Synopsis of The Orphan of the Rhine by Eleanor Sleath
In Switzerland, a young woman and her child receive a letter from the Marchese de Montferrat, the purport of which is a request to take care of a young girl. In return, the letter states, he will provide for them all financially. A further condition is made whereby she is required to change her name and address. After some deliberation Julie de Rubine, the young woman, decides she will undertake this task for the sake of the children. Julie, accompanied by Agatha, the messenger from the Marchese, and Agatha's husband Paoli, moves to her new address. An overnight stay introduces Julie to a man named La Roque, who is taking shelter from a group of banditti who have killed his servants and who are under the orders of the Marchese de Montferrat. La Roque informs Julie that he and his daughter are travelling to a convent in Germany where they will seek shelter from the banditti; Julie replies it may not be impossible that they meet again as she also is on her way to Germany. On the arrival at Elfinbach, Julie chooses her new name, which is to be Madame Chamont; her son will be named Enrico and the young girl under her care, Laurette. As little happens of any significance for a time we learn the details of Julie's past.
She is the orphan of parents of noble standing; her father having died first closely followed by her mother who, on her deathbed, made Julie promise not to marry a man who was not Catholic. After having lived in a convent for some time Julie is taken to live with her aunt, Madame Laronne. However, it is soon clear that the lifestyle of fashionable society is not suitable to her disposition; a meeting with the Marchese de Montferrat and Vescolni results in her receiving unwanted attention from both men, but primarily Vescolni. Her refusal to marry Vescolni and Laronne's jealousy of the Marchese results in Julie being confined to her room and, ultimately, she elopes with the Marchese as he offers her a better way of life. After the birth of their son, however, the Marchese tires of her and reveals they were never really married as it was not a real priest who performed the ceremony. Upon which Julie flies with her faithful servant Dorothee and we arrive back at the time of narrative, where Julie has met the benevolent Father Benedicta and Enrico has left to join the military. Meanwhile Julie has made another good friend in the Superior of the convent, who relates her past to Julie in intimate detail. The Abbess, too, was orphaned and sent to live with an unsuitable guardian where she met Clairville, her cousin's friend. Jealous of their love he kills Clairville and Adela, or the Abbess, retires to a convent, distraught.
During an exploration, Julie finds a secret passage where she discovers Paoli is keeping someone prisoner; it is La Roque. She helps him to escape at great risk to herself, and he is given shelter in the convent by Father Benedicta; once here he too relates his story to Julie. His real name is the Conte della Croisse and he is also orphaned. He lived with the previous Marchese and Marchesa de Montferrat until they died and he married their daughter, Helena, with whom he was extremely happy until De Pietro led him astray. In Padua with Pietro he met Laurentina, whom he kept as his mistress. Things begin to turn tragic when he suspects Laurentina of plotting to kill Helena; overhearing a conversation he stabs someone whom he believes to be Laurentina, only to discover that it is Helena. In a state of solitude and distress he learns his son, Vescolni, has been murdered by the present Marchese de Montferrat. When his daughter marries a German they all leave for there, only to be caught by Paoli, and returned to the place where he is now imprisoned. After relating his story to Julie La Roque meets Father Benedicta, who takes off his robes and reveals himself to be Pietro.
On a brief return from the army it is clear that Enrico and Laurette have feelings for one another but Julie fears they may be related, that the Marchese is Laurette’s father as well. As Enrico leaves, Paoli returns. The discovery of Julie's bracelet in the secret passage has implicated her in La Roque's escape for which Paoli kidnaps her, but tells everyone that she has been kidnapped by banditti.
During Julie's absence the focus switches to Laurette and she also receives a letter from the Marchese informing her she must move; this time to Salzburg. Having been told only good about her benefactor by Julie, she acquiesces. Before she leaves she meets a monk in the woods who tells her to beware of the Marchese and gives her a miniature of her mother who bears a resemblance to a woman in one of the paintings at the convent. Another chance meeting with the monk almost reveals information about her birth, but the conversation is interrupted by Paoli, who tells Laurette to leave the next morning. Laurette arrives at the 'magnificent castle' in Salzburg where she meets Signora D' Orfa. Once again the narrative is interrupted to relate events of the past. The Signora's mother, presuming her father dead in battle, met someone else only for her husband to return. This overjoyed her but he did not believe her and she died before a true reconciliation could be achieved. The signora was sent to a convent but after much begging was allowed to return home, where she fell in love. Her choice of beau was not accepted, so they eloped. She had a child who subsequently died, as the father did in battle. Returning once again to the present, she is now employed as a housekeeper for the Marchese de Montferrat. Enrico returns from the military and, whilst the three new friends take a walk, Laurette falls and hurts her ankle; forcing her to stay and be looked after by a kind, familiar looking, mountaineer who begins to tell her about the Marchese. More wanderings discover an old chapel, inhabited by an old monk whom Laurette thinks is the same man who tried to help her.
Paoli and the Marchese arrive at Salzburg to a mixed reception. Signora D' Orfa thinks highly of him, but Laurette is slightly more dubious. Unfortunately, the Marchese is taken with her and wishes to marry her, but she and Enrico have just discovered their love for one another and they wish to marry. A proposed visit from Enrico displeases the Marchese but he decides not to harm him, as he usually would, because he is his son. Once Laurette has refused his proposal, however, he turns threatening and his anger increases when he sees the portrait of her mother around her neck; he says the picture is of the Contessa della Caro, and this is not her mother. Highly distressed Laurette attempts to escape but cannot; the situation is exacerbated when she believes she overhears Paoli and the Marchese plotting to kill her. This distress culminates in her fainting and being taken from the castle. The Marchese is disturbed by his action and goes to stay with Signora D' Orfa who has been removed to a castle in Elfinbach, under the pretence of overseeing renovations. Here, several supernatural events occur, including the Marchese being visited in the night by an eerie, tall figure who accuses him of being a murderer.
Meanwhile, it is revealed that Enrico and Laurette's correspondence has been intercepted. Enrico, who has recently inherited a large sum of money, goes to visit Laurette at the castle in Salzburg but discovers she is not there. He befriends one of the servants, Fanchette, and together the pair go in search of Laurette and find her, eventually, in a dilapidated mansion in the 'Wood of Groans.' Whilst in the mansion Enrico meets the Conte della Croisse (La Roque) who tells Enrico he knows where Madam Chamont (Julie) is, and also that the Marchese is his father; he knows this because he killed Paoli, who confessed everything before he died. It is revealed that the Marchese killed della Caro, Laurette's father, because he stood to inherit from him, and let everyone believe that Laurette and her mother had died in childbirth. When the Marchese realised Laurette could incriminate him, he decide she should be killed. Despite hearing all this Enrico does not tell Croisse that he has discovered some bloodshed clothes, as it may incriminate his father. A servant, however, informs Croisse, of the clothes and he knows the clothes belong to Caro.
Having learned Julie's whereabouts, Enrico travels to the monastry to see her, she is amazed, as she believed that he was dead and that Laurette was engaged to the Marchese. A search is begun for the fake Bishop who married Julie and the Marchese to authenticate her story. Everyone thus removes to Elfinbach where the Marchese, who is highly repentant, is dying; everyone forgives him. The monk, who helped Laurette, also arrives at Elfinbach and it is revealed that he is her mother's father, who had been in exile.
After the death of the Marchese, Julie becomes the Marchesa de Montferrat, she and Enrico inherit everything. Laurette becomes the Contessa della Caro and Signora D'Orfa also receives a substantial sum of money. In a presentation of the future at the end of the novel we are told Croisse becomes a monk and Enrico and Laurette marry, and have many children.