Mistrust; or Blanche and Osbright by M. G. Lewis (1808)
Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818) is best known for his classic gothic novel The Monk. He had hoped to be a dramatist but his early efforts were rejected, although later works were staged. His translated/adapted works from the Continent were popular, although they led to charges of a lack of originality; some critics felt this lack extended to The Monk, which used many elements of previously published tales. Nonetheless, The Monk and many of the stories contained in his four volume 1808 collection Romantic Tales are effective tales of gothic horror.
I tend to divide the stories of this era into two categories: Unhappy (everyone dies) and Happy (the heroine and her lover live. "Mistrust" is not a Happy story.
It's tricky to classify "Mistrust." Is it a short story (as many have called it)? A novella? A novel? In the original edition of Romantic Tales it took up 251 pages, but the type was kind of large, the pages small, and the use of white space creative. I think I'll just call it a novella.
Our hero Osbright, the heir to Frankheim, has just returned from the war. Osbright leaves his scarf to let Blanche know he has finally returned. Osbright has loved her since the time he had saved her life some time before. She, in turn, has fallen in love with he unknown rescuer. Unknown? Yes, for Osbright had rescued her while armored and the visor of his helmet covered his face. Frankheim and Orrenburg (Blanche's family) have been enemies for years. Osbright plans to reveal his identity to Blanche in the hopes that their union will put a stop to the feud between the families.
Having left his scarf, Osbright hurries to Frankheim and finds the estate in deep morning. Sneaking into the chapel he discovers that his beloved younger brother Joscelyn has been killed, A servant of Orrenberg discovered over the bloody body. Tortured on the rack, the servant finally says the name of Gustavus of Orrenberg, Blanche's father, before dying. Osbright's father swears vengeance on Gustavus, his family, his servants, and Orrenberg itself. Osbright hides himself in the chapel, vowing not reveal himself until he discovers the true cause of his brother's death.
Several months earlier, Blanche's brother, and Gustavus' only surviving son, had died mysteriously. A rumor circulated throughout Orrenberg at the boy had been poisoned by Rudiger, the Lord of Frankheim -- despite fervent denials by Gustavus himself. Thus, we now have two powerful estates in which each feels the other caused the death of a child.
Rumor, suspicion, innuendo...all the bases of mistrust. The theme gets more intense as misdirected good intentions cause the mutilation of Rudiger's illegitimate son, and the dismemberment of one of Rudifer's emissaries, and the equally disgusting dismemberment of Gustavus' emissary. Things continue to snowball until we are left with the destruction of both houses and the Unhappy ending where everybody dies.
Lewis pulls no stops in this tragic romance. His plotting is superb, with twists and turns truly labyrinthian. His sense of the Gothic is opposed to the sensibilities of Ann Radcliffe and to the rationalism of Mary Shelley. Many readers familiar with only The Monk would do well to check out some of his other work.