Edith Wharton.

The Early Short Fiction of Edith Wharton — Part 1 online

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Produced by Judith Boss









THE EARLY SHORT FICTION OF EDITH WHARTON

By Edith Wharton

A Ten-Volume Collection

Volume One



Contents of Volume One

Stories
KERFOL.........................March 1916
MRS. MANSTEY'S VIEW............July 1891
THE BOLTED DOOR................March 1909
THE DILETTANTE.................December 1903
THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD HAND.....August 1904


The following works not included in the present eBook:

Verse
THE PARTING DAY................February 1880
AEROPAGUS......................March 1880
A FAILURE......................April 1880
PATIENCE.......................April 1880
WANTS..........................May 1880
THE LAST GIUSTIANINI...........October 1889
EURYALUS.......................December 1889
HAPPINESS......................December 1889


Bibliography

EDITH WHARTON BIBLIOGRAPHY:
SHORT STORIES AND POEMS........Judy Boss





KERFOL

As first published in Scribner's Magazine, March 1916




I


"You ought to buy it," said my host; "it's 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 on 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 childish 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 the sheer weight of many associated lives and deaths
which gives a kind of 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 under 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 I saw a court
enclosed in noble architecture. The main building faced me; and I now
discovered 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 adorned
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 little 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 rather
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. "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 dodges that dogs who live together put up on
one," I thought. I was not much 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 window-frames another dog stood: a
large 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 empty
window-frame, against the trees of the park, and continued to watch me
without moving. I looked 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 stared 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 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 aloud, and walked across the court toward the
well.

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 up and down the dumb facade; 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 empty
window-frame. 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. In the
last analysis, 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
another look.

"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."

"What day?"

"I'd quite forgotten - and so had Herve, I'm sure. If we'd remembered, we
never should have sent you today - 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 Herve 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?" I insisted.

"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.




II


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 Herve 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
detestable...

At first I thought of translating the old record literally. 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.




III


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 seems to have been 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 much.

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 rather rare thing: 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, drawn off it and lying 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 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 widow-hood.
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 Rennes 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 gave him no son. Yet he never made her feel her childlessness as a
reproach - she herself 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 open-handed; 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 Clarte, 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 gold
wire. 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


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