By Edith Wharton
Copyright, 1916, By Charles Scribner's Sons
"You ought to buy it," said my host; "its Just the place for a
solitary-minded devil like you. And it would be rather worth while to own
the most romantic house in Brittany. The present people are dead broke,
and it's going for a song—you ought to buy it."
It was not with the least idea of living up to the character my friend
Lanrivain ascribed to me (as a matter of fact, under my unsociable
exterior I have always had secret yearnings for domesticity) that I took
his hint one autumn afternoon and went to Kerfol. My friend was motoring
over to Quimper on business: he dropped me on the way, at a cross-road on
a heath, and said: "First turn to the right and second to the left. Then
straight ahead till you see an avenue. If you meet any peasants, don't ask
your way. They don't understand French, and they would pretend they did
and mix you up. I'll be back for you here by sunset—and don't forget
the tombs in the chapel."
I followed Lanrivain's directions with the hesitation occasioned by the
usual difficulty of remembering whether he had said the first turn to the
right and second to the left, or the contrary. If I had met a peasant I
should certainly have asked, and probably been sent astray; but I had the
desert landscape to myself, and so stumbled on the right turn and walked
across the heath till I came to an avenue. It was so unlike any other
avenue I have ever seen that I instantly knew it must be the
avenue. The grey-trunked trees sprang up straight to a great height and
then interwove their pale-grey branches in a long tunnel through which the
autumn light fell faintly. I know most trees by name, but I haven't to
this day been able to decide what those trees were. They had the tall
curve of elms, the tenuity of poplars, the ashen colour of olives under a
rainy sky; and they stretched ahead of me for half a mile or more without
a break in their arch. If ever I saw an avenue that unmistakably led to
something, it was the avenue at Kerfol. My heart beat a little as I began
to walk down it.
Presently the trees ended and I came to a fortified gate in a long wall.
Between me and the wall was an open space of grass, with other grey
avenues radiating from it. Behind the wall were tall slate roofs mossed
with silver, a chapel belfry, the top of a keep. A moat filled with wild
shrubs and brambles surrounded the place; the drawbridge had been replaced
by a stone arch, and the portcullis by an iron gate. I stood for a long
time on the hither side of the moat, gazing about me, and letting the
influence of the place sink in. I said to myself: "If I wait long enough,
the guardian will turn up and show me the tombs—" and I rather hoped
he wouldn't turn up too soon.
I sat down on a stone and lit a cigarette. As soon as I had done it, it
struck me as a puerile and portentous thing to do, with that great blind
house looking down at me, and all the empty avenues converging on me. It
may have been the depth of the silence that made me so conscious of my
gesture. The squeak of my match sounded as loud as the scraping of a
brake, and I almost fancied I heard it fall when I tossed it onto the
grass. But there was more than that: a sense of irrelevance, of
littleness, of futile bravado, in sitting there puffing my cigarette-smoke
into the face of such a past.
I knew nothing of the history of Kerfol—I was new to Brittany, and
Lanrivain had never mentioned the name to me till the day before—but
one couldn't as much as glance at that pile without feeling in it a long
accumulation of history. What kind of history I was not prepared to guess:
perhaps only that sheer weight of many associated lives and deaths which
gives a majesty to all old houses. But the aspect of Kerfol suggested
something more—a perspective of stern and cruel memories stretching
away, like its own grey avenues, into a blur of darkness.
Certainly no house had ever more completely and finally broken with the
present. As it stood there, lifting its proud roofs and gables to the sky,
it might have been its own funeral monument. "Tombs in the chapel? The
whole place is a tomb!" I reflected. I hoped more and more that the
guardian would not come. The details of the place, however striking, would
seem trivial compared with its collective impressiveness; and I wanted
only to sit there and be penetrated by the weight of its silence.
"It's the very place for you!" Lanrivain had said; and I was overcome by
the almost blasphemous frivolity of suggesting to any living being that
Kerfol was the place for him. "Is it possible that any one could not
See—?" I wondered. I did not finish the thought: what I meant was
undefinable. I stood up and wandered toward the gate. I was beginning to
want to know more; not to see more—I was by now so sure it
was not a question of seeing—but to feel more: feel all the place
had to communicate. "But to get in one will have to rout out the keeper,"
I thought reluctantly, and hesitated. Finally I crossed the bridge and
tried the iron gate. It yielded, and I walked through the tunnel formed by
the thickness of the chemin de ronde. At the farther end, a wooden
barricade had been laid across the entrance, and beyond it was a court
enclosed in noble architecture. The main building faced me; and I now saw
that one half was a mere ruined front, with gaping windows through which
the wild growths of the moat and the trees of the park were visible. The
rest of the house was still in its robust beauty. One end abutted on the
round tower, the other on the small traceried chapel, and in an angle of
the building stood a graceful well-head crowned with mossy urns. A few
roses grew against the walls, and on an upper window-sill I remember
noticing a pot of fuchsias.
My sense of the pressure of the invisible began to yield to my
architectural interest. The building was so fine that I felt a desire to
explore it for its own sake. I looked about the court, wondering in which
corner the guardian lodged. Then I pushed open the barrier and went in. As
I did so, a dog barred my way. 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 at the time, but have since learned
that it was Chinese, and that he was of a rare variety called the
"Sleeve-dog." He was very small and golden brown, with large brown eyes
and a ruffled throat: he looked like a large tawny 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.
Instead, as I advanced, he gradually fell back, and I noticed that another
dog, a vague rough brindled thing, had limped up on a lame leg. "There'll
be a hubbub now," I thought; for at the same moment a third dog, a
long-haired white mongrel, slipped out of a doorway and joined the others.
All three stood looking at me with grave eyes; but not a sound came from
them. As I advanced they continued to fall back on muffled paws, still
watching me. "At a given point, they'll all charge at my ankles: it's one
of the jokes that dogs who live together put up on one," I thought. I was
not alarmed, for they were neither large nor formidable. But they let me
wander about the court as I pleased, following me at a little distance—always
the same distance—and always keeping their eyes on me. Presently I
looked across at the ruined facade, and saw that in one of its empty
window-frames another dog stood: a white pointer with one brown ear. He
was an old grave dog, much more experienced than the others; and he seemed
to be observing me with a deeper intentness. "I'll hear from him,"
I said to myself; but he stood in the window-frame, against the trees of
the park, and continued to watch me without moving. I stared back at him
for a time, to see if the sense that he was being watched would not rouse
him. Half the width of the court lay between us, and we gazed at each
other silently across it. But he did not stir, and at last I turned away.
Behind me I found the rest of the pack, with a newcomer added: a small
black greyhound with pale agate-coloured eyes. He was shivering a little,
and his expression was more timid than that of the others. I noticed that
he kept a little behind them. And still there was not a sound.
I stood there for fully five minutes, the circle about me—waiting,
as they seemed to be waiting. At last I went up to the little golden-brown
dog and stooped to pat him. As I did so, I heard myself give a nervous
laugh. The little dog did not start, or growl, or take his eyes from me—he
simply slipped back about a yard, and then paused and continued to look at
me. "Oh, hang it!" I exclaimed, and walked across the court toward the
As I advanced, the dogs separated and slid away into different corners of
the court. I examined the urns on the well, tried a locked door or two,
and looked up and down the dumb façade; then I faced about toward the
chapel. When I turned I perceived that all the dogs had disappeared except
the old pointer, who still watched me from the window. It was rather a
relief to be rid of that cloud of witnesses; and I began to look about me
for a way to the back of the house. "Perhaps there'll be somebody in the
garden," I thought. I found a way across the moat, scrambled over a wall
smothered in brambles, and got into the garden. A few lean hydrangeas and
geraniums pined in the flower-beds, and the ancient house looked down on
them indifferently. Its garden side was plainer and severer than the
other: the long granite front, with its few windows and steep roof, looked
like a fortress-prison. I walked around the farther wing, went up some
disjointed steps, and entered the deep twilight of a narrow and incredibly
old box-walk. The walk was just wide enough for one person to slip
through, and its branches met overhead. It was like the ghost of a
box-walk, its lustrous green all turning to the shadowy greyness of the
avenues. I walked on and on, the branches hitting me in the face and
springing back with a dry rattle; and at length I came out on the grassy
top of the chemin de ronde. I walked along it to the gate-tower,
looking down into the court, which was just below me. Not a human being
was in sight; and neither were the dogs. I found a flight of steps in the
thickness of the wall and went down them; and when I emerged again into
the court, there stood the circle of dogs, the golden-brown one a little
ahead of the others, the black greyhound shivering in the rear.
"Oh, hang it—you uncomfortable beasts, you!" I exclaimed, my voice
startling me with a sudden echo. The dogs stood motionless, watching me. I
knew by this time that they would not try to prevent my approaching the
house, and the knowledge left me free to examine them. I had a feeling
that they must be horribly cowed to be so silent and inert. Yet they did
not look hungry or ill-treated. Their coats were smooth and they were not
thin, except the shivering greyhound. It was more as if they had lived a
long time with people who never spoke to them or looked at them: as though
the silence of the place had gradually benumbed their busy inquisitive
natures. And this strange passivity, this almost human lassitude, seemed
to me sadder than the misery of starved and beaten animals. I should have
liked to rouse them for a minute, to coax them into a game or a scamper;
but the longer I looked into their fixed and weary eyes the more
preposterous the idea became. With the windows of that house looking down
on us, how could I have imagined such a thing? The dogs knew better: they
knew what the house would tolerate and what it would not. I even fancied
that they knew what was passing through my mind, and pitied me for my
frivolity. But even that feeling probably reached them through a thick fog
of listlessness. I had an idea that their distance from me was as nothing
to my remoteness from them. The impression they produced was that of
having in common one memory so deep and dark that nothing that had
happened since was worth either a growl or a wag.
"I say," I broke out abruptly, addressing myself to the dumb circle, "do
you know what you look like, the whole lot of you? You look as if you'd
seen a ghost—that's how you look! I wonder if there is a
ghost here, and nobody but you left for it to appear to?" The dogs
continued to gaze at me without moving....
It was dark when I saw Lanrivain's motor lamps at the cross-roads—and
I wasn't exactly sorry to see them. I had the sense of having escaped from
the loneliest place in the whole world, and of not liking loneliness—to
that degree—as much as I had imagined I should. My friend had
brought his solicitor back from Quimper for the night, and seated beside a
fat and affable stranger I felt no inclination to talk of Kerfol....
But that evening, when Lanrivain and the solicitor were closeted in the
study, Madame de Lanrivain began to question me in the drawing-room.
"Well—are you going to buy Kerfol?" she asked, tilting up her gay
chin from her embroidery.
"I haven't decided yet. The fact is, I couldn't get into the house," I
said, as if I had simply postponed my decision, and meant to go back for
"You couldn't get in? Why, what happened? The family are mad to sell the
place, and the old guardian has orders—"
"Very likely. But the old guardian wasn't there."
"What a pity! He must have gone to market. But his daughter—?"
"There was nobody about. At least I saw no one."
"How extraordinary! Literally nobody?"
"Nobody but a lot of dogs—a whole pack of them—who seemed to
have the place to themselves."
Madame de Lanrivain let the embroidery slip to her knee and folded her
hands on it. For several minutes she looked at me thoughtfully.
"A pack of dogs—you saw them?"
"Saw them? I saw nothing else!"
"How many?" She dropped her voice a little. "I've always wondered—"
I looked at her with surprise: I had supposed the place to be familiar to
her. "Have you never been to Kerfol?" I asked.
"Oh, yes: often. But never on that day."
"I'd quite forgotten—and so had Hervé, I'm sure. If we'd remembered,
we never should have sent you to-day—but then, after all, one
doesn't half believe that sort of thing, does one?"
"What sort of thing?" I asked, involuntarily sinking my voice to the level
of hers. Inwardly I was thinking: "I knew there was something...."
Madame de Lanrivain cleared her throat and produced a reassuring smile.
"Didn't Hervé tell you the story of Kerfol? An ancestor of his was mixed
up in it. You know every Breton house has its ghost-story; and some of
them are rather unpleasant."
"Yes—but those dogs?"
"Well, those dogs are the ghosts of Kerfol. At least, the peasants say
there's one day in the year when a lot of dogs appear there; and that day
the keeper and his daughter go off to Morlaix and get drunk. The women in
Brittany drink dreadfully." She stooped to match a silk; then she lifted
her charming inquisitive Parisian face. "Did you really see a lot
of dogs? There isn't one at Kerfol." she said.
Lanrivain, the next day, hunted out a shabby calf volume from the back of
an upper shelf of his library.
"Yes—here it is. What does it call itself? A History of the
Assizes of the Duchy of Brittany. Quimper, 1702. The book was written
about a hundred years later than the Kerfol affair; but I believe the
account is transcribed pretty literally from the judicial records. Anyhow,
it's queer reading. And there's a Hervé de Lanrivain mixed up in it—not
exactly my style, as you'll see. But then he's only a collateral.
Here, take the book up to bed with you. I don't exactly remember the
details; but after you've read it I'll bet anything you'll leave your
light burning all night!"
I left my light burning all night, as he had predicted; but it was chiefly
because, till near dawn, I was absorbed in my reading. The account of the
trial of Anne de Cornault, wife of the lord of Kerfol, was long and
closely printed. It was, as my friend had said, probably an almost literal
transcription of what took place in the court-room; and the trial lasted
nearly a month. Besides, the type of the book was very bad....
At first I thought of translating the old record. But it is full of
wearisome repetitions, and the main lines of the story are forever
straying off into side issues. So I have tried to disentangle it, and give
it here in a simpler form. At times, however, I have reverted to the text
because no other words could have conveyed so exactly the sense of what I
felt at Kerfol; and nowhere have I added anything of my own.
It was in the year 16— that Yves de Cornault, lord of the domain of
Kerfol, went to the pardon of Locronan to perform his religious
duties. He was a rich and powerful noble, then in his sixty-second year,
but hale and sturdy, a great horseman and hunter and a pious man. So all
his neighbours attested. In appearance he was short and broad, with a
swarthy face, legs slightly bowed from the saddle, a hanging nose and
broad hands with black hairs on them. He had married young and lost his
wife and son soon after, and since then had lived alone at Kerfol. Twice a
year he went to Morlaix, where he had a handsome house by the river, and
spent a week or ten days there; and occasionally he rode to Rennes on
business. Witnesses were found to declare that during these absences he
led a life different from the one he was known to lead at Kerfol, where he
busied himself with his estate, attended mass daily, and found his only
amusement in hunting the wild boar and water-fowl. But these rumours are
not particularly relevant, and it is certain that among people of his own
class in the neighbourhood he passed for a stern and even austere man,
observant of his religious obligations, and keeping strictly to himself.
There was no talk of any familiarity with the women on his estate, though
at that time the nobility were very free with their peasants. Some people
said he had never looked at a woman since his wife's death; but such
things are hard to prove, and the evidence on this point was not worth
Well, in his sixty-second year, Yves de Cornault went to the pardon
at Locronan, and saw there a young lady of Douarnenez, who had ridden over
pillion behind her father to do her duty to the saint. Her name was Anne
de Barrigan, and she came of good old Breton stock, but much less great
and powerful than that of Yves de Cornault; and her father had squandered
his fortune at cards, and lived almost like a peasant in his little
granite manor on the moors.... I have said I would add nothing of my own
to this bald statement of a strange case; but I must interrupt myself here
to describe the young lady who rode up to the lych-gate of Locronan at the
very moment when the Baron de Cornault was also dismounting there. I take
my description from a faded drawing in red crayon, sober and truthful
enough to be by a late pupil of the Clouets, which hangs in Lanrivain's
study, and is said to be a portrait of Anne de Barrigan. It is unsigned
and has no mark of identity but the initials A. B., and the date 16—,
the year after her marriage. It represents a young woman with a small oval
face, almost pointed, yet wide enough for a full mouth with a tender
depression at the corners. The nose is small, and the eyebrows are set
rather high, far apart, and as lightly pencilled as the eyebrows in a
Chinese painting. The forehead is high and serious, and the hair, which
one feels to be fine and thick and fair, is drawn off it and lies close
like a cap. The eyes are neither large nor small, hazel probably, with a
look at once shy and steady. A pair of beautiful long hands are crossed
below the lady's breast....
The chaplain of Kerfol, and other witnesses, averred that when the Baron
came back from Locronan he jumped from his horse, ordered another to be
instantly saddled, called to a young page to come with him, and rode away
that same evening to the south. His steward followed the next morning with
coffers laden on a pair of pack mules. The following week Yves de Cornault
rode back to Kerfol, sent for his vassals and tenants, and told them he
was to be married at All Saints to Anne de Barrigan of Douarnenez. And on
All Saints' Day the marriage took place.
As to the next few years, the evidence on both sides seems to show that
they passed happily for the couple. No one was found to say that Yves de
Cornault had been unkind to his wife, and it was plain to all that he was
content with his bargain. Indeed, it was admitted by the chaplain and
other witnesses for the prosecution that the young lady had a softening
influence on her husband, and that he became less exacting with his
tenants, less harsh to peasants and dependents, and less subject to the
fits of gloomy silence which had darkened his widowhood. As to his wife,
the only grievance her champions could call up in her behalf was that
Kerfol was a lonely place, and that when her husband was away on business
at Bennes or Morlaix—whither she was never taken—she was not
allowed so much as to walk in the park unaccompanied. But no one asserted
that she was unhappy, though one servant-woman said she had surprised her
crying, and had heard her say that she was a woman accursed to have no
child, and nothing in life to call her own. But that was a natural enough
feeling in a wife attached to her husband; and certainly it must have been
a great grief to Yves de Cornault that she bore no son. Yet he never made
her feel her childlessness as a reproach—she admits this in her
evidence—but seemed to try to make her forget it by showering gifts
and favours on her. Rich though he was, he had never been openhanded; but
nothing was too fine for his wife, in the way of silks or gems or linen,
or whatever else she fancied. Every wandering merchant was welcome at
Kerfol, and when the master was called away he never came back without
bringing his wife a handsome present—something curious and
particular—from Morlaix or Rennes or Quimper. One of the
waiting-women gave, in cross-examination, an interesting list of one
year's gifts, which I copy. From Morlaix, a carved ivory junk, with
Chinamen at the oars, that a strange sailor had brought back as a votive
offering for Notre Dame de la Clarté, above Ploumanac'h; from Quimper, an
embroidered gown, worked by the nuns of the Assumption; from Rennes, a
silver rose that opened and showed an amber Virgin with a crown of
garnets; from Morlaix, again, a length of Damascus velvet shot with gold,
bought of a Jew from Syria; and for Michaelmas that same year, from
Rennes, a necklet or bracelet of round stones—emeralds and pearls
and rubies—strung like beads on a fine gold chain. This was the
present that pleased the lady best, the woman said. Later on, as it
happened, it was produced at the trial, and appears to have struck the
Judges and the public as a curious and valuable jewel.
The very same winter, the Baron absented himself again, this time as far
as Bordeaux, and on his return he brought his wife something even odder
and prettier than the bracelet. It was a winter evening when he rode up to
Kerfol and, walking into the hall, found her sitting by the hearth, her
chin on her hand, looking into the fire. He carried a velvet box in his
hand and, setting it down, lifted the lid and let out a little
Anne de Cornault exclaimed with pleasure as the little creature bounded
toward her. "Oh, it looks like a bird or a butterfly!" she cried as she
picked it up; and the dog put its paws on her shoulders and looked at her
with eyes "like a Christian's." After that she would never have it out of
her sight, and petted and talked to it as if it had been a child—as
indeed it was the nearest thing to a child she was to know. Yves de
Cornault was much pleased with his purchase. The dog had been brought to
him by a sailor from an East India merchantman, and the sailor had bought
it of a pilgrim in a bazaar at Jaffa, who had stolen it from a nobleman's
wife in China: a perfectly permissible thing to do, since the pilgrim was
a Christian and the nobleman a heathen doomed to hell-fire.
Yves de Cornault had paid a long price for the dog, for they were
beginning to be in demand at the French court, and the sailor knew he had
got hold of a good thing; but Anne's pleasure was so great that, to see
her laugh and play with the little animal, her husband would doubtless
have given twice the sum.
So far, all the evidence is at one, and the narrative plain sailing; but
now the steering becomes difficult. I will try to keep as nearly as
possible to Anne's own statements; though toward the end, poor thing....
Well, to go back. The very year after the little brown dog was brought to
Kerfol, Yves de Cornault, one winter night, was found dead at the head of
a narrow flight of stairs leading down from his wife's rooms to a door
opening on the court. It was his wife who found him and gave the alarm, so
distracted, poor wretch, with fear and horror—for his blood was all
over her—that at first the roused household could not make out what
she was saying, and thought she had suddenly gone mad. But there, sure
enough, at the top of the stairs lay her husband, stone dead, and head
foremost, the blood from his wounds dripping down to the steps below him.
He had been dreadfully scratched and gashed about the face and throat, as
if with curious pointed weapons; and one of his legs had a deep tear in it
which had cut an artery, and probably caused his death. But how did he
come there, and who had murdered him?
His wife declared that she had been asleep in her bed, and hearing his cry
had rushed out to find him lying on the stairs; but this was immediately
questioned. In the first place, it was proved that from her room she could
not have heard the struggle on the stairs, owing to the thickness of the
walls and the length of the intervening passage; then it was evident that
she had not been in bed and asleep, since she was dressed when she roused
the house, and her bed had not been slept in. Moreover, the door at the
bottom of the stairs was ajar, and it was noticed by the chaplain (an
observant man) that the dress she wore was stained with blood about the
knees, and that there were traces of small blood-stained hands low down on
the staircase walls, so that it was conjectured that she had really been
at the postern-door when her husband fell and, feeling her way up to him
in the darkness on her hands and knees, had been stained by his blood
dripping down on her. Of course it was argued on the other side that the
blood-marks on her dress might have been caused by her kneeling down by
her husband when she rushed out of her room; but there was the open door
below, and the fact that the finger-marks in the staircase all pointed
The accused held to her statement for the first two days, in spite of its
improbability; but on the third day word was brought to her that Hervé de
Lanrivain, a young nobleman of the neighbourhood, had been arrested for
complicity in the crime. Two or three witnesses thereupon came forward to
say that it was known throughout the country that Lanrivain had formerly
been on good terms with the lady of Cornault; but that he had been absent
from Brittany for over a year, and people had ceased to associate their
names. The witnesses who made this statement were not of a very reputable
sort. One was an old herb-gatherer suspected of witchcraft, another a
drunken clerk from a neighbouring parish, the third a half-witted shepherd
who could be made to say anything; and it was clear that the prosecution
was not satisfied with its case, and would have liked to find more
definite proof of Lanrivain's complicity than the statement of the
herb-gatherer, who swore to having seen him climbing the wall of the park
on the night of the murder. One way of patching out incomplete proofs in
those days was to put some sort of pressure, moral or physical, on the
accused person. It is not clear what pressure was put on Anne de Cornault;
but on the third day, when she was brought in court, she "appeared weak
and wandering," and after being encouraged to collect herself and speak
the truth, on her honour and the wounds of her Blessed Redeemer, she
confessed that she had in fact gone down the stairs to speak with Hervé de
Lanrivain (who denied everything), and had been surprised there by the
sound of her husband's fall. That was better; and the prosecution rubbed
its hands with satisfaction. The satisfaction increased when various
dependents living at Kerfol were induced to say—with apparent
sincerity—that during the year or two preceding his death their
master had once more grown uncertain and irascible, and subject to the
fits of brooding silence which his household had learned to dread before
his second marriage. This seemed to show that things had not been going
well at Kerfol; though no one could be found to say that there had been
any signs of open disagreement between husband and wife.
Anne de Cornault, when questioned as to her reason for going down at night
to open the door to Hervé de Lanrivain, made an answer which must have
sent a smile around the court. She said it was because she was lonely and
wanted to talk with the young man. Was this the only reason? she was
asked; and replied: "Yes, by the Cross over your Lordships' heads." "But
why at midnight?" the court asked. "Because I could see him in no other
way." I can see the exchange of glances across the ermine collars under
Anne de Cornault, further questioned, said that her married life had been
extremely lonely: "desolate" was the word she used. It was true that her
husband seldom spoke harshly to her; but there were days when he did not
speak at all. It was true that he had never struck or threatened her; but
he kept her like a prisoner at Kerfol, and when he rode away to Morlaix or
Quimper or Rennes he set so close a watch on her that she could not pick a
flower in the garden without having a waiting-woman at her heels. "I am no
Queen, to need such honours," she once said to him; and he had answered
that a man who has a treasure does not leave the key in the lock when he
goes out. "Then take me with you," she urged; but to this he said that
towns were pernicious places, and young wives better off at their own
"But what did you want to say to Hervé de Lanrivain?" the court asked; and
she answered: "To ask him to take me away."
"Ah—you confess that you went down to him with adulterous thoughts?"
"Then why did you want him to take you away?"
"Because I was afraid for my life."
"Of whom were you afraid?"
"Of my husband."
"Why were you afraid of your husband?"
"Because he had strangled my little dog."
Another smile must have passed around the courtroom: in days when any
nobleman had a right to hang his peasants—and most of them exercised
it—pinching a pet animal's wind-pipe was nothing to make a fuss
At this point one of the Judges, who appears to have had a certain
sympathy for the accused, suggested that she should be allowed to explain
herself in her own way; and she thereupon made the following statement.
The first years of her marriage had been lonely; but her husband had not
been unkind to her. If she had had a child she would not have been
unhappy; but the days were long, and it rained too much.
It was true that her husband, whenever he went away and left her, brought
her a handsome present on his return; but this did not make up for the
loneliness. At least nothing had, till he brought her the little brown dog
from the East: after that she was much less unhappy. Her husband seemed
pleased that she was so fond of the dog; he gave her leave to put her
jewelled bracelet around its neck, and to keep it always with her.
One day she had fallen asleep in her room, with the dog at her feet, as
his habit was. Her feet were bare and resting on his back. Suddenly she
was waked by her husband: he stood beside her, smiling not unkindly.
"You look like my great-grandmother, Juliane de Cornault, lying in the
chapel with her feet on a little dog," he said.
The analogy sent a chill through her, but she laughed and answered: "Well,
when I am dead you must put me beside her, carved in marble, with my dog
at my feet."
"Oho—we'll wait and see," he said, laughing also, but with his black
brows close together. "The dog is the emblem of fidelity."
"And do you doubt my right to lie with mine at my feet?"
"When I'm in doubt I find out," he answered. "I am an old man," he added,
"and people say I make you lead a lonely life. But I swear you shall have
your monument if you earn it."
"And I swear to be faithful," she returned, "if only for the sake of
having my little dog at my feet."
Not long afterward he went on business to the Quimper Assizes; and while
he was away his aunt, the widow of a great nobleman of the duchy, came to
spend a night at Kerfol on her way to the pardon of Ste. Barbe. She
was a woman of piety and consequence, and much respected by Yves de
Cornault, and when she proposed to Anne to go with her to Ste. Barbe no
one could object, and even the chaplain declared himself in favour of the
pilgrimage. So Anne set out for Ste. Barbe, and there for the first time
she talked with Hervé de Lanrivain. He had come once or twice to Kerfol
with his father, but she had never before exchanged a dozen words with
him. They did not talk for more than five minutes now: it was under the
chestnuts, as the procession was coming out of the chapel. He said: "I
pity you," and she was surprised, for she had not supposed that any one
thought her an object of pity. He added: "Call for me when you need me,"
and she smiled a little, but was glad afterward, and thought often of the
She confessed to having seen him three times afterward: not more. How or
where she would not say—one had the impression that she feared to
implicate some one. Their meetings had been rare and brief; and at the
last he had told her that he was starting the next day for a foreign
country, on a mission which was not without peril and might keep him for
many months absent. He asked her for a remembrance, and she had none to
give him but the collar about the little dog's neck. She was sorry
afterward that she had given it, but he was so unhappy at going that she
had not had the courage to refuse.
Her husband was away at the time. When he returned a few days later he
picked up the animal to pet it, and noticed that its collar was missing.
His wife told him that the dog had lost it in the undergrowth of the park,
and that she and her maids had hunted a whole day for it. It was true, she
explained to the court, that she had made the maids search for the necklet—they
all believed the dog had lost it in the park....
Her husband made no comment, and that evening at supper he was in his
usual mood, between good and bad: you could never tell which. He talked a
good deal, describing what he had seen and done at Rennes; but now and
then he stopped and looked hard at her, and when she went to bed she found
her little dog strangled on her pillow. The little thing was dead, but
still warm; she stooped to lift it, and her distress turned to horror when
she discovered that it had been strangled by twisting twice round its
throat the necklet she had given to Lanrivain.
The next morning at dawn she buried the dog in the garden, and hid the
necklet in her breast. She said nothing to her husband, then or later, and
he said nothing to her; but that day he had a peasant hanged for stealing
a faggot in the park, and the next day he nearly beat to death a young
horse he was breaking.
Winter set in, and the short days passed, and the long nights, one by one;
and she heard nothing of Hervé de Lanrivain. It might be that her husband
had killed him; or merely that he had been robbed of the necklet. Day
after day by the hearth among the spinning maids, night after night alone
on her bed, she wondered and trembled. Sometimes at table her husband
looked across at her and smiled; and then she felt sure that Lanrivain was
dead. She dared not try to get news of him, for she was sure her husband
would find out if she did: she had an idea that he could find out
anything. Even when a witchwoman who was a noted seer, and could show you
the whole world in her crystal, came to the castle for a night's shelter,
and the maids flocked to her, Anne held back.
The winter was long and black and rainy. One day, in Yves de Cornault's
absence, some gypsies came to Kerfol with a troop of performing dogs. Anne
bought the smallest and cleverest, a white dog with a feathery coat and
one blue and one brown eye. It seemed to have been ill-treated by the
gypsies, and clung to her plaintively when she took it from them. That
evening her husband came back, and when she went to bed she found the dog
strangled on her pillow.
After that she said to herself that she would never have another dog; but
one bitter cold evening a poor lean greyhound was found whining at the
castle-gate, and she took him in and forbade the maids to speak of him to
her husband. She hid him in a room that no one went to, smuggled food to
him from her own plate, made him a warm bed to lie on and petted him like
Yves de Cornault came home, and the next day she found the greyhound
strangled on her pillow. She wept in secret, but said nothing, and
resolved that even if she met a dog dying of hunger she would never bring
him into the castle; but one day she found a young sheepdog, a brindled
puppy with good blue eyes, lying with a broken leg in the snow of the
park. Yves de Cornault was at Bennes, and she brought the dog in, warmed
and fed it, tied up its leg and hid it in the castle till her husband's
return. The day before, she gave it to a peasant woman who lived a long
way off, and paid her handsomely to care for it and say nothing; but that
night she heard a whining and scratching at her door, and when she opened
it the lame puppy, drenched and shivering, jumped up on her with little
sobbing barks. She hid him in her bed, and the next morning was about to
have him taken back to the peasant woman when she heard her husband ride
into the court. She shut the dog in a chest, and went down to receive him.
An hour or two later, when she returned to her room, the puppy lay
strangled on her pillow....
After that she dared not make a pet of any other dog; and her loneliness
became almost unendurable. Sometimes, when she crossed the court of the
castle, and thought no one was looking, she stopped to pat the old pointer
at the gate. But one day as she was caressing him her husband came out of
the chapel; and the next day the old dog was gone....
This curious narrative was not told in one sitting of the court, or
received without impatience and incredulous comment. It was plain that the
Judges were surprised by its puerility, and that it did not help the
accused in the eyes of the public. It was an odd tale, certainly; but what
did it prove? That Yves de Cornault disliked dogs, and that his wife, to
gratify her own fancy, persistently ignored this dislike. As for pleading
this trivial disagreement as an excuse for her relations—whatever
their nature—with her supposed accomplice, the argument was so
absurd that her own lawyer manifestly regretted having let her make use of
it, and tried several times to cut short her story. But she went on to the
end, with a kind of hypnotized insistence, as though the scenes she evoked
were so real to her that she had forgotten where she was and imagined
herself to be re-living them.
At length the Judge who had previously shown a certain kindness to her
said (leaning forward a little, one may suppose, from his row of dozing
colleagues): "Then you would have us believe that you murdered your
husband because he would not let you keep a pet dog?"
"I did not murder my husband."
"Who did, then? Hervé de Lanrivain?"
"Who then? Can you tell us?"
"Yes, I can tell you. The dogs—" At that point she was carried out
of the court in a swoon.
It was evident that her lawyer tried to get her to abandon this line of
defense. Possibly her explanation, whatever it was, had seemed convincing
when she poured it out to him in the heat of their first private colloquy;
but now that it was exposed to the cold daylight of judicial scrutiny, and
the banter of the town, he was thoroughly ashamed of it, and would have
sacrificed her without a scruple to save his professional reputation. But
the obstinate Judge—who perhaps, after all, was more inquisitive
than kindly—evidently wanted to hear the story out, and she was
ordered, the next day, to continue her deposition.
She said that after the disappearance of the old watchdog nothing
particular happened for a month or two. Her husband was much as usual: she
did not remember any special incident. But one evening a pedlar woman came
to the castle and was selling trinkets to the maids. She had no heart for
trinkets, but she stood looking on while the women made their choice. And
then, she did not know how, but the pedlar coaxed her into buying for
herself a pear-shaped pomander with a strong scent in it—she had
once seen something of the kind on a gypsy woman. She had no desire for
the pomander, and did not know why she had bought it. The pedlar said that
whoever wore it had the power to read the future; but she did not really
believe that, or care much either. However, she bought the thing and took
it up to her room, where she sat turning it about in her hand. Then the
strange scent attracted her and she began to wonder what kind of spice was
in the box. She opened it and found a grey bean rolled in a strip of
paper; and on the paper she saw a sign she knew, and a message from Hervé
de Lanrivain, saying that he was at home again and would be at the door in
the court that night after the moon had set....
She burned the paper and sat down to think. It was nightfall, and her
husband was at home.... She had no way of warning Lanrivain, and there was
nothing to do but to wait....
At this point I fancy the drowsy court-room beginning to wake up. Even to
the oldest hand on the bench there must have been a certain relish in
picturing the feelings of a woman on receiving such a message at nightfall
from a man living twenty miles away, to whom she had no means of sending a
She was not a clever woman, I imagine; and as the first result of her
cogitation she appears to have made the mistake of being, that evening,
too kind to her husband. She could not ply him with wine, according to the
traditional expedient, for though he drank heavily at times he had a
strong head; and when he drank beyond its strength it was because he chose
to, and not because a woman coaxed him. Not his wife, at any rate—she
was an old story by now. As I read the case, I fancy there was no feeling
for her left in him but the hatred occasioned by his supposed dishonour.
At any rate, she tried to call up her old graces; but early in the evening
he complained of pains and fever, and left the hall to go up to the closet
where he sometimes slept. His servant carried him a cup of hot wine, and
brought back word that he was sleeping and not to be disturbed; and an
hour later, when Anne lifted the tapestry and listened at his door, she
heard his loud regular breathing. She thought it might be a feint, and
stayed a long time barefooted in the passage, her ear to the crack; but
the breathing went on too steadily and naturally to be other than that of
a man in a sound sleep. She crept back to her room reassured, and stood in
the window watching the moon set through the trees of the park. The sky
was misty and starless, and after the moon went down the night was black
as pitch. She knew the time had come, and stole along the passage, past
her husband's door—where she stopped again to listen to his
breathing—to the top of the stairs. There she paused a moment, and
assured herself that no one was following her; then she began to go down
the stairs in the darkness. They were so steep and winding that she had to
go very slowly, for fear of stumbling. Her one thought was to get the door
unbolted, tell Lanrivain to make his escape, and hasten back to her room.
She had tried the bolt earlier in the evening, and managed to put a little
grease on it; but nevertheless, when she drew it, it gave a squeak... not
loud, but it made her heart stop; and the next minute, overhead, she heard
"What noise?" the prosecution interposed.
"My husband's voice calling out my name and cursing me."
"What did you hear after that?"
"A terrible scream and a fall."
"Where was Hervé de Lanrivain at this time?"
"He was standing outside in the court. I just made him out in the
darkness. I told him for God's sake to go, and then I pushed the door
"What did you do next?"
"I stood at the foot of the stairs and listened."
"What did you hear?"
"I heard dogs snarling and panting." (Visible discouragement of the bench,
boredom of the public, and exasperation of the lawyer for the defense.
Dogs again—! But the inquisitive Judge insisted.)
She bent her head and spoke so low that she had to be told to repeat her
answer: "I don't know."
"How do you mean—you don't know?"
"I don't know what dogs...."
The Judge again intervened: "Try to tell us exactly what happened. How
long did you remain at the foot of the stairs?"
"Only a few minutes."
"And what was going on meanwhile overhead?"
"The dogs kept on snarling and panting. Once or twice he cried out. I
think he moaned once. Then he was quiet."
"Then what happened?"
"Then I heard a sound like the noise of a pack when the wolf is thrown to
them—gulping and lapping."
(There was a groan of disgust and repulsion through the court, and another
attempted intervention by the distracted lawyer. But the inquisitive Judge
was still inquisitive.)
"And all the while you did not go up?"
"Yes—I went up then—to drive them off."
"When I got there it was quite dark. I found my husband's flint and steel
and struck a spark. I saw him lying there. He was dead."
"And the dogs?"
"The dogs were gone."
"I don't know. There was no way out—and there were no dogs at
She straightened herself to her full height, threw her arms above her
head, and fell down on the stone floor with a long scream. There was a
moment of confusion in the court-room. Some one on the bench was heard to
say: "This is clearly a case for the ecclesiastical authorities"—and
the prisoner's lawyer doubtless jumped at the suggestion.
After this, the trial loses itself in a maze of cross-questioning and
squabbling. Every witness who was called corroborated Anne de Cornault's
statement that there were no dogs at Kerfol: had been none for several
months. The master of the house had taken a dislike to dogs, there was no
denying it But, on the other hand, at the inquest, there had been long and
bitter discussions as to the nature of the dead man's wounds. One of the
surgeons called in had spoken of marks that looked like bites. The
suggestion of witchcraft was revived, and the opposing lawyers hurled
tomes of necromancy at each other.
At last Anne de Cornault was brought back into court—at the instance
of the same Judge—and asked if she knew where the dogs she spoke of
could have come from. On the body of her Redeemer she swore that she did
not. Then the Judge put his final question: "If the dogs you think you
heard had been known to you, do you think you would have recognized them
by their barking?"
"Did you recognize them?"
"What dogs do you take them to have been?"
"My dead dogs," she said in a whisper.... She was taken out of court, not
to reappear there again. There was some kind of ecclesiastical
investigation, and the end of the business was that the Judges disagreed
with each other, and with the ecclesiastical committee, and that
Anne de Cornault was finally handed over to the keeping of her husband's
family, who shut her up in the keep of Kerfol, where she is said to have
died many years later, a harmless mad-woman.
So ends her story. As for that of Hervé de Lanrivain, I had only to apply
to his collateral descendant for its subsequent details. The evidence
against the young man being insufficient, and his family influence in the
duchy considerable, he was set free, and left soon afterward for Paris. He
was probably in no mood for a worldly life, and he appears to have come
almost immediately under the influence of the famous M. Arnauld d'Andilly
and the gentlemen of Port Royal. A year or two later he was received into
their Order, and without achieving any particular distinction he followed
its good and evil fortunes till his death some twenty years later.
Lanrivain showed me a portrait of him by a pupil of Philippe de
Champaigne: sad eyes, an impulsive mouth and a narrow brow. Poor Hervé de
Lanrivain: it was a grey ending. Yet as I looked at his stiff and sallow
effigy, in the dark dress of the Janséniste, I almost found myself envying
his fate. After all, in the course of his life two great things had
happened to him: he had loved romantically, and he must have talked with