble Germany, so fertile in honorable natures, whose peaceful manners and morals have never been lost, even after seven invasions. (Kindle location 6)
His story is about two young French doctors who in 1799 during the Republic serve as medicos in the war rather than as conscripts in the army. They make their way to The Red Inn where overcrowding necessitates that they share their meal and lodging with a stranger, a German factory owner called Walhenfer. Later on when he's had too much to drink, Walhenfer reveals to these young men whom he trusts because of their honest faces, that he has brought a great deal of money with him: 100,000 francs in gold and diamonds!
One of these young men, Prosper Magnum, finds that he can't sleep because he keeps thinking about the stranger's money.He 'builds castles in the air', fantasises about buying some land that his mother wants, and dreams of marrying a young lady beyond the reach of his current financial status.Tempted, he prepares an exit through a barred window, and gets his surgical instruments ready to cut the man's throat. But at the last moment his better nature reasserts itself and he flees out into the woods, eventually returning to sleep, exhausted and with bad dreams, on his mattress on the floor.
To Prosper's horror, when he wakes, Walhenfer is dead.Prosper and his instruments are covered in blood.He fears he did the deed in his sleep, and of course he is arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.
Hermann (the merchant-storyteller), was a member of the German Resistance against Napoleon at the time and so it was in the same prison-cell that he met up with Prosper and heard his tale.Hermann believed in Prosper's innocence and when he gets his pardon he goes to tell Prosper's mother but she dies before he gets there.He thinks that the other young man, Frederic, was responsible...
Now while this story is being told, one of the dinner-guests, a man called Taillefer, has attracted attention because he is clearly bothered by the mention of Prosper's name.He is the wealthy father of the beautiful Victorine, with whom the narrator is in love.When his Christian name turns out to be Frederic, the narrator draws his own conclusions, and challenges Taillefer to admit that he had once been at Beauvais where these events took place.Shortly after Taillefer admits it, he dies of a mysterious ailment that afflicts him at this same time every year.
The narrator's love for Victorine (which is mutual) presents the narrator with a moral dilemma, for which he seeks advice. He wants to marry her, but this knowledge about her father's ill-gotten gains threatens to poison the relationship.He feels he cannot taken advantage of wealth from the proceeds of crime, and would like to make restitution somehow.But Prosper's mother is dead, and he had no heirs. And why should Victorine suffer from the loss of a comfortable lifestyle because of what her father did?
An Englishmen, a cynic has the last word.He asks the Narrator why he had asked Taillefer if he came from Beauvais...