Far less ghoulish than the more famous supernatural tales included in The King in Yellow, “The Demoiselle D’Ys” (day-MWAH-zell DEESE) still manages to pack a powerful blow of awe, mysticism, and pathos. To speak about it in advance is – like so many of Chambers’ stories – to give too much away, but there are a few bits of information that can aid a first reading. Chambers adored the Breton countryside, and side several of his best known works there. Like New York and Paris, Brittany seemed to always inspire Chambers with its history and culture. Brittany is a vast horn of land that juts into the Atlantic from France’s northwest corner. The people there are culturally Celtic, sharing more with the music, language, folklore, and customs of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland than with France proper: they speak a Celtic language (Breton), play music that harkens the hills of Ireland, and have a rich folklore of fairies, ghosts, and sunken castles.
One of the Breton legends that fascinated Chambers was the story of the City of Ys, a mythical metropolis that was built below sea level on the coast, where the sea was held back by towering dikes. Like Atlantis, Sodom, and – less mythically – Pompeii, Ys was known for its decadence and for its catastrophic destruction. The legend said that Ys was at one time the preeminent city in all of Europe, but became the site of violent orgies organized by the king’s daughter, Dahut, who was infamous for killing the men she slept with the morning after their drunken revels. One night during a terrible storm, Dahut bedded a knight dressed in red who tempted her to steal the key to the flood gates (secreted on her father’s person), handing it to her new lover as a gift. The knight turned out to be Satan himself, and he unlocked the gates, letter the pounding seas swallow Ys, which is said to still be intact under the water, where Dahut remains enthroned, a wicked mermaid.
While Chamber’s tale has little to do with the actual myth of Ys, the themes of both stories are consistent: lost innocence, broken hearts, impossible love, wrenching pathos, and mystical sublimity. Whiffs of The King in Yellow are found in the tale – references to Hastur and the heroine’s name (Jeanne D’Ys, a homonym of “jaundice”) are the most obvious – and there is of course Chambers’ favorite theme: well-suited lovers who are doomed to be torn apart.
The story follows Philip, an American expatriate who is roaming the Breton moors while hunting, and finds that he has lost his way. A local friend of his had warned him to take on a guide, saying that the moors are "a bad place for a stranger," but the headstrong foreigner refused help, now finding the grassy terrain impossible to backtrack. Lost amongst the heather, rocks, and hills, he sits down to ponder his next move. As the sun begins to set and a dangerous cold settle over the heath, he is amazed by a beautiful falcon which scoops up a hare and returns it to a figure in the distance, which turns out to be that of an even more beautiful woman.
Philip introduces himself to the strange woman who is out falconing with her servants, and learns that she is named Jeanne D'Ys, and that her home is in the vicinity. Enchanted by her beauty, her mastery of the falcon, and her promise of shelter and warmth, he follows her to what appears to be a Medieval chateau staffed only by a handful of curiously antiquated servants, and decorated sparesly in tapestries and rustic furniture. While the reader is immediately aware of the anachronisms and suspicious of Jeanne's provenance, Philip is oblivious, seemingly familiar -- even at home -- with the Middle Age culture that Jeanne's home radiates. In the morning his clothes are gone, and in their place are tights, a doublet, and a soft cap, which he puts on while acknowledging that they seem to come from a previous age. Over breakfast Jeanne and Philip flirt and blush, almost as if rekindling an old romance: Philip makes a chivalrous oath pledging that he would rather die than forget any of her words, and Jeanne is touched by his ardor. She talks to him of her love of falcons and dogs and he notes that her vocabulary is impressive sense she refers to outmoded falconry terms (which he strangely recognizes).
As the day wears on, Philip remarks that he must soon return to his friends but pledges to return again. Jeanne seems struck by a sense of foreboding and declares that she would not know what to do if he never returned. He agrees to go falconing with her and they journey into the moor while the falcons soar overhead. There, amidst the bracken and stones, they declare their love for one another, and Philip swears to visit her every day. They whisper each others names and Jeanne sighs that this is all she has ever wanted. Suddenly, she points out a bristling viper that has hidden itself in the heather at their feet. Terrified, she leaps into his arms and he kisses her repeatedly, chanting her name, "Jeanne, Jeanne, Jeanne..." But his reverie is rocked by a stabbing pain in his leg, and as the snake venom rushes to his heart, he falls to the ground and sinks into unconsciousness...
With a start, Philip awakens in the ruins of a Medieval chateau -- a heap of mossy stones barely outlines the old D'Ys property, and as cold reality begins to set in, Philip's heart sinks as he finds that he has been sleeping at the foot of a shrine with the barely legible notice: "Pray for the soul of Demoiselle Jeanne D'Ys, who died in her youth for the love of Philip, a Stranger. A. D. 1573." As his head swims he notices and picks up a woman's glove resting on the stone -- it is still warm and fragrant...
There are two general interpretations of the story’s mystical revelation: 1. Jeanne and Philip encounter one another through a time slip, and this story is about the intersection of two dimensions; in this case Philip time traveled, changed history, and was bitten by a non-venomous snake just before being ejected from the time warp, leaving Jeanne with no body to bury an no clear understanding of her lover’s disappearance. This would explain the vague phrase “died for love” which suggests a waiting rather than a mourning 2. Jeanne is a ghost and Philip is a reincarnation; they have just reenacted their medieval romance – Jeanne reminding him of the past, and Philip vaguely recalling it. This would explain his feeling that her voice is like a familiar tune, his familiarity with Medieval French and falconry, and his inexplicable attraction to the moor country.
The tune of this story may ring familiar to many American readers as well, particularly the last dramatic flair about the warm, perfumed glove being left on the dead woman’s grave. This is because elements of Chambers’ story – a popular one in its day – have worked their way into one of America’s most popular urban legends, the tale of the Phantom Hitchhiker, which was first recorded in the 1940s. While the details vary, the general plot runs thus: a young man is driving down a lonely country road when he sees a sad looking woman in a white dress hitchhiking on the shoulder. He pulls over and picks her up and they drive off. She quietly gives him the address of her parents and he lends her his letterman’s jacket when he notices her pale lips and damp skin, and they quietly drive into the city. When they pull up, however, she has vanished, and when he knocks at the door, a sad, elderly woman informs him that ten years earlier her daughter had been killed on that country road, driving to a dance. Stunned, the driver finds his way to the cemetery the next morning, where he finds the grave of the hitchhiker and is stunned – his letterman jacket is draped neatly across the gravestone.
Like “Demoiselle D’Ys,” this ghost story is far more concerned with human pathos than terror, but the effect of the tale is truly unsettling. There is a sense, in both stories, that the invisible world is reaching out to us, desperate for intimacy – an intimacy that is invasive and unsolicited but deeply pitiable: we want to help, we want to end the lonely suffering, but we are worried about the cost – what happens to Philip if he stays in the medieval world of Jeanne D’Ys? Is he really her reincarnated lover, or merely a vulnerable man – a potential victim? The legend of Dahut D’Ys, who lured men to her bed only to kill them, betrayed her kingdom to the devil, and – as a mermaid – tricks men into joining her in her underwater city (where they drown, of course), might leave us with an unresolved understanding of Jeanne’s nature: there are several hints that her intentions may be sinister (including an allusion to Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” a poem about a fairy or elf or ghost woman who lures brave men to her lair where she seduces them into worshipping her for eternity). But we are ultimately sympathetic to the two lovers whose moment in time has been so brief, so incomplete.
And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Robert W. Chambers' best horror HERE!