A friend takes the unnamed narrator of this story to see a house he assures him will suit him perfectly. The owners, in some financial straits, are willing to sell for a song. The isolated house, known as Kerfol, is the most romantic house in Brittany and a perfect fit for a “solitary-minded devil” like the narrator.
Lanrivain, the friend, has business in a nearby town that day. He drops him off, gives him directions and lets him walk the rest of the way, telling him not to ask directions of the peasants as they do not understand French.
When the narrator arrives at what must be Kerfol, he finds no one—not even a caretaker. He sits down and smokes a cigarette, waiting. Still, no one comes out. He decides to see the place for himself.
He pushes open the gate to the courtyard to find his way blocked by a dog.
He was such a remarkably beautiful little dog that for a moment he made me forget the splendid place he was defending. I was not sure of his breed… He was very small and golden brown, with large brown eyes and ruffled throat: he looked like a large chrysanthemum. I said to myself, “These little beasts always snap and scream, and somebody will be out in a minute.
The little animal stood before me, forbidding, almost menacing: there was anger in his large, brown eyes. But he made no sound, he came no nearer.”
The narrator continues his inspection of the house shadowed by a gathering pack of dogs. They never attack, never bark, never growl, never make any noise at all. After he has finished, he leaves to meet his friend Lanrivain where he’d left him off earlier in the day. They return home.
Madame de Lanrivain asks him about the house.
He offers no definite answer but mentions the place being overrun with dogs.
She blanches. “So you have seen them…”
To explain the dogs and the sad story behind them requires a trip to court records from the seventeenth century and the trial of one Anne de Cornault. Her husband, Yves de Cornault, a rich and powerful baron whose piety is attested to by all the neighbors, has been found dead at the bottom of a narrow staircase leading from her bedroom. She herself gave the alarm, her skirts and her hands covered in blood. She swears “on her honour and the wounds of her Blessed Redeemer,” neither she nor the young man she was about to meet harmed her husband. She feared for her life at the hands of her husband. She was not an adulteress.
The device of the court records may strike many readers as clumsy, especially since the story told there is long and rambling. Nevertheless, it works with the rest of the tale. The reader never hears whether the narrator buys the house or not. All in all, a long, poignant old-fashioned ghost story.
Most of us who went to school in the United States know author Edith Wharton from her dreary, doesn’t karma-bite-you-in-the-butt Ethan Frome. I was not too surprised to find out she became good friends with and was mentored by another writer of dreary American novels, Henry James.
Like many Americans born into money in the late nineteenth century, Wharton spent most of her adult life in Europe, specifically, France.
Author: Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
First published: Scribner’s, March 1916
This story is available at Project Gutenberg and from Librivox.
©2018 Denise Longrie