The Mystery Of Jerome

by Miss Francine Comeau

The following story was written by Miss Francine Comeau, a Grade 11 student at Clare High School. It is a fictional interpretation of Jerome’s story, composed for a French literature contest held in thirteen Grade 10 classes during the 1972-73 school year. Francine Comeau’s story won the contest.


Many years after Jerome’s death, a descendant of Dédier Comeau decided to renovate his grandfather’s old house. In the old days, the walls of houses were often make of planks. He decided to remove the planks in Jerome’s room (as the room had been called ever since the latter’s death). He noticed that one plank was not at the same level as the others. It appeared to have been removed, then simply pushed back in place. How surprised he was when, as he lifted the plank away, a bunch of yellowed papers fell to the floor! He picked up a page expecting to be able to read it. Impossible, everything was written in a foreign language. He decided to get help among all of the people of different nationalities that he knew in the area. No one could solve the puzzle. The manuscript was therefore sent to the provincial government in Halifax. There it was translated into French by a professor of foreign languages. Here is the translation of the manuscript, as written by Jerome. He had written it in the past tense, thinking that maybe his story would be found long after his death, or even not at all. The mystery of Jerome is solved in the following pages.

[Dated January 12, 1863]

I was the nephew of Emperor Franz Josef, the last Habsburg king of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Habsburgs had ruled my country for nearly seven hundred years. The empire had been called the “Holy Roman Empire” because we were all good Catholics. At the time of my uncle’s reign, the empire was inhabited by many different nationalities, including Germans, Czechs, Slavs and Italians. Things were going badly in my country with so many groups that didn’t understand each other.

In 1853, my uncle Franz Josef was almost killed by an assassin. He managed to escape. I had seen the man who wanted to kill him, and I knew who he was. He had seen me too. He was an Italian from the city of Trieste. I knew that in order to save my life, I had to flee the country. Since I had already spent several years in a naval college, I decided to pursue my career. I boarded a man-of-war, where I decided to do military service. I was twenty years old at the time. I stayed for a year and was promoted to officer. It was at the beginning of the Crimean War in 1854. No doubt I would serve in that war.

After a year I was given two weeks of leave, and decided to return to my country to see how things were going. I found the empire in a sorry state. Several nationalities were in revolt. I wanted very much to see my uncle, but did not manage to do so the day I arrived.

Other people had waiting for me to return. During my first night there, I was seized and taken away by some men. I didn’t know where they were taking me. They wanted to kill me, to make certain that I would never say who had tried to assassinate my uncle. I was only twenty-one and didn’t want to die. I begged them not to kill me, and they decided to let me live if I swore never to reveal the guilty party. I believed that was all I would have to do. Little did I realize what dark thoughts were in their minds.

Shortly thereafter, I was bound and taken to a hospital in Trieste. I was placed on an operating table. They said they wanted to be certain that once I was deported, I would never be able to return to my country. Both my legs would therefore be amputated by a surgeon. Hearing these words, I looked down at my legs. How will I manage without them? I wondered. I had hoped to continue serving as a naval officer in the Crimean War. I had dreamed of visiting other countries while I was young. All my dreams are over, I thought. Suddenly I lost consciousness. A few hours later I woke up. I was very sick, and when I saw that my legs were gone forever, I was desolate. With a cry of despair, I fainted. When I regained consciousness, I was told that I would be taken to a distant country. There, I must always keep secret what had happened. Where? I asked myself.

When my legs had healed enough, I was placed aboard a man-of-war, the “Colombo”. We crossed the Atlantic Ocean. I was cast away on the coast of New England, in the United States, in the vicinity of Boston. They left me on the beach with a bit of food and a bottle of water. There were children playing in the sand, and they were very frightened to see a strange man without any legs. They ran away to find their parents. An American family took me in, but not for long. They decided they couldn’t keep me.

One dark evening, once again I was placed aboard a European man-of-war that happened to be at the Boston wharf. We sailed along a bay. At a certain place, they carried me off the ship and left me on the beach with a tin of biscuits and a jug of water. I was abandoned to the rising tide. Later I learned that I was on the shore of Sandy Cove at Digby Neck.

I was there for about an hour, watching the tide come in. Was I going to drown? That was my only thought. I couldn’t move. At last, I heard voices. Men in fishermen’s clothes were coming toward me. When they saw I had no legs, they looked very surprised. They asked me questions but I couldn’t answer because I was still very frightened. Everything that had happened to me seemed to have paralysed my voice. Since they thought I didn’t understand, one of them decided that at least he could bring me to his home. There, his wife gave me something to eat and I was put to bed. I was in the home of Samuel Gidney and his family.

The next day Mr. Morton, a friend of Mr. Gidney, crossed St. Mary’s Bay and went to see Jean Nicholas, a former prisoner during the Crimean War, who had taken refuge in Meteghan. This Nicholas knew many languages, and people thought he would be able to talk to me in my own language. I pretended that I didn’t understand a word. But I knew a few languages myself, and understood everything that was going on. I remembered all the names of people and places. But at the time the only sounds I could get out were “Jerome”. To keep them from finding out who I was, I never spoke my family name, Felnak. I heard people say, “He’s a handsome young man with blond hair, blue eyes, a noble face. And his clothes are of fine cloth. Everything indicates a high social status. But why have his legs been amputated?” It was a mystery to them.

Jean Nicholas thought I would be a good companion. He took me to live with him in Meteghan. He tried many times to get me to speak. Never did a sound except “Jerome” escape my lips. Nicholas died seven years later, in 1861.

I was then taken to the home of Dédier Comeau in St. Alphonse. I was happy to live with the Comeau family. I had met them at Nicholas’ house, and liked the children very much. They were very kind to me and always tried to be helpful. When I arrived at the house I was given a bedroom near the kitchen. I sat all day near the fireplace, because I liked the heat a lot. Sometimes, when no one was watching, I would read the newspaper. The federal government was good to me, a foreigner. They paid the Comeau family $104 a year to keep me.

Often I asked myself, Why can’t people leave me alone? Since they kept on asking me questions, I answered with two words, “Trieste” and “Colombo”, without thinking what I was saying. Well, at once they began to say, “Maybe Trieste is where he’s from, and Colombo is the ship that brought him here.” That made me angry, and I flew into a rage. These people wanted to tear my secret out of me, yet I had sworn to say nothing if my life were spared.

One day two foreign women came to see me. They were from Boston and lived near the family that had looked after me there. They had read my sad story in a newspaper and found out where I lived. Originally they were from Austria, so they spoke my language. Since they seemed to know who I was, they asked me a few questions. I answered because I knew that if anyone else was listening they wouldn’t understand. With that, they left, no doubt content that I was not being mistreated.

How could these kind families put up with me? I have no idea. I was almost always in a bad mood and just grunted when spoken to. The amputation of my legs had completely changed my character. Before that, I was always in a good mood, always content and always cheerful.

I spent many hours alone in my room. There, as something to do and to forget my boredom and despondency, I decided to write the story of my life. The kind Comeau family always gave me plenty of paper, pencils and quills, trying to give me something to do. However, to others it looked as if I did nothing. I only wrote a single page every two or three days, and hid it so well that no one could find it. I wrote in my own language so that no one would understand it. I also decided to hide this manuscript in a place where no one would ever find it. “What difference could it make if my secret is discovered after I die? All the same, I believe I will take my mystery with me to the grave.” That is what I’ll be thinking as I take my dying breath.

Note: After he had lived 53 years with these Acadians, death claimed Jerome on April 19, 1912. He was buried in the Meteghan cemetery. Almost nothing appeared in the newspaper about his death. It was in that year that the Titanic had sunk, when so many people lost their lives at sea. It was very important news in that month of April, so Jerome’s death went almost unnoticed.

Source: Mlle Francine Comeau, "The Mystery of Jerome," Le Petit Courier, December 6, 1973.

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