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Beast29

Luckily for Louis, the night had taken on a chill. Not cold enough for a fur hat and muff across his face, but it would have to do, for he did not want to be recognized by the cloaked man as they entered the town. Father Secours, who would not be known to the killer, drove Modestine. They hoped that if they were seen, the cloaked man would not be looking for a priest-driven donkey and a fur-capped stranger.

Florac was the largest town Louis had passed through yet, being like a second capitol next to Alès. It had two churches, dozens of shops, a few inns, a mill, and a functioning, non-ruined chateau, which sat in the southwest part of town, across from the Vibron River, a tributary that ran through the center of Florac and joined with the Tarn to the north.

As they entered the city proper, they spent a little time walking along the esplande. Under other circumstances, Louis would have tied Modestine nearby, as would be socially correct, and enjoyed the company of the interesting, educated French men and women promenading happily back and forth. But tonight, he didn’t want to risk leaving her alone and unguarded. And there would be no happy mingling here tonight. The area was filled, not with well-to-do socialites looking to impress but a smattering of wary-looking townspeople, huddling in groups and talking about the recent murders. It was clear that some of those who stood there in the crisp night air, smoking cigarettes, had been personally affected—their daughters, their uncle, their sister. Someone they knew had died, their cold corpses waiting in the church—of whichever faith they claimed—for absolution and burial.

They walked all round the promenade once, intending to eavesdrop a little and see if anything about the cloaked man could be established, but Father Secours’s face was like the face of every man and woman’s brother, and he was too often greeted with a smile and a handshake or embrace, despite their grief. They had decided, though, not to ask outright about the cloaked man, for they didn’t want to put any more innocents in harm’s way if they could avoid it.

As they came back to where they began, they moved left past a 12th-century tower-house and made another immediate left to head down la rue principal, where they would head southwest again, near an old nunnery. Father Secours’s aunt Adèle and mother Colette lived in a small flat across from the walls of the convent. They tied Modestine in as shadowy a corner outside the flat as they could find and entered the home.

“Victor!” both old women shouted together, and they descended upon the priest, throwing their skinny arms about him and kissing his cheeks. Louis removed his fur cap and muff now, wiping the sweat from his forehead and neck.

Qui est-ce?” Colette asked when the reunion jubilance faded a little.

Maman, tatine,” Father Secours began, “this is my friend, Monsieur Louis Stevenson.”

Bonsoir.” Louis made a curt bow.

“Louis. He is French?” asked Adèle.

“Oh no, Madam,” Louis replied. “Scots.”

She looked slightly disappointed, but rallied.

“Ah, but it is a good French name,” she smiled with crooked teeth.

“Come,” said Colette. “We were just about to sit down to a late repast. Sit, sit.” She motioned for the men, whom were but boys to her, to sit along one of two benches that flanked their modest wooden dining table.

“After my father passed,” Father Secours explained, as his mother crossed herself, “my mother moved here to the city. I did not grow up within the town limits, but just outside on a farm, passed from my mother to my cousin Gilles and his family.

“Gilles.” His mother spoke as she piled food onto plates—beef, potato, and turnips. “They brought that poor girl here first.”

“Clémence?” Father Secours asked.

Oui.”

The priest’s aunt banged the heel of her palm against the table, which made barely a sound, she was so frail. Then she rattled off an angry diatribe in French, so fast Louis only caught every other word, but was impressed with this old woman’s fire.

“How could they, Victor? How could they? There was no more innocent a family in that town.”

“I know, tatine,” Father Secours reached across the table and put a soothing hand over her thin wrist. “An evil man roused the passions of an ignorant mob. It is a simple enough explanation, and sometimes that makes the loss even harder to bear.”

Fine tears fell down Adèle’s wrinkled face and Louis recalled that, not only was Clarisse lost and Clémence injured and orphaned, this poor old woman had lost a brother and a sister-in-law.

“What evil man?” she inquired through her sniffles, dabbing at her nose with a well-worn handkerchief.

At Father Secours’s insistence, Louis retold his tale, from Monastier to this very night, to the rapt, angry old women. When he finished, it was quiet save for the sound of utensils against plates. The men waited for a response and Louis took up his fork, as he had not begun eating yet for it was rude to eat and speak. As he brought the loaded fork to his lips, Adèle erupted.

“So, you killed Alphonse? Did you burn down my brother’s house? Was it you who killed my family?” She was up off the bench and coming around to beat her small fists in a rage against Louis, but Father Secours caught her just as she stood up and she melted into his arms, weeping.

“It wasn’t like that, tatine,” he whispered to her. “It wasn’t like that.” He looked at his mother over Adèle’s grey head, who only looked back at him sadly.

Louis had set his fork down and sat still and silent, his eyes downcast.

Colette went to her son and sister-in-law and gently separated them, taking Adèle by the shoulder and looking her in the eye.

Ma sœur,” she said softly. “We both know Alphonse could not control himself. It has been a long, long time since any of us have had to deal with the heartache of what the change makes of our bébés. We forget that it is ugly and brutal.”

She looked at Louis, who was now watching her and listening.

“Monsieur Stevenson,” she said to Adèle. “Louis. He was only protecting himself and his friends.”

Then she took Adèle into her own thin arms and rocked her to and fro until her sobs subsided.

Eventually, Adèle pulled quietly from Colette, placed a weary hand on Father Secours’s arm for a moment, and then turned to the fire that was burning in the fireplace, keeping the un-served food warm. She took the handle of the pot with a towel, walked it over to Louis, and plopped another serving onto his plate, although he had yet to begin to eat. Before she left, she set her free hand on his shoulder for a moment, and then returned the pot to the fireplace and resumed her place opposite him on the bench.

Louis looked to Father Secours who gestured that he should eat, and so, hungry, he did. There was then a not uncomfortable quiet in the room, as Louis ate and everyone retreated to their private thoughts.

“Clémence,” Adèle began after she’d recovered, “was brought here.”

“But she is not here now,” Father Secours said.

Non,” said Colette, who now sat down beside her sister-in-law. “She was close to the change and behaving unpredictably.”

She wrung her hands on the table, watching her pale, old skin wrinkle and her blue veins roll over the bone beneath. She looked from her son to Louis.

“She is traumatized,” she said. “She’s such a good girl, she would never hurt a living soul. But in this state, we cannot be sure she could . . .” She paused to find the words she needed.

“She might not be able to control herself as well as she could in other circumstances,” Father Secours finished. His mother reached over and patted his hand, nodding gratefully.

“Gilles took her to the farm,” added Adèle.

“That makes sense,” Father Secours said.

Louis had cleaned up the two servings and set his fork across his empty plate, leaning back and feeling bloated, but satiated.

“Good, eh?” Father Secours asked, smiling. “No one can cook like ma maman et ma tatine.”

“Indeed,” Louis managed to wheeze out, smiling. He rubbed his belly, which on his slight frame bulged.

Non!” said Adèle. “You cannot be full.” She stood and brought from the buffet a board covered with a cotton towel. She set it on the table and removed the covering, revealing a stack of cream and berry tarts. Louis moaned.

The tarts were served and Louis took a deep breath before digging in. The four relaxed a little more, moving away from the immediate crisis for just a little bit. Father Secours brought his family up to date with the various goings-on of Cocurès and, when asked, Louis told the women how wonderful his own mother was.

Until, eventually, there came a knock at the door.

Father Secours motioned for Louis to follow him and brought his finger to his lips, a gesture aimed at his mother and aunt, then led Louis to the small room upstairs.

Once they were safely up the steps, Adèle yelled at the door.

Attendez! Nous arrivons!” And she shuffled over to the door, paused a moment, and then opened it a crack.

Bonsoir!” a man’s voice said.

Bonsoir, Madame Secours!” said another.

She opened the door and two men entered, one large, one small.

“Yves! Honoré!” both women cried.

“How nice to see you,” said Colette. “Will you have a tart?”

Louis and Father Secours perched at the top of the stairs trying to angle their view down to see who it was, but could only see feet—one large pair and one small. From the direction of the voices, Louis paired each voice with the feet. The large man was Honoré—a local merchant, Father Secours informed him—and the small man was Yves, a policeman.

“Ah, non, “said Yves. “We have just come from my wife’s table.”

“And she is such a fine cook,” said Colette.

“Indeed,” said Honoré.

Yves stepped forward and brought his voice down to a gentle tenor.

“Mesdames Secours,” he said. “We have stopped by to offer our condolences.”

And now Honoré also stepped forward. Louis imagined they were grasping the small hands of the old women, and he appreciated their effort to console.

Oui,” said Honoré. “And if there is anything—absolutely anything at all—that we can do for you, you will tell us, yes?”

The ladies wept again, not so much for the loss, but at the kindness of their neighbors, and while they insisted there was nothing anyone could do right now, they asserted with equal fervor that they were the most considerate men in all of Florac. The men stepped back to their original places and turned shy, swatting away the praise.

“Please, Mesdames,” said Yves. “You give us too much credit.”

The conversation moved quickly into small talk—the men asked after Father Secours, and Colette repeated to them what her son had just told her over dessert. Soon, they prepared to make their leave.

“But, oh,” said Honoré. “I meant to ask. Whose ass is tied outside?”

There was a moment of silence, and then Adèle spoke up.

“Ah, the ass in mine!” she said and laughed. “It was a gift from my son, Gilles, so I could ride her to the farm and back when I visit.”

“Such a nice gesture,” Honoré said. “She looks like a good one.”

“I hope so!”

With that, Louis and Father Secours watched the feet of the people downstairs—the men’s feet followed by the small feet of the women, as they shepherded them out the door.

They listened to the men’s footsteps and voices retreat from the flat and down the street, and when they were sure they were gone, Louis and Father Secours descended the stairs.

“They are gone,” said Colette, “but they are good men.”

“I have no doubt of that, maman, but we must be careful. Even an accidental slip could give away our whereabouts.”

“This man,” said Adèle, “he is following you.”

“He is in, or just outside of, Florac, Madame,” said Louis. “We fear not so much for ourselves, but for you, your family.” He turned to Father Secours.

“In fact,” Louis continued, “I must say, I feel less confident that Modestine should be tied up out there.”

“Agreed.” Father Secours thought for a moment. “Tatine, would Gilles mind a few more boarders?”

“Of course not,” she replied.

“So then we should be off, to the farm,” he said.

“But it is so dark,” cried Colette.

“We came in under night, maman. It is not ideal, but it is not impossible. We will be alright.”

Both women crossed themselves and fussed about Father Secours, and Louis, to only a slightly lesser degree. They tried to pack them some food, but it was only from a need to be of some comfort and help, for the farm was not very far and they had just eaten to bursting.

Louis made his heartfelt thanks and said his goodbyes, and then moved outside with a chunk of bread to feed Modestine while Father Secours made his longer, more nuanced familial au revoirs.

The donkey stood blinking at Louis as he palmed the bread for her. Her lips grabbed at it and her teeth tore off bits; she chewed indifferently.

“Hurry up,” he said to her. “We’ve got to go, and soon.”

He looked around the street, which was quiet. A few windows glowed with their inhabitants turning down their beds, or perhaps finishing up a late supper, as they did. The convent walls were plain and high, concealing God’s harem behind them completely. Louis stroked Modestine’s ears as she finished up her dinner, listening vaguely to the muffled titters of the old women behind the door. For the first time in a while, his mind was blank, and it was good—a pleasant respite.

Soon, the door opened and closed—out came Father Secours.

“I’m afraid I might have gotten off on the wrong foot there,” Louis said. “I’m sorry.”

Father Secours handed him a small parcel wrapped in a clean, blue handkerchief.

“All must be forgiven,” he said. “They packed you two extra tarts.”

Louis smiled, placed the parcel snuggly into his sack, pulled his fur cap on over his head, and untied Modestine. Then he flipped the reigns back over her head, handed Father Secours the goad, and pulled the fur muff up over his mouth.

“I will follow you,” he said, and Father Secours led them south, back down the street, bearing right and across a stone bridge that spanned the Vibron. Another right and they were heading toward the Château de Florac—a 13th-century castle that had been refurbished in the 17th century. Now, it operated as a prison.

Their path was past and around it, further to the southwest. In the dark and under the thin moon, Louis could make out its wide stone wall and the evenly placed windows, small and barred, that dotted the surface.

“Perhaps,” he said to the priest, “this is where we will eventually find him.”

“God willing,” Father Secours replied, but neither sounded as if they had much faith in the cloaked man’s apprehension by the law.

They rounded a hard bend and the castle disappeared behind a heavy copse of trees and bushes. The road they set out on quickly became a path soon after they reached the city limits, as it was not one of the main trading routes to and from the city. Father Secours explained that it was used mainly by farmers and herders, and so didn’t require the kind of upkeep demanded by the merchants that moved in and out of Florac.

“The tread of a million hooves every year does enough to keep the surface compact,” he added.

They spoke little as they walked, for they were both vigilant of ankle-twisting fissures, and more importantly, anyone else who might be traveling before or after them.

The cattle path wound into a new valley, away from the rivers and the timid activity of Florac. On either side stretched grassy meadow that turned into forest. The trees that covered the sloping hills loomed black in the distance, a menacing, misshapen mass hiding the night’s creatures. Louis wondered if they harbored their cloaked man.

“Don’t you know, messieurs,” a voice spoke crisp and clear from their left, “that it is dangerous to travel abroad at night?”

Louis grabbed Modestine’s bridle and brought her to a halt. Father Secours froze.

“Who is there?” Louis shouted, knowing full well that it was the man they sought, and who, right at this moment, was in a much better position than they. He reached into his waistband and freed his revolver, griping the handle hard.

“Shouldn’t you be holed up at the inn, making your notes, writer?” the voice asked.

Frustrated and angry, Louis exploded.

“Enough!” he shouted and darted off into the night toward the sound of the voice. Father Secours called after Louis, but followed almost immediately.

Off the path, Louis became disoriented. Father Secours found him and grabbed his arm.

“Show yourself!” Louis yelled. “Coward!”

“Louis, this is dangerous,” Father Secours hissed through nervous teeth, and Louis realized that the priest was right. He had lost his head, tired of being too well known to this unknown killer. He could no longer endure the fact that this monster knew who he was, what he did, and probably why he was there, and Louis knew nothing of him except that he was a slaughterer of innocents.

“Come,” said Father Secours. “Let us find our way back.”

Just then, Modestine brayed loudly and they could hear the pounding of her little hooves against the packed clay of the path. They ran in the direction of the sound.

When they came to the donkey she was flustered, her eyes wide, and they could hear the intruder’s footsteps padding against the earth, fading with distance. Louis’s pack lay open and his things scattered on the ground.

“Damn it, straight to the devil,” Louis grumbled, and then turned to the priest, half-agitated, half-ashamed. “Pardon.”

Father Secours just looked at him and then motioned to the sack. Louis gathered his things, bundled them, and rearranged the pack on Modestine’s back while the priest soothed her by scratching her neck and petting her long ears. He kept his eyes in the direction the footsteps had gone, looking for any odd shadow, any moving thing.

When Louis was finished, they continued on their way, frustrated that their cover had been blown and their presence was now known, which put them at a severe disadvantage.

“Never mind,” said Father Secours. “Let us get to the farm. It is not far now.”

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Beast26

The night sky was clear and Louis was able to trace a discernible path as the roads were new and the moon, though small, was assisted by the stars. They walked until the sun appeared grudgingly from the horizon, Louis’s pace as slow as Modestine’s when their journey had first begun; so slow, in fact, that the donkey sometimes stopped, as she loved to do, to munch on some patches of grass.

For the first few hours, his brain played the night’s events over and over—the shouting, the screams. As much as he didn’t want to, so long as he could smell the smoke from the burning house, he couldn’t help it. The stink followed him to Pont de Montvert and beyond—it poisoned the air. Even after he was out of the deathly miasma, the stench clung to his clothes and to Modestine’s mousy fur. It was more time still before the wind had cleared the odor from them. Only then was he able to distract himself.

The sun was up and they were well into morning proper. Louis walked, eyes to the ground, tapping his leg with the goad.

He had expected to arrive in London—his next stop after this trip before heading home to Edinburgh—a new man, a changed man. In this, he was not wrong. A new and changed man he would be. He shuddered to think of the impact all of this would have. He was not built for this sort of death. A kind of death, certainly. His periods of illness had conditioned him to believe that—of his friends—he would be the one to lead them to the grave, many, many years before their time. It was something he’d come closer and closer to accepting, to the extent that the prospect didn’t incite the fear it once did.

But outright murder? The killing of innocents? This was not something he’d ever become accustomed to, surely not if he could help it. But it had been done now. He could not reverse it. Its effects were already being felt in the way his mind reeled when he thought of Clarisse and their conversation in the inn’s kitchen at Pont de Montvert, in the way his stomach lurched when he thought, not of the live, burning figures on the ground, but of the very acts of the mob. It wasn’t the visceral verity of the flesh, but the sickening debasement of the crowd; people he had so recently dined with and enjoyed the company of. Louis did not know if he could ever trust the character of anyone ever again.

How on earth could he ever explain any of this to his people? How would he describe this to Fanny? Because if he couldn’t, how could he give himself to her completely, of which he had—still had—every intention of doing. Fanny had seen so much more of life than he had. Married, had children, lived and survived along the American frontier. She rolled her own cigarettes and was a better shot with a pistol than himself. He had thought, just a short time ago, that they could go a lifetime together and he would never catch up to her in terms of experience. But he doubted that she’d seen a family burned to death in their own home. And while she might have taken the odd pot shot at some dubious native in the West, he doubted she’d ever taken aim at such an unholy beast, a werewolf. This morning, walking along a dusty French road in the Highlands, he wondered how he might explain what had happened to him in a way that would allow her to catch up to him.

But perhaps there would be nothing to catch up to, for she may just laugh and send him on his way. And he wondered if that might be a better blessing to her. For him, though, it might just be the blow that did him in.

Louis was abruptly stopped by Modestine’s ass—he’d walked right into her. She snorted and he looked up. The road they traveled was sandy and ran about halfway up from the Tarn twisting in the valley below. Above there were cliffs edged in ash trees with its lower gradients covered in Spanish chestnuts. It was a beautiful day, and the river called up to him with its rugged, throaty roar. On the breeze floated the trees’ scent as autumn worked its way around the perimeters of their green leaves, dappling everything in russet.

According to his map, they would be in the valley for some time still, and his reverie had cost them daylight and kilometers. Although it would be some time before the sun set, it was already making its way out of the gorge, leaving them in the tall shadows that grew like the trees themselves.

As they walked along, it dawned on Louis that the terrain was not changing—a road: on one side straight down, and on the other, straight up. There would be no making the next town by nightfall, and his only condolence was that he’d neither seen nor heard another human intonation or footstep for most of the day.

He scanned the cliff wall to his right, looking for more gentle inclines, which would still prevent his sleeping on them, or else he might roll down to the road, or worse, over the road and down to the river. Eventually, his eyes fell on what looked to be not one ledge, but three—the first about sixty feet up, the next about the same distance from the first, and the third still further up.

Louis goaded and pushed Modestine up to the first ledge, picking their way around the chestnuts and occasionally leaning on them for a rest. Once they reached the plateau, it was barely big enough for the both of them, so Louis unloaded Modestine and pushed her further up to the second ledge, that had just enough room for her to lie down, should she want to. He then left her with an early dinner of black bread.

He stumbled and half-slid back down to his own ledge and made his camp behind the shelter of a reasonably wide tree, sweeping as many fallen chestnuts from the path of his sleeping sack as possible. So long as Modestine stayed quiet—as she generally was prone to do—they should stay all but invisible up here. Louis arranged everything he might need nearby and resolved to be in his sack and ready to fall asleep by the time the sun went down. He would not light a lamp, or fire. He would only strike a match to light a cigarette. Until then, he had a few hours to update his journal with the latest goings on, as much as he hated to revisit them.

Before he knew it, he was straining to see his words on the paper before him. The day was making a hasty retreat far beyond the cliffs, he imagined, over fields and meadows, over cities and towns, over warm inns and burnt-out homes. Over the living and the dead.

The valley was still warm and would stay that way for most of the night. Soon, the trill of frogs from the Tarn below rose up to sing Louis to sleep, and then a wind picked up, swaying the boughs above him and reminding him, uncomfortably, of the nightmares he suffered as a child. Storms upon storms, the wind howling at every eave of the family home, blowing and blowing. He closed his eyes and without much more of a thought, he was asleep.

The night was a seemingly endless succession of waking and dreaming. First, there was a scrambling in the leaves near his head, once, twice, then three times, before he sprang up to find nothing but suspected rats. Then there was the biting and tickling of the ants crawling about his person. After that, the buzzing of mosquitoes investigating the orifices of his ears and the flapping of bats swooping down from the trees.

Between these episodes—and Louis thought likely caused by the ongoing actions of these pesky creatures as he slept—his unconscious was awash with images, voices, colors, shapes, and faces.

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Beast23

When Louis woke again, it was still dark, but the whisper of dawn played upon the horizon. The sky was deep blue, anticipating morning proper, but the woods that sheltered the two travelers was still heavy with night. The stars had diminished considerably and the moon hung far over, ready to begin its journey to the other side of the globe.

Louis rose and noted the wind had picked up, passing cold over his weary limbs. The branches above and around him swayed as he fetched water from the natural faucet nearby. He shielded his lamp and boiled a sufficient quantity for a thin chocolate drink. While not rich, it was comforting.

Modestine stood chewing on some grass. Louis gave her a hunk of bread for breakfast but declined more for himself than the chocolate. He listened but heard only the growing sounds of daybreak—birds shrilled wakeful, flitting through the still-dark forest. Soon, he would hear the ox-carts moving uphill to fetch their quarry of wood for the winter, and wanting to avoid them, he hurriedly packed his things and the two continued their upward trek.

Though the path would sometimes reward their diligence with a respite of level ground, it never lasted very long and up, up they were again sent. Eventually, the path beneath their feet disappeared and they tread upon a simple terrain marked only, again, by the standing stones for winter travel. Small birds hopped from stone to stone, and it seemed to Louis that they were the same birds for miles, following him along, his destination theirs. It was warm and Louis had removed his coat, walking in only his knitted vest, his shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows.

Finally, they reached a summit that distinguished itself from the smaller peaks they’d rolled over. Even if one closed one’s eyes as they breached it, one would sense its majesty. Le Pic de Finiels, about which Louis had heard so much, stood 5,600 feet above sea level. From here, through the hazy afternoon, Louis could make out lower Languedoc all the way to the Mediterranean.

It was spectacular, but Louis was tired. And he did not relish that his next stop, probably for the night, was the dreaded Pont de Montvert.

He goaded Modestine, who had stopped, assumed he’d want to spend more time, and made for the nearest grassy spot for a snack. She huffed a disappointed sigh and shuffled on, down this time. A little while later, the standing stones they’d been following disappeared and Louis stopped to look around.

Not far down, he could see a trail begin—it looked very steep and seemed to spiral down the slope.

“Are you ready for that?” he asked Modestine, who only blinked her answer in return.

Down they went. The path turned so tightly and so vertically that Louis insisted Modestine go first, for if she started to roll, she’d surely crush him despite her tiny frame. She took the lead happily enough, almost trotting, and while it had looked like a rather long drop from above, it was only a matter of a few minutes before they spilled from the corkscrew onto a straight, flat plain. First Modestine, and then Louis, separately and in opposite directions, jogged to a dizzy stop before halting to collect their balance and rejoin one another on the path.

Oddly, or so Louis thought, the path continued along the trickle of a brook, with the waterway flowing zigzagged back and forth over the walkway, so that as they progressed, Modestine refreshed her tired hooves in the water while Louis sure-footedly stepped over. They found themselves in a green valley dotted abundantly with rocks. In due course, the path grew into a road and the trickle grew into a stream, which diverted to the side. Their course advanced over a slight, but regular rise and fall through the vale, flanked by a forest of oak on either side.

With each step, the watercourse they raced grew bigger and bigger, soon a foaming tributary eager to throw its contents against stones, the banks, and itself. Rapids formed as its width expanded to eventually become the strong-flowing Tarn River.

Just under the raging, babbling current, Louis heard a sound, and looking up and forward to a break in the valley walls that spread meadows left and right, he saw a little boy, who waved enthusiastically to Louis. This was the first sign of le Pont de Montvert.

* * *

As they came into the town—over a stone hump-backed bridge that took them across the Tarn and ended on the other side with a medieval tower—it struck Louis that it had been exactly a week since he’d left Monastier. Pont de Montvert was all bustling with the Sabbath post-church activities—people buying a day’s or a week’s worth of necessities at the vendors that gathered loosely along the main thoroughfare, lined with one- and two-story stone houses.

Louis peered about them suspiciously, looking for a familiar face, listening for the singing voice that harassed him in the night amongst the trees of Mont Lozère, but there was nothing. Citizens moved about, jostling him, Modestine, and each other, an undulating sea of ruddy faces and muted color, though the eyes and mouths smiled at a day’s rest.

They made their way to the nearest public house, where Louis planned to hole up for the day and night, until events either played themselves out or enough nothing happened to warrant a feeling of safe passage. But Louis did not expect his stay to be without incident, and so he left Modestine in the stable with strict instructions to the stable boy to watch her carefully, then headed into the inn to wait it out.

There was a considerable crowd at the table for the mid-day meal, at least a dozen, including himself. The server called herself Clarisse—she was a buxom young woman: her hips and bosom ample, her face round, her eyes and nose small. She had curly yellow hair that spiraled over her shoulders, her cheeks were naturally rosy. Clarisse moved about the crowded dining area deftly, despite her size and the speed at which she went.

Louis took an empty space between a middle-aged, well-dressed man and a dowdy, timid woman of roughly the same age as his other neighbor. Across from him sat two women who chatted animatedly to each other. They were both handsome, which Louis counted as a special treat as he swore he had not seen a beautiful woman since leaving Monastier, and even then, he could remember no female face from that village aside from the pamphleteer’s ancient mother he’d endlessly sketched. The remaining travelers beyond this immediate group held no interest for him.

The two lovely women, as it turned out, were sisters—both married—traveling with the man to Louis’s right, a cousin. They were meeting their husbands—railroad surveyors currently in Chasseradès—in a few days, before moving on to another town to spend a few weeks with their widowed mother.

“I know them!” Louis exclaimed. “Well, that is to say, I passed a magnificent evening with them just two days ago.”

“They are well, then?” one of the sisters asked.

“Oh, indeed,” Louis said, “very well.”

Stoneware plates were filled with stewed vegetables, beef, and bread. Cutlery clicked together and against teeth. Clarisse moved about the room, plate to plate, and rested by the stairwell in the corner until her service was again required.

“Are you familiar with the village, sir?” the man to his right inquired.

“This village? No, I am not. Though I mean to be. I am writing a book.”

And the conversation followed as such. The sisters fawned over Louis—having discovered a writer in their midst—and they all asked for the details of his travels so far. Louis did his best to leave out anything grisly—anything related to wolves or murder—and largely succeeded. This pleasant exercise gave him hope that his journal notes weren’t all for naught and that he might—if he made it to Alès alive and back into the arms of his friends and family— still have a book from all this mess.

Clarisse suddenly appeared beside him, heaping a second helping of beef upon his plate before he’d even half-finished the first, and she was gone again in a flash. Louis hadn’t had this much sensory excitement in weeks. Perhaps months.

“And, so the brothers of Our Lady of the Snows,” a sister began, “there is no vow of silence?”

“Ah, no, see,” Louis explained, piling the beef onto itself. “It is merely an economy of words. Nothing unnecessary nor impractical.”

He saw his shy neighbor to the left had drained her cup and he neatly refilled it without losing his thought.

She tried weakly to refuse, but then acquiesced for the sake of good manners and presented Louis with a wan smile. She styled her dark hair parted concisely down the middle and combed back in a low bun; she wore a small, modest cameo taut on a humble ribbon around her neck. It had a look about it that spoke of something handed down, possessing significant personal value. She was clearly not of the party immediately surrounding them.

“Where are you going to, Mademoiselle? Where are your people?” he asked warmly, trying to help her feel included.

Her face reddened with the attention. She smiled and tried to wave it away, but he persisted.

“Florac,” she finally answered. “To see my sister.” Louis had to lean close to hear her, as she spoke barely above a whisper, and this caused her to blush further.

“If your sister is half as lovely as you, Mademoiselle . . .” he began.

Clarisse now appeared to his other side, laying down another roll, though his sat yet untouched. And, again, gone.

“Have you published other books?” one of the sisters across the table interrupted, and the little mouse to his left looked more relieved than spurned, so Louis turned his attention back to the beautiful women.

“I have had a book out this past spring,” he answered, and then opined appropriately on An Inland Voyage, which had met mixed reviews.

The sisters gushed, and Louis noted that they wore fairly low-cut chemises, with hanging necklaces that drew attention to their busts, quite unlike his easily embarrassed neighbor. He took an opportunity to offer her more bread, which she declined. He got a closer look at her.

Her eyes were almond shaped and her brows neat and even; her face was the shape of her eyes and beginning to show just the first faint lines of age. Her mouth was not overly cheery, nor was it too firm. Louis judged her to be about as old as Fanny, about ten years his senior. In fact, once one tallied the merits of this woman’s features as a whole, she was actually rather pretty.

He again turned to the laughter of the sisters in front of him and joined them in their joviality, but also reexamined their virtues. Their hair—tawny and blond, respectively—was curled and set with pins. Their cheeks blossomed with what he believed to be a powder of some sort. Their lips were also tinted.

They tittered on about the novels they were currently reading, which Louis should have been keen to hear about but was instead lost in a reverie of his own conclusions. He thought perhaps his modest neighbor could just as easily be as bland as the women before him, in character and in taste, that is, but she didn’t open her mouth enough for that judgment. The sisters, however, exhibited a veneer that promised interest, when, in fact, they overflowed with tediousness in every breath. They were also both closer to his age, and if Louis had learned nothing else of his own inclinations in his short life, he learned that it was a mature voice that held his attention.

He was about to turn his mind back to his modest neighbor when the sisters’ cousin started up.

“I’m in the quarry business,” he said. And while the man talked of the astonishing difference in stone and their application, the woman to his left presently finished her meal and quietly excused herself from the table to no one in particular.

Louis pretended to hear the man, nodding when it seemed necessary, and focused most of his attention on his plate, systematically filling his thin frame with the stuff. When he ate as much as he could and pulled his napkin from his lap, he excused himself. As he looked up, his eyes happened to fall across the room to Clarisse, standing beside the stairwell, hand on her hip. She was staring at him.

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Beast20

Chasseradès, Lestampes,

Bleymard, Le Pic de Finiels,

Le Pont de Montvert

She’d burnt the bread. Fanny stomped through the apartment toward Louis, her face angry and her brow slick with sweat. For a moment, he tensed, but she only closed the bed curtains with a huff and returned to the oven. He heard windows opening. They hadn’t opened the windows for weeks, fearing the chill might worsen his condition.

Under the nutty smell of smoke, Louis could discern the green smell of leaves. Something clean. He wheezed a small, innocuous cough. It had been subsiding, the coughing.

“It’s ruined,” she bellowed from around the corner.

Louis had taught himself to play the flageolet, and he wished he’d had the lung capacity to play it now. It might cheer her; it would certainly cheer him. He didn’t care about the bread, and frankly, the loaves she didn’t burn didn’t taste like bread either. They were always still doughy in the middle, but he ate them anyway, when he could eat.

He wanted to call out to her that nothing was ruined. He heard the oven door open, slam closed, then what he perceived to be the muffled thud of the loaf hitting the ground in the garden. Out the window it had gone.

*

At dawn, after a simple and silent breakfast, Louis gathered his things and packed Modestine by the gate. The donkey seemed relaxed, much to Louis’s consternation—he would continue to travel with this little beast, to whom he was growing closer despite himself, and yet who couldn’t be told of the previous night’s horrors. But then, he thought, perhaps it was a relief, that this creature, with her big brown eyes and tiny, searching feet—whose only concern is to get from one point to another without stumbling—should carry on without fear.

“It is better that you do not know,” Louis whispered into Modestine’s long ear.

“You take your leave early,” a voice said behind him.

Louis spun to find Father Prior, his hands, as usual, hidden inside his sleeves.

“Yes,” Louis said after a quick recovery, though he wiped his palms on his coat as they’d broken instantly into a sweat. “Early to leave, early to arrive.”

“Your next stop?” Father Prior chose not to draw attention to Louis’s obvious nervousness.

“Chasseradès.”

The friar nodded. There was a moment of silence between them.

“I am very sorry for what happened to Father Apollinaris,” Louis stated as he played with Modestine’s ears, to her delight.

“As are we all,” Father Prior began, “but, it is something that would have happened whether or not you slept under our roof. It is what it is. These hills are full of wolves. We must simply not allow ourselves to become complacent, as, perhaps, Father Apollinaris had.”

It is what it is. It dawned on Louis that he kept hearing this phrase, or some version of it.

He nodded, but could no longer look at Father Prior, so he returned to fastening his pack and making sure all the knots were secure.

There was little left to say except their goodbyes, which they did warmly. Father Prior opened the gate and Louis and his donkey left the relative safety of Our Lady of the Snows, continuing on their journey.

They again aligned themselves with the Allier river, backtracking into Gévaudan once more, and then forsaking the river’s direction to take an advised trail that blazed over a hill and across a long and comparably flat terrain. The wind had calmed to a pleasant breeze and the grey skies had born themselves miles away. It was, in fact, perhaps the most agreeable leg of the trek so far, and Louis found himself wishing for rain, for a strong wind to force him to fight to steady his pack, as he did on the way to Luc, anything to engage him away from the multitude of thoughts that invaded his weary brain.

His mind on the subject of the cloaked man and the werewolf—and the terrible carnage that unfolded from this still puzzling situation—fell upon itself in a circular fashion, getting absolutely nowhere. So he tried to return to his intended purpose—to take advantage of this wide-open space and meditate on his life and where he was going—and was disturbed to find that it took him more than a few seconds to form a picture of Fanny’s face. Granted, it didn’t take long, but long enough to concern him. Just a handful of days ago, Louis was positive the woman’s image was tattooed forever along the folds, and in the deepest recesses, of his brain.

He spent the rest of the walk occasionally goading Modestine, who would slow and stop to munch, and wondering whether he should be alarmed or thankful for this distraction from his Fanny troubles. On one hand, the situation that he would return to was such stunning chaos that, though he was reluctant to agree with his friends, he did not see a clear way out of the heartache, and secretly feared he was growing accustomed to the constant, throbbing pain it put him in. In this way, his fate was entirely in her hands, and it did not seem as if she felt particularly uncomfortable with this burden, if it was, indeed, a burden at all. On the other hand, the obvious way out of that mess seemed to be right here, but only not in the manner he might have envisioned. It was as if his dependence on Fanny was being secretly severed each time he found himself diverted. And he didn’t think that he liked it.

Quite suddenly, it occurred to Louis that perhaps Fanny’s husband, Sam, knew of their affair, and perhaps it was he—or one of his many unsavory cohorts whom Fanny had occasionally described—who followed him along this passage. Whomever it was, they knew him, knew he was a writer . . . but, alas, even Fanny would only know of this adventure through a letter that may yet have been delivered, much less Sam. No, it was unlikely, if not impossible, though the idea gave Louis a brief spate of comfort, if only to have an answer. Any answer. He pushed it away.

It was on this walk—the route from Our Lady of the Snows to the town of Chasseradès—that he had to admit to himself that he really hadn’t taken this journey to sort out his emotional affairs, or even to gather material for another travel book. These things were not absent, but they had been so low on his list of priorities that pretending to them had become cumbersome. No, Louis ventured off into the French mountains to wallow in self-pity and then throw his hardships into Fanny’s face as proof of his perpetual love, to show her to what lengths she had the power to send him. Now, with this sliver of emotional distance wedged between them, he wondered if, when he’d set forth on this adventure, he’d been in his right mind. In this moment of lucidity, he was beginning to have his doubts.

The longer the walk to Chasseradès, the more agitated and angry Louis became. Ultimately, he thought, the end question was what it was to be a man. Was it defying every last one of his friends and family to be with the woman he loved—to have made that life-altering decision and to have stuck with it? Or was it cleanly abandoning a love that was not equally and clearly returned? Louis feared to find an answer to that question, because, as things set, he felt capable of the former, but perhaps not the latter. It didn’t matter because neither felt easy.

Oh, why couldn’t she just write and say the divorce had been petitioned, and that they could be married?

Modestine snorted. They walked on.

Louis had managed to direct his attention from his immediate troubles back to his more existential troubles, to the extent that he found himself complacently returning to the internal pleas from his mindset in Monastier—begging Fanny to just say yes and solve all of these problems for him. Instead of falling limply over the precipice, he could claim he was pushed. Lo, the burden was still his to bear.

Finally, over a slight hill, the town of Chasseradès came into view, and the two travelers entered uneventfully with Louis as troubled as when he left the monastery, only for a different reason.

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Beast17

Out of patience, but to some degree pleasantly engaged, Louis was about to explain that Modestine, his irascible donkey, led him here, and if the men were game to argue the guidance of two asses then he’d be happy to stay up all night. But it was just then that a commotion sounded at the close-by gate. All three men were to their feet.

Au secours!” a haggard voice called from the gate.

Il été a attaqué!” another voice shouted.

Louis, the priest, and the soldier ran from the kitchen and joined a collection of monks, robes flying, all hurrying to the gate.

The night beyond the threshold of the monastery was as black as the blind eve Louis had spent beside the road to Cheylard. Lanterns were hastily lighted, and soon a glowing procession made its way to the wrought iron entry that stood between the blessed retreat and the fields. As they approached, the light revealed an unholy sight.

Two peasants struggled to carry what seemed to Louis but a large, unruly sack of entrails. The habit was clearly of their order, and once a brother had wiped the blood from the man’s face with the hem of his own robe, he was shown to be no other than poor Father Apollinaris.

Louis groaned, and the two laymen, who wept openly, handed the dying man off to his brethren. They gathered him silently and rushed him into the shelter of their sacred house. At first, they began to carry him to his private cell, but he cried out in such pain that they stopped and laid him on the cold, hard floor of the corridor, unsure of exactly what to do. Brother Porter cradled the father’s head in his lap. Father Prior had been called for immediately and he joined them now, assessing the situation. Louis, Father Carthage, Brother Roland, and one of the peasants stood nearby, hating to hear the man’s weeping, but wanting to be close in case they were needed. The second peasant had tearfully excused himself, stating that he could take no more than he had already seen, and afraid to make his way home alone, he waited amongst the three empty bowls in the kitchen.

Father Prior knelt beside Father Apollinaris, spreading his hands over the friar’s lacerated body, haltingly, as if searching for a place untorn to lay them. Not finding that place, he finally took the man’s dirty face in his hands, gently but firmly, and beseeched him.

“You must tell me what happened,” Father Prior said.

Father Apollinaris’s mouth gaped like an airborne fish for water; he brought one bloody hand up to touch Father Prior’s tear-streaked cheek, and then his shaking fingers fell to his own throat and he gasped.

“He cannot speak,” Father Prior announced quietly.

Louis heard the poor friar in his memory, I cannot speak! At this, he could no longer hold back and sobbed loudly at first, but then he turned from his companions, facing the wall. He fought desperately to erase this image from his memory and hold only that smiling, red-cheeked face, that builder of roads, who took so much pleasure in their conversation. Louis lamented that he would, indeed, not be able to search for this good man at the edge of the wood on his way out of the valley tomorrow, for the chance to let a few more fine words flow between them. Father Apollinaris cannot speak, would likely never speak again.

In the gloom of the hallway, the friar’s gurgles faded into unconsciousness, and a steady, but weak and belabored breath. Father Prior directed some brothers to move Father Apollinaris to the chapel. At this, some of the younger of the brothers wept, as it meant the savaged friar was not expected to live. Other brothers were instructed to fetch clean water and rags with which to gently cleanse their brother so that he may enter the kingdom of heaven as uncontaminated as was feasible.

As they lifted his limp, white body, he made no sound, and all that could be heard was the shuffling of the men’s’ sandals against floorboards.

Louis wiped his eyes and face with his sleeve.

“Let us return to the kitchen,” said Father Carthage. “There is nothing we can do.”

The peasant who had been in the kitchen jumped as the door opened and the men filed in. Once he saw who it was, he let his face fall back into his hands, his fingers tangled in a rosary, his lips moving quietly.

After they returned to the benches around the table, Brother Roland broke the sad silence.

“What are your names?”

Je m’appelle Pierrick,” the peasant who stood with them in the hallway said. He was bearded and filthy from his daytime toil; his eyes were dark, but honest. “Et il s’appelle Rémy.” He pointed to the praying man at the table. Heads nodded.

“Wolves?” This time Father Carthage spoke.

“Maybe,” answered Pierrick. “We found him on the monastery road. We sometimes cut through from his field to mine. We were later coming home tonight than usual. Mostly we see him at dusk and he waves. I did not expect to find him.”

“Why would he have been out there still in the dark?” Louis asked, angry.

“Perhaps time slipped from him,” said Rémy softly.

“Not likely,” Louis retorted. “He’s building a road. In the dark?”

“Then he may have been attacked before the sun went down,” Brother Roland said.

The thought of poor Father Apollinaris laying on his own road slowly bleeding to death made Louis’s heart ache.

“Well,” said Brother Roland as he stood. “Let us go and look.”

Quoi?” said Rémy. “Non, I go nowhere but home and only then with a party. Or I sleep here until daybreak.”

“Coward,” said Roland, his chest swelling with disgust. Rémy only glared at the old soldier.

Brother Roland looked at Father Carthage, who turned his eyes away and put up his hand.

“I am best employed in prayer, I’m afraid,” he said.

Roland snorted and then looked at Pierrick. “And so it is only the two of us,” Roland said.

Pierrick nodded.

“I am going,” said Louis, angry he’d been excluded.

Brother Roland shook his head.

“I cannot trust my back to a heretic,” he said coldly.

Louis thought he might lash out and strike the old man, but Pierrick spoke up.

“I don’t care how this man worships,” he said. “His eyes are as good as any, and the more on my back the better.”

“I am willing to bet,” Louis added, “that despite anyone’s little red ribbons, I am the only man here holding a pistol.”

Roland’s face turned crimson, and Father Carthage gasped. Louis insisted they remain until he returned with it, and with that, he dashed to his cell and retrieved the revolver from his knapsack.

“But there is another man,” Father Carthage insisted as Louis walked through the door and stood by it.

“Right,” said Roland. “I saw him in the afternoon, but I haven’t seen him since. And he hasn’t seen fit to dine with us. Perhaps he is already gone on his way.”

“Perhaps,” said Father Carthage and the matter of the extra man was dropped. Louis didn’t think much of it. Four men would be preferable, but he felt confident that, with three plus his pistol, they’d be safe enough.

“We have no other weapons,” Roland said.

“The father’s barrow and tools were nearby,” Pierrick said. “Obviously, it didn’t seem important at the time.”

“We will make our way . . .” Louis began, but Roland spoke loudly over him.

“Our unit will make its way to Father Apollinaris’s barrow and then inspect the area.”

Louis closed his mouth and resolved not to concern himself. In the end, the old soldier would arm himself with a stick, whereas Louis would be able to blast anything that growled in the shadows.

“Father,” Roland turned to Father Carthage. “Please inform Father Prior of our operation.”

All but Rémy stood and they left the kitchen. Each grabbed a lantern from the line that remained glowing just inside the door.

“My son,” Father Carthage addressed Louis. “It is not too late.”

For a moment, Louis couldn’t see what Carthage was getting at.

“Your sect,” the priest went on, “for I think you will admit I would be doing it too much honor to call it a religion, will not shield you from what is out there.”

Louis’s face burned.

“Where ever should my sect fail me, Father Carthage,” he spit, “The three of us shall be shielded by the God of steel.” He patted the revolver beneath his coat and Father Carthage crossed himself.

The three men let themselves out through the door and then paused at the gate to open it. As they did, the abbey bells rang out across the night, echoing their somber song over the hills and valleys of Vivarais. Father Apollinaris had died. The men stopped and bowed their heads, except for Louis, who looked up to the sky above the belfry, half-expecting to see the jolly white-clad friar ascending on a beam. The chimes changed from sad to joyous, as if welcoming the dawn of a new day, and in fact, he supposed they were, for one man, at least. After a moment, Louis could discern the distant song of what must have been the bells of a hundred surrounding holy houses, all joining their brothers in both their joy and sorrow. And, despite Brother Roland and Father Carthage, Louis’s esteem for the Catholic faith expanded a little more.

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Beast14

After the trials of the previous night, Cheylard seemed hardly worth the trouble. There was no particular street, but the structures were spread haphazardly over a slight space; piles of winter cordwood lay heaped in seemingly no certain arrangement. A smattering of crooked crosses skulked around a shrine to Our Lady of All Graces that held sway atop a low hill, all upon a drab river running through a sterile valley.

On a small and weatherworn church hung a banner reminding the townsfolk of the good they’d done in the last year—forty-eight francs collected, to be used for the Word of the Propagation of the Faith, or conversion. Louis—of a Protestant family and frequent visitor to Greyfriars, where the Scottish Covenanters signed their sacred Covenant and vowed to resist unholy Catholic oppression—felt as if he’d walked into a den of lions. Though not heartily attached to the faith of his father—as their still painful quarrel manifested—he supposed that his philosophy was much weaker than his heredity, for against all reason, he seemed to feel the fury of John Knox rise in his blood.

But the inn at Cheylard, and the Catholic family than ran it, proved, perhaps, to be the warmest he’d yet come upon. Again, the building was unassuming; the kitchen a good size, for it had to be, as it contained all the furniture of the large family—the beds, cradle, clothes, plate rack, meal-chest, and, of course, photograph of the parish priest. There were five children—a sixth on the way—and Louis predicted this industrious couple was only just beginning.

The tiny wood that Louis passed the night in belonged to this family, and upon hearing of his mistreatment at the hands of the man in Fouzilhac, it was suggested that he beckon the law against him, monster that he was.

“You could have died,” the good wife said, and upon her horror at Louis’s attempt to console himself over a pint of uncreamed milk, she insisted he let her boil it for him. “You’ll do yourself an evil.”

Louis’s boots and gaiters were placed by the fire to dry, and the landlady suggested apologetically that he make himself a hot bowl of chocolate, for she was presently besieged by the wrangling of her hefty brood and the departures of the previous night’s travelers, all as she maneuvered her own personal cargo around the kitchen. Seeing the busy woman so round in belly, Louis gladly took on his own caretaking. He made his chocolate and then retired to an out-of-the-way corner to set about making his notes upon his knee. Soon, the eldest daughter beckoned him to the fire and to his surprise and appreciation, she unhooked and let down a hinged table at which he could somewhat comfortably write. Somewhat, as the makeshift desk was located in the chimney corner, which put him almost closer to the flames than his drying boots. With each re-kindling handful of twigs, Louis’s legs smoldered, though this wasn’t entirely awful, particularly after the previous night’s discomforts. Soon, any small crook or wedge of Louis that remained even remotely damp was dry as a stick upon the flame.

Once he felt more like himself—the bundle the old man of Fouzilhic had given him contained a hearty meal of bread and fruit which helped the matter significantly—Louis took himself to a small bench in front of the inn to have a cigarette and reflect on recent events.

The legend of the beast has, as unlikely as it would have seemed, made itself a reality. Exactly what it is, he didn’t know. Wolf or man, he was willing to consider the possibilities, but he drew the line at that fanciful cryptic combination of man and wolf, baying at the moon and transforming from mild-mannered goat farmer to a vicious, baby-eating fiend when the luminous crescent grew full in the night sky. That a family could be evil, in the blood and to the bone, Louis could comprehend. That superstition could lead other families, in tragic circumstances, to carry on grudges for decades, again, Louis could understand. But the idea that there was one family of werewolves brazenly and consistently preying on their neighbors was too much. The wolves were real—he’d heard them and prayed they kept their distance.

And that cloaked figure, Louis was fairly certain, was also real.

Here he paused. Taking a final drag from the stub of his cigarette, he wondered, then extinguished the first butt and rolled another. Although he should be getting on, he was not finished with his thoughts, and he felt compelled to have come to some sort of conclusion before re-embarking on his journey.

Was the cloaked man real? When Louis first saw him before Bouchet, it was in the dark and at a distance. Could he have been the ragged line of a shrub? An invention of Louis’s haggard mind? Perhaps. But there was no mistaking the sighting outside Pradelles. Pradelles made his heart ache, astounded that he could become so attached to a creature he’d met so fleetingly, and yet have barely developed much more than a mutual toleration of the beast of burden with whom he traveled.

Louis inhaled hard from his cigarette. As if she heard his thought, he saw Modestine peek a nose and eye from behind the nearby stable wall, munching a golden breakfast of hay, then withdraw, chewing.

He supposed that wolf, man, or both, it didn’t matter. His journey was unfurling before him and it was not the flag he’d expected to follow. These were not the reflections he’d anticipated. And, in fact, at the realization that his plans had, in a way, been hijacked, Louis fumed. He was supposed to be figuring out and re-aligning his mess of a life! He was supposed to be experiencing and recording, making plans for a book that would further his literary career—and about what? “Superstitions with a Donkey in the French Highlands?”

He was supposed to be meditating on the perplexing nature of one Fanny Osbourne, stealing himself for the terrible news that would come to him via Alès, or fortifying his heart for the great joy he’d shamelessly indulge at the perfumed letter he’d receive rejoining him, come to America and I will be your wife! On his life, he was supposed to be sorting out if he was even fit to serve as husband, or if the institution of marriage was still too ferocious and fearsome an adventure for even Robert Louis Stevenson, experienced canoesman and driver of donkeys.

No closer to a conclusion regarding his situation thus far, Louis crushed the stub of his cigarette under his boot, gathered his things from the inn, and made his way to the stable.

The host of the inn was there with Modestine.

“This package should be changed,” he said. “Maybe divided. Then, you could carry even more.”

“But I do not need to carry more,” Louis answered. “And I cannot very well carve up my sleeping sack, or it ceases to be what it is and is of no use.” Louis could hardly disguise his annoyance at one more possible hitch, all of which, at this point, bordered on crisis in his mind.

“But it tires her,” the man said, and pointed to the donkey’s forelegs which were rubbed raw.

Louis set down his pack and softened to the plight of his companion. He was so distracted by everything else, this he failed to notice. He petted Modestine down her forehead and nose.

“She can be patched up?” he asked. The man nodded, and Louis nodded back.

After only ten minutes, the man had fixed up the traveler with a salve, and though the sack could not be cut in two, it was now adjusted so that it hung lengthwise over her back, like a massive green frankfurter. Louis purchased a new cord from the innkeeper and tied up his effects so that they would not spill onto the trail, and the weight of the thing was now equally and more easily balanced across the little donkey.

“See?” the man said. “It feels lighter to her.”

And Louis did feel better about it. As frustrating as she could be, his constant prodding with the goad, though better than the switch and more effective than the staff, still pained him somewhat, for he didn’t like to be cruel. If even against every other catastrophe, this one load was lightened a little, and if he should find himself in the position to sleep again, he might a little more soundly.

With that, they were once more on the trail. This time, on to the town of Luc.

The way was harsh and the wind strapping enough to force Louis to keep a hold of the pack upon Modestine’s back, stopping it from launching itself and everything he had into the gale. The terrain was a veritable wasteland, worse than the most barren of the Scottish Highlands, of which Louis could attest. All that broke the monotony was the road and an occasional fence. Other than that, standing stones placed at intervals marked the way in winter when all around must be an intolerable wilderness of blinding white. But there were no wolves, nor were there friendly foals to lose so violently. And, most liberating, there was no cloaked man. Despite being unsure of his existence, the idea of the mysterious follower buzzed in Louis’s brain like a mosquito at which he occasionally slapped.

However exhausting it was to work relentlessly at his pack, in the face of the wearisome tedium of the landscape, the physical distraction was welcome. It kept his mind busy and away from anything too harmful, whether that be some mysterious figure or the well-formed figure of Fanny, and for that he was thankful.

Finally, to town. Luc was like a twin to Cheylard, a jumble of houses, a ramshackle church, and, of course, the inn. Louis half-expected to enter and find that same Catholic family, with their five-and-a-half children, and their bowls of hot chocolate. But this was Luc, made apparent by the ruinous castle of the same name. The seat of the family Luc, it was built upon an ancient Celtic site in the 12th century. It served many roles over time and was then was ordered destroyed by Richelieu in 1630. At the inn, Louis learned, at length, that the locals had, as recently as October of this year, refurbished the castle’s keep, transforming it into a chapel, and peaked with a massive, shining-white statue of Our Lady, whom, the villagers bragged, weighed fifty quintals.

The inn was much larger than the previous one—the kitchen contained two box-beds with spotless checked curtains hiding their bunks; a broad, stone chimney, whose mantel measured four yards and held aloft a number of lanterns and an interesting selection of religious figurines made of painted plaster; a collection of chests; and two clocks that tick-tocked loudly and occasionally in unison. The landlady moved about the place silently, a dark-looking old woman clad all in black like that of a habit.

There was also a communal bedroom that held three box-beds along the wall, curtained similarly to those in the kitchen. The center of the room was occupied by a long wooden table and accompanying benches. The furniture convened gloomily, waiting for the happy harvest feast, or perhaps the victory banquet of a band of Vikings, newly returned from a fruitful season of pillage and plunder.

With Modestine comfortably lodged in the inn’s stable, her injuries again salved and already healing, Louis spilled himself into one of the bed bunks following an adequate dinner of fish, bread, and wine. Finding it to be padded with straw, and following such a grueling day regarding his pack, he felt more like his little donkey than ever. He fell swiftly to sleep, waking only once during the dark night, and then only to find himself shivering without a blanket. He arranged his sleeping sack within the bunk awkwardly, crawled back inside, and slept the sleep of a warm infant nestled betwixt a pair of faithful parents.

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Beast11

Pradelles, Langogne, Sagnerousse,

Fouzilhic/Fouzilhac, Cheylard, Luc,

Our Lady of the Snows

“You know nothing of men if you don’t know how they can be beasts,” Fanny said as she made tea. The apartment at Grez was small and he could hear her clearly though she was around the corner. Louis blinked his eyes slowly. The bed in which he lay was curtained off in an alcove, though the drapes were open and he wished them closed. The sun was too bright. “Nevada is where I learned to shoot, in a mining camp. My husband left me there and I learned to shoot. Because men are beasts. They are like wolves.”

            Louis could not respond. He was exhausted and too many words could potentially trigger another coughing fit, which at this point, was too agonizing to risk. And his father had taught him to not argue with the fairer sex, thought he didn’t want to argue. He wanted only to say that a man that is a beast is no man, but merely, always, only a beast.

He wanted, also, to beg her, again, to refrain from reminding him of her husband. And that he was hot, and could she please uncover his legs?

*

Louis had risen in the dark in order to do his washing up well before his fellow travelers awoke, so that the wife could perform her own morning rituals in as much privacy and leisure as the situation allowed. He fortified himself with a bowl of milk and then set off to explore the environs of Bouchet.

There was really little to it: the inn, a loose grouping of familial houses, and a narrow stone church that seemed to grow upwards rather than at all out. Unlike the heat that exacerbated his agony the day before, this dawn was wintery and grey; the clammy mist, carried swiftly by a glacial wind, sped across the streets and fields, pushing the early-rising shepherds and their flocks to their business.

Louis trotted from one point to another with his hands thrust into his pockets. The laborers stared at him—they were the same people he’d walked into town with the previous evening. Life here seemed less complicated than anything Louis had encountered, and the inspiration to stay and live out his productive years here came and went like the wind that tore at his hair. The local faces were ruddy and tough, like their hands. While Louis was in the middle of a spate of good health, he knew by experience that it would hardly last, and that a life in the field would kill him faster than any wolf in the wood.

When he returned to the inn, the hostess was up and about the kitchen and the young herdess prepared herself to take their cattle out to pasture, seemingly having gotten over last night’s trauma and no longer believing she was now the property of this strange, thin foreigner. She ignored Louis, probably angry at him for having fooled her. Her mother set a plate of hard fish and omelet—breakfast being the same as dinner in these parts—and Louis sat down for as proper a meal as could be expected.

“And where is monsieur this morning?” he asked, taming his moustache with the side of his fork.

“The master of the house is upstairs,” she said. “Making you a goad.”

The donkey goad, it seemed to Louis, was one of such incredible and useful inventions that he could not understand how he hadn’t heard of it, despite his absolute remoteness from the donkey race prior to this trip. A more simple design could not exist—a wand of local wood tipped with a metal pin about an eighth of an inch in length.

When his host emerged from the stable and put it in Louis’s hand, it transformed itself into a holy crosier, and himself an honorable prelate, ready to lead Modestine along the righteous path. Or, at least, he will poke the beast into submission until they arrive at day’s end.

Louis gathered his pack and possessions while the family with whom he’d bunked made their way downstairs and to their own repast. Before they departed, his wife and son atop a slightly sway-backed mare, Benoît handed his wife the reigns and sat with Louis for a moment on the bench beside the door. The wind still swept over every worn façade in the village, so the man’s words were likely inaudible to all but Louis, who leaned in to hear.

“You are heading south?” Benoît asked.

“I am,” Louis replied. “I intend to next camp near Cheylard l’Évêque.”

“You will do what you want, and as I said last night, I am not a superstitious man, but . . .” He glanced back at his wife, who merely gazed off in the direction of their journey, her handless arm wrapped around the belly of her son, the fingers of her remaining hand wrapped around the strip of leather. They were sinewy and strong.

“Stop at Pradelles, but do not stop at Langogne,” Benoît went on. He described the region as being downright infested with the feared family of legend and warned Louis against stopping most anywhere, particularly as he approaches his destination. There would be a handful of communes that were hardly big enough to be called anything but the shared space of a few families. He mentioned two in particular, the names of which were similar, almost twins, to be exceptionally wary of. And with that, he was gone. Louis watched the family become smaller as they made their way down the main thoroughfare and eventually veered off on one of many cattle trails that led away from Le Bouchet St. Nicolas. By the time they were gone, he had already forgotten most of what Benoît had said.

* * *

Louis made his goodbyes to his hosts and neatly hurried Modestine out of the stable and down the street, prod by prod.

The entire walk to Pradelles was lonely save the occasional convoy of women on horses and two post-runners. Louis thought he might fall asleep mid-stride, but was soon distracted by the tinkling of a bell. He looked about himself to discern the sound and beheld what but a fine looking, spindly-legged foal, the bell strung around his neck. He’d charged up from the bordering field, stopped near the traveling pair, and sniffed the air, buoyant with self-confidence. Modestine snorted without interest and Louis could only look on, smiling. The foal’s assertive manner melted sweetly into the universal timidity of a child, and the boy turned and ran back from where he’d come. Louis laughed and poked Modestine’s rump as she’d thought to slow and dine at the side of the road.

“Not until Pradelles, woman,” he said to her, still smiling. And for some time following, he would hear the bell and see, a little in the distance, the head of the foal prick up over whatever brush or hill lay between them.

Above the river Allier, surrounded by meadows, Pradelles perched along a hillside. The smell of hay permeated the air as laborers worked to slash the grass that had sprung up after the last harvest. Telegraph wires spread like a web from the distant buildings of the town, towards and past Louis, down the road on which they walked. On the opposite bank of the Allier, the terrain lifted skyward, up and up, layering over itself to the horizon. The peaks and valleys traded cyclically shade for sun, deep shadows of purple mist and low-glowing golden outcrops of stone and brush. It struck Louis, in all its sublimity, both beautiful and full of sadness, as these visions often do. There was, though, a particular stabbing point to this melancholy that needled him like the goad to the donkey, and it took him several steps to place it.

The most immediate landscape—what could be seen with the eye from the edge of the town—was completely, and deliberately, deforested. What should have leant a natural mystery to the scene was nothing more than a field of stumps and hacked verdure. Nothing was left to the imagination, and instead of the thrill of what unknown things the forest keeps, there was left only the bare and ragged eeriness of a land blighted.

Wolves.

A chill zipped up Louis’s spine like the crack of a pistol. Again, like the difference between listening to the rambling of drunken locals and witnessing the tragic deformity of a young woman, seeing the physical consequence of the fear of an entire population—the magnitude of the resulting act—brought with it a better sense of dread. Modestine stopped abruptly and sniffed the air, as if they’d both concluded the same at the very same moment, and Louis didn’t prod her with the goad. He let her process the feeling as he did.

Quite suddenly, Louis saw a figure striding a little ways up the road, just before the final rise. The skirt of his cloak danced about his ankles; surely, this was the figure Louis had spotted in the shadowy valley before Bouchet. But how did he manage to get ahead, or, if he was always ahead, how did Louis not see him until now? And with that, the figure was gone over the low crest.

There was a tinkling of the foal’s bell, and Louis looked up gratefully to see the boy looking back at them. Then, with a flourish, he kicked his hooves, knocking his round knees, and trotted off over the last hill between them and the town of Pradelles.

Louis tapped Modestine with the side of the goad, not wanting to shake her so violently and perhaps prematurely from the roadside reverie, and to his surprise, she took up the expected pace without argument. These little things adorned the day like jewels—the cooperation of a reluctant companion; the wide-eyed, youthful enthusiasm of a joyful stranger, whether on two legs or four. Louis thought that, with these two things, he could lay his head down this night and still grin.

The final low crest that stood between him and a hearty lunch was a little distance—the foal had disappeared over it much faster than he and Modestine would, but indeed they would get there.

“We’re coming!” he half-shouted to the foal, who was too far to hear and too equestrian to understand. The pair continued toward the town.

The wind with which he’d begun the day at Bouchet had never let up, and the lifeless cold followed throughout the morning. Louis pulled the collar of his coat closed around his throat and made a note to unpack his fur hat after lunch when he heard a cry from just over the hill he was fast approaching.

His first instinct was to run towards it, to see if he could be of assistance. He picked up his pace a little and goaded Modestine enough to convey the urgency, and a minute or two earlier than they would have, they crested the low ridge and saw immediately a loose gathering of laborers slowly pulling together to form a knot around something on the ground. Louis let go of Modestine’s reins and she drifted slowly off to the side of the road to take up some weeds there. He ran to the group, both from curiosity and a genuine desire to help.

As he approached, he could make out some of the panicked chatter that ricocheted between them.

“But how?”

“Still warm.”

“No one saw?”

“Still fresh.”

“Is he yours?”

“Not mine. Down the way.”

“Who will tell him?”

“Not me.”

Louis pushed through the crowd as politely as he could and finally broke through to the center, which he immediately regretted.

His poor foal lay slaughtered in the yet-cut grass. His throat was savaged, his guts lay strewn, and his eyes had not yet glazed over. So recent was this attack, the blood still trickled wet a little ways from the carcass. The twine that held aloft the bell that announced the boy from the fields was embedded in the gaping wound of his neck; the bell was gone.

“How could it be so?”

“How did no one see?”

It didn’t make sense. The forest edge, that used to lie so close, was, through the work of the men of the village, now some distance off. The wolf would have had to lope across the long, bare terrain in order to make this kill.

“He is either too fast, or we are too blind,” someone said, and Louis pushed himself backwards through the group, his chin trembling. The pitiable thing had been his lively companion all morning, and now he was dead. Louis said nothing to anyone, turned, and sniffling, walked back to Modestine.

At once, he recalled the cloaked figure and very nearly injured himself, so violently he looked about the landscape. But there was no one of that description to be found, only an empty, wasted wood and fields nearly ready for winter.

A few prods and they were making their way to Pradelles, where Louis ate a light lunch, and only then because he knew he needed to in order to make decent time. He made notes for his writing hurriedly, but was back on the trail with Modestine within three-quarters of an hour, winding their steep descent along the Allier, towards Langogne.

Past field upon field, past laborers solitary and in pairs, past teams of oxen ploughing the rich soil. The wind carried alternating scents of dry straw and wet earth, the fact of which would have normally delighted Louis’s senses, but now, today, could not lift even an agreeable thought in his head. One of an ox team, his large ponderous head set firm to the yoke, turned his dark and faithful eyes towards the pair, with a look that alone from the surrounding world conveyed a message of commiseration. As if the beast knew the departed and wanted to, at least, join hearts in grief. Louis refrained from walking off into the field and embracing the enormous coffee-colored ox and merely nodded to it and continued along his way.

The highlands of Gévaudan towered before him, frowned down upon him, and for a moment, he’d almost forgotten why he was here at all. He saw Fanny’s features, but it only provoked more sorrow. He saw Colvin’s image, his friend and editor, but he feared the words he’d eventually have to write would never come. He saw the faces of his parents and they wept for him. And though his mind wasn’t in the disposition for a true and thorough contemplation, his soul began to acknowledge that he could not be out here for any other reason than to search for something larger than these small troubles that tormented him. These quandaries that, in the comfort of his own bed in Edinburgh, or even in Paris, seemed all that there was to everything, out here, with the wind tearing at his eyes and ears, with the smell of the blood of that innocent in his nose, seemed the dilemmas of someone else. As painful as this discovery was, he hoped that when he was back in more comfortable climes, he would be able to call it up, but knew that he was easily piqued and would likely fall indulgently back into another storm of self-pity and worry. And with that knowledge, he sunk deeper into despair.

Two rivers he’d have crossed in two days—the Loire and now the Allier. At the bridge coming into Langogne, the rain that had threatened them all day began to fall. A young girl of about eight stopped before the bridge as she was about to run past him and stared for a few moments before addressing him.

D’où’st-se-que vous venez?” she asked, for he must have looked strange.

“I do not know,” he answered, because, at the moment, he really wasn’t sure where he had come from, nor if he was equipped for where he was going.

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Beast10

The inn at le Bouchet St. Nicolas was two stories of irregular red brick joined by a copious amount of grey mortar. Its roof was of the same orange clay tile as in Monastier; a weathered bench stretched along the wall beside the door. The stable and the kitchen shared opposite ends of the same space; the floors were of the earth. The furniture was perhaps the plainest Louis had ever sat upon. There was one sleeping chamber for travelers and it held two beds and nothing more.

Louis took his meal—here, of hard fish and an omelet—at a solid, scoured table. The place setting was a glass, a slice of bread, and a fork. To cut, Louis used his jack knife, which the host much admired.

“This must have cost you,” the man said, “no less than five francs.”

“No less than twenty,” Louis confided. The man’s eyes grew wide.

Louis offered him some brandy, but the host refused.

Merci, but I am too inclined. I will leave nothing for you.”

As Louis stabbed a bit of dinner with the knife and prepared to lift it to his mouth, something rubbed against his leg beneath the table. He leaned at an angle to see a fat sow routing about his feet, and when he saw that this was, apparently, no unusual activity, he declined to mention it.

The man, while friendly, seemed not particularly bright, though the wife could read and spoke with a sharp tongue, indicating that there was but one sovereign here.

“He knows nothing,” she referred to her husband as she entered the room, as if the conversation between host and traveler could only be of one breed—to obtain information—and to ask her husband would benefit no one.

The man shrugged and nodded. In another household, amongst other people, this display might have seemed ugly, but the tone in the room was one of familiarity and acknowledgement. Louis’s hostess was the brains of the operation, his host the brawn, and both seemed perfectly comfortable in the situation.

Over the course of his meal, the woman asked about his travels and why, which he explained as best he could. That anyone would wander many miles for no reason other than to write it down seemed strange to the couple, but they enjoyed Louis’s tales of misfortune thus far and Modestine, whose chewing he could hear in accompaniment to his own, their quarters were so close, punctuated his story with the occasional stomp of her hoof.

They had been joined by one of the couple’s daughters, a young herder, and the mother patiently pulled a comb through the girl’s long golden hair, untangling the knots of the day. When she complained of the roughness, the mother tsked her.

“You are lucky,” the father said. Apparently, the girl was not yet the best herdswoman, and a few head of cattle had been misplaced and required wrangling earlier in the day. “Some knots in your hair are the least of your troubles,” the man winked at Louis. “For I’ve sold you to this gentlemen.”

Louis saw the man’s game and joined him eagerly. Nothing blotted out real-life hassles than engaging in boyish behavior, and a good joke fell squarely into that realm of being.

“Yes,” he responded. “I paid ten halfpence; it was a little dear, but . . .”

“But,” the man finished. “Monsieur was willing to make a sacrifice. You will leave with him on his journey in the morning.”

Louis winked at the girl, who had been eying him suspiciously, but when her father said she’d be leaving with him, her doubt vanished. She stood without a word and walked into the stable area. Modestine acknowledged her with a snort. Soon, her sobs floated over the straw and into the warmth of the kitchen. Louis’s smile drooped with his mustache. The wife slapped her husband on the arm and left to console her daughter. The man shook his head.

“Tomorrow,” said the man, “I will fashion you something better than that switch.”

Louis’s only remotely effective tool in moving Modestine was beginning to fray and proved less successful than it began. He expressed his gratitude and guiltily slipped upstairs to the sleeping quarters.

Though happy to see he had a bed to himself, he was dismayed to find a man, woman, and child, crawling into the other. Louis had never been in the position to have to share sleeping arrangements with anyone other than his cousins in childhood, let alone a man and his barely-clad wife.

Pardon,” he said hardly above a whisper. He slinked to his bed, his back to them, and sat there stiffly for a few minutes.

The man was not yet in bed and still undressing.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“I’ve just come from le Monastier-sur-Gazeille,” Louis answered quietly.

“But you are not from there.”

Non, I am Scots.”

There was no answer. Louis rightly assumed the man was nodding an acknowledgement and began to relax a little.

“I must apologize again for intruding,” Louis began, and then it came to him to make a peace offering. He reached into his knapsack and produced the bottle of brandy.

“There is nothing to apologize for,” the man said. “These places are what they are.”

But Louis was already twisting around from his bed and lofting the bottle toward the man.

“For your troubles,” he began, but try as he might to keep his eyes on the man—to be the gentleman he was—they ultimately fell to the man’s wife, who lay in the opposite bed, her face to the wall and her small son at her back. He couldn’t tell if she slept naked or wore a slip, but the arm that rested languidly over her shapely hip was bare. Though the wayward glance must have only lasted a fraction of a second, the scene had imprinted itself behind Louis’s eyes and his face became warm, for many reasons.

Her shoulder was pale and without blemish, a smooth curve from her neck, and it ran into an arm that, even while resting, denoted a graceful strength to the elbow. But there the beauty ended, as beyond the joint, the flesh distorted and seemed to pull at itself. It was a rough topography of scars, dark in the valleys and a pale pink across the ridges, the border of which was the wrist, for there was nothing after.

Louis’s embarrassment was replaced instantly with shocking revulsion and he struggled to hide it from the poor woman’s husband. Still reaching the brandy bottle toward the man, Louis made eye contact. Where he expected to find anger, he instead found a deep melancholy. The man took the bottle, drank from it, then wiped the rim and handed it back to Louis.

“Where are you traveling from?” Louis asked, attempting to diffuse the moment.

“I am from Alès,” the man said. “We are coming from there. I am a cooper and there is a dearth of work. We are heading to St Etienne to see if our situation can be improved.” He went on to explain that when he wasn’t making barrels, he was making matches—a dangerous occupation, as working with the white phosphorous used to produce them led to “phossy jaw,” a necrosis of that part of the anatomy.

“With one of us already injured,” he continued, “it would be wise to avoid us both being debilitated.”

The man moved to Louis’s side of the room and sat down beside him on the bed. They passed the bottle back and forth, taking tiny sips. Neither wanted to be drunk, but the motion between them facilitated a comradery that denoted some sense of sympathy.

“My name is Benoît. Aurélie comes from Langogne,” he said, low. In the following pause, the two men could hear the wife’s breathing, deep and steady—the sound of slumber. “As a girl, while herding her family’s cattle, she was attacked. A wolf.”

Louis’s reaction was one that he had not expected. True ambivalence—on one hand, if he’d heard another word of wolves he felt he might thrash someone, and on the other, with the image of the poor woman’s pink stump stamped into his brain, his blood tingled cold.

“The locals, all through this region, talk of monsters,” Benoît went on, but shook his head. “The stories are the basis of family feuds, of bad politics, but mostly, I think, of instilling fear in the children. In my wife’s case, her family swears against another family. And she . . .” He looked over at her for a moment, his eyes heavy with grief. “She was only one of many, over many, many years.”

Louis gently insisted he go on, now curious.

The family of Aurélie had lost a number of members, mostly as children, though the occasional grown woman might also be taken. Though she had two aunts, she should have had four. Though she’d had a sister, she now had none. And so on, back generations. There were quiet but constant rumors that when Jean Chastel had slayed the second Beast of Gévaudan the killings did not cease; only the story changed.

That the killing of the first beast didn’t stop the attacks fell upon the King as an embarrassment, for it was his man who had done the job. And when it was a local huntsman that killed the second, that the attacks continued turned the humiliation of the small town politicians a degree even greater than that of the king, and all further attacks were hushed. Bullying tactics and threats were used to keep villagers silent when their loved ones were bloodied and eaten in the fields and forests; they gathered up what they could of their dead, buried them, and proceeded to sink, generation after generation, into a miserable complacent certainty that the people of their region were indeed cursed. God had abandoned Gévaudan.

“You said there was a feud,” Louis, now fascinated, prodded lightly.

Oui,” Benoît continued. “Although my wife is like her family—and it is hard to find fault in that—I have never believed the stories. I cannot recall the name of the family, but they are spread out all over the land, from Le Puy to Alès, and in every village they inhabit—they say—there are attacks and death.”

There was silence between them. Everything that could be said on the subject had clearly been said and both men felt the weight of sleep pressing upon them.

Benoît handed Louis back his bottle of brandy, hardly emptied, and shook his hand.

“You are kind,” he said. “We should turn in.”

“Agreed,” Louis replied. “Long journeys for all of us.”

Benoît nodded, finished undressing, and joined his unfortunate wife and innocent son in their own bed.

When Louis had first entered the sleeping chamber and saw the family he was joining, he expected to spend the whole of the night in dark contemplation. What was Fanny’s situation? Where was she sleeping tonight—her own bed, or her matrimonial bed? That her husband himself lived openly with his own mistress made no difference. The idea that, upon their foolish attempts to make their abortion of a marriage appear legitimate, Fanny’s husband might still insist she perform her wifely duties was like a knife through the heart of the young Scot. He expected to spend this night willfully distinguishing his breath from the breath of the couple beside him, if only to keep from feeling like a third wheel and a fool.

Instead, the small sounds of the couple retreated behind a veil of secrets and legends, of sharp white teeth and ragged grey fur, of blood and bones. It was one thing to tolerate the warnings of a handful of superstitious villagers—to charitably entertain the ravings of a parish peddler—and quite another to actually see the terrible evidence. Granted, it was proof of nothing otherworldly—only the poignant fact of civilization and wilderness co-existing too closely side by side. But somehow this new and awful presentation of the legend of Gévaudan transformed the story from a silly irritation to a living example of the romantic lore that grew amongst these fir-covered mountains like a silver moss over its stones.

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Beast9

As Louis considered Modestine and wondered if, indeed, donkeys could smile, a man, woman, and two children had gathered around him in a semi-circle and joined the beast. It was then that Louis fully realized how hot it was. The high southern French sun beat down upon his shoulders like he’d beaten Modestine, and if he wasn’t already in such a state of castigation, he’d have welcomed it as punishment for so mistreating the donkey.

Louis worked to right his pack, sweat burning his eyes and the laughs of this family from Ussel needling his ears, and once he finally arranged it in a position so as to tighten the straps, it fell over the other side and resumed its place under the donkey.

No one offered to assist.

“Perhaps,” suggested the man from Ussel, “your pack should be of a different contour.”

Tais-toi!” Louis snapped. The man smiled and shut up, per instructions.

Ignoring his audience—which he seemed to attract at all stops—he rearranged his pack to take on the burden of some of it, and, much to his abhorrence, alter the shape of the sack to better fit the animal. He removed a cane, the milk flask, the weighted pilot coat, two pounds of black bread (Modestine’s supper), and the open basket of meats and wine. As he devised his own pack and hefted it upon himself, the courageous aspect of his fortitude allowed him some satisfaction. He’d meant to rough it. He’d meant to, in some way, chastise himself for . . . something. For his own weaknesses, for the weakness and moral failures of those around him, for Fanny’s rejection, for something and everything, and this seemed like a good place to start.

And it could only get worse.

As they made their way through Ussel, Modestine insisted on inquiring at every door they passed and Louis, now struggling with his own yoke, was powerless to stop her. As they passed a church in the course of repair, the examining priest and fellow onlookers forgot the Sabbath and offered up a mirthful chorus. Louis imagined his own amusement at the misfortune of others—his natural inclination to schadenfreude—added up over the course of his life had probably amounted to what he received in turn this afternoon, and he imagined, certainly, that he would never laugh again. At anything. Ever.

Leaving the town, Modestine decided to continue their journey on some useless by-road, and Louis decided that it was better to take a break than break down crying. He unpacked a little black bread and gave it to his companion, leaving her to wander to wherever she might roam (which wasn’t far), then he sat down beside the path, rolled a cigarette and quelled himself with a nip of brandy. Passers-by still wound around them, observing and snickering, but Louis was able to ignore them until one man took a chance to instigate trouble.

“Look how tired she is,” he cried, “the poor beast!”

At that, Louis hurled himself at the man and screamed until his face, already red from the sun, grew redder.

“If your donkey can carry more than this measly load,” he gestured at Modestine’s pack as she chewed lazily, “I suggest you keep your observations to yourself! Unless, I say, you would like to help me carry my basket!”

To Louis’s surprise, the allegiance of the people of Ussel had shifted and they laughed at the man, whose turn it was to grow red. A few clapped.

Elle est petite . . .” he mumbled weakly.

Tais-toi!” Louis retorted, evidently his signature phrase of the day.

Slowly, seeing that the winds had changed and this foreigner was clearly finished being toyed with, the crowd dispersed to go about their daily routines. Louis, reinvigorated, set to action. Sacrifices must be made. After downing half, he set aside his flask of milk, his white bread and mutton leg, and finally his egg-whisk, although he suspected Henley’s wife might never forgive him, and he lamented the future absence of his newly-acquired love of egg-and-brandy nog which he enjoyed with his morning coffee. These things he discarded and he readjusted the basket. After applying a cord to it, he slung it over one shoulder and then draped the coat, which trailed almost to the ground, over the top. Now, his load lightened and one arm free, he turned his attention to Modestine who finished her snack and looked at her abuser.

Renewed, Louis set to tapping out a harsh tune on the flanks of the donkey, who finally gave up her indignant refusal to cooperate. Her little hooves scissored back and forth to produce a speed of motion though not as fast as Louis would prefer, certainly miles above their earlier progress. They worked this way until they came upon what seemed to be the last escarpment that would ascend to his final destination. To his misery, it was intersected with seemingly a thousand by-roads so as to form one massive rocky labyrinth with no indication as to which one to take.

Modestine let out a bray of laughter to which Louis responded with his trademarked, “Tais-toi!

Thwack went the switch and as Modestine scurried forward, the straps on the pack let loose like a noodle and Louis’s things made a trail down the path. The sun was already descending and after the half-hour it took for Louis to gather and repack his things, it was coming on dusk. Flustered, he picked a path, and prodded Modestine to follow it. Before long, just when he felt surely he would at length fall into the fit of weeping he’d been warding off all day, two figures strode toward him over the gravel.

The man was tall and dismal, staring blindly ahead and followed by a small older woman. She wore what looked like her Sabbath best, layers of pressed petticoats and an embroidered ribbon decorating a pristine felt hat. From behind this pretty frame, she muttered a vast inventory of profanity that, on the streets of New Town, would have made Louis blush.

Louis hailed the man.

Pardon, do you know the way to Bouchet?”

The man pointed west and northwest, mumbled something inaudible, and stalked past. The woman tacked behind him, still swearing, without so much as a cursory acknowledgment of Louis. Modestine snorted.

He watched them incredulously as they sped along the hillside, and realizing his one chance of reaching any restful place this night was disappearing into the twilight, he shouted after them. Then he ran. They finally stopped once he’d outrun them and, blocking their way, he asked again his direction.

The man, presumably the son, again mumbled uselessly and made to continue, but Louis caught the woman, presumably the mother—who had still not stopped swearing to herself—by the shoulder.

Désolé, excusez-moi,” Louis began. “I simply cannot let you go until you’ve pointed me my way, or I am forever lost.”

“You can follow us the whole damned way, should you like,” the woman answered.

Merci,” Louis said, doubtfully.

“What the hell do you want at Lac du Bouchet?”

Louis didn’t know what to make of this woman’s language and so dodged the inquiry.

“Is it very far?”

“About a bloody hour and a half,” she answered, and with that, the pair turned and continued on their way as if they’d never been stopped.

Louis called to Modestine, who ignored him, and then he ran back to beat her forward.

Twenty minutes put them on the flat upland and Louis paused a moment to look back upon the hills and valleys of the day. Mount Mézenc and that beyond St. Julien stretched behind him, a field of shadow broken only by the light patches of farms and villages that blushed beneath the anonymity of evening. Instead of satisfaction, Louis felt the sting of loneliness and gripped Modestine’s bridle tighter so as to not be tempted to throw himself down the rocky slope in despair.

Then, in the gloom, a silhouette moved far down the ragged path he’d just scaled. Louis squinted, and could make out a cloaked man standing there. His face was masked by the shade of his hood, though he was too distant for Louis to distinguish features at any rate. As Louis made a few steps forward, the cloaked figure moved with him. Perplexed, Louis saw that he was fast losing his guides, and so, cloaked figure or no cloaked figure, he simply must move on so as not to become hopelessly lost in the dark. Resolving to think no more of it, Louis pulled Modestine to follow, and tripped twice before finding the rhythm of his stride along the path again.

He caught up and the group moved along a high road when Louis eventually recognized signs of a village coming into view, which surprised him as he had been told the lake was unoccupied. Soon, he found himself caught amongst the bustling closing of the day—cattle lurched down the road from pasture, driven by children; women dashed past on horses, legs astride and wearing caps.

Louis stopped a dirty-faced, black-haired boy.

Pardon,” he said. “What village is this?”

“Bouchet St. Nicolas,” the child said and moved ahead to rustle his small herd.

Louis stopped abruptly and Modestine followed suit with no questions asked. His shoulders slumped; his chin met his chest which tightened in the grasp of disappointment. The two strange peasants had led him exactly a mile south of the lake. Ahead, the couple had blended with the assembly and would disappear from Louis’s life. The cord of his basket scored painfully into his shoulder and his whipping arm ached heavily at his side. With a sigh, he feebly stopped another child.

“Which way to the inn?”

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Modestine moved at a steady speed, but her gait being so narrow, that pace was slower than a walk is slower than a run. Louis matched her stride until they breached the ridge and found themselves out of sight of the village, when Louis found the small courage to take his walking staff and apply it docilely to the donkey’s flank. She tripped three steps faster, then returned to her molasses stride. Louis tried a second time, and then a third, with similar affect. Modestine presented to him her shaking knees and her huffing breath, so that Louis’s face burned with shame and he tried to resign himself to the idea that his journey may take several weeks longer than anticipated.

They plodded along the trail, Modestine at her leisure and Louis growing increasingly frustrated that they would not make his first scheduled destination; he’d intended to camp out on the shores of Lac du Bouchet, a reputedly uninhabited circular crater lake surrounded by forests. He attempted to cheer himself by remarking to Modestine the beautiful weather they were enjoying, and then he lifted his spirits with a series of cigarettes, which, once started, could not be easily stopped with the sluggish monotony of the pace.

Louis set one hand on Modestine’s side, who seemed not to notice him, and he closed his eyes as he kept step beside her. He thought only to rest his vision. A moment to see something else besides every single patch of scrub, every single pebble, every darting rabbit, in such detail one’s head could burst. As his feet moved with the donkey, he imagined a cool night under the stars, testing the warmth of his new sleeping sack, listening to the sounds of the lake take over after Modestine had finished her bread chewing and gone off to donkey dream land. The night owls overhead roosting in tall pines whose sharp needle scent moved silently over the still water. To make out the line of trees and its twin on the lake, set against an inky sky specked with the light of distant stars. Louis stood at the edge of the lake, the fringe of trees highlighted silver from a gibbous moon, and bent to take up a stone and lob it far into the water. It arced high and Louis lost it amongst the stars, until it plopped and sank into the mysterious mere.

As it did, Louis barely saved himself from eating the trail in front of him as Modestine walked him straight over a low outcropping of rock. The near-fall startled him enough to stop the donkey and collect himself, vaguely aware that he was being laughed at.

A tall man of perhaps forty, wearing an emerald country tailcoat and a look of incongruity, walked toward them from the opposite direction and apparently saw everything.

“She is old, eh?” The man paused his brisk walk to ask.

“Not very, I don’t think,” Louis replied, trying hard to be polite but unable to not be offended.

“Ah, then you have traveled far,” the man continued.

“We have just left Monastier,” Louis sighed. And the man laughed again.

Mon ami,” the man began, “You must have no pity on these animals.” With that, he waded into a nearby thicket, returned with an ugly-looking switch, and proceeded to lash Modestine with the ridiculous cry of proot! Before Louis could protest, the little donkey’s ears stood and she began running full force, up and over the nearby hill, back the way the tall man had come. Louis trotted over the ridge to see the man standing there watching Modestine continue to run down the trail. He was smiling satisfactorily to himself.

Merci!” Louis cried, and as he ran past the man, he was handed the switch.

“Proot! Proot!” the man called after him and laughed.

When Louis caught up with Modestine, she was grazing on some brush beside the trail. He expected to find her half-dead, but indeed she was not. Her breathing was hardly labored and her look was as if she’d been caught in a terrible lie.

“You,” he said, pointing at her. “You.” He stopped and walked around her, gaping in disbelief, as if only by examining her from all angles would he discover, beyond doubt, the depths of her duplicity.

“I will refrain from insulting you, Madam, because you are a lady,” he said, combing his hair from his eyes with long, tapered fingers, “but I will no longer refrain from this!” And he smacked her across the rear with the switch. She snorted and started forward, going faster with each thwack of the switch until Louis got her to a pace he thought reasonable and then he merely tapped her when she slowed too much. Occasionally she would stop altogether and he would have to lace her rump to get her going again. Despite his annoyance with her, he still hated to do it. Surrel had been right about one thing—Louis’s frail little lady had broken his heart.

Louis, flicking the switch and bleating the call of the donkey-drivers, drove Modestine down through St. Martin de Frugères where, on this sunny Sabbath day, a mass of church goers crowded around the packed parish minster, kneeling on the steps in silence and listening intently to the words of the priest inside. The very sight helped heal his spirit so freshly wounded by his companion and by the time they reached Goudet, like Monastier, nestled at the end of a fertile valley, he was whistling, albeit poorly.

Stony footpaths trailed through rocky embankments, and Château Beaufort—a ruinous castle, its crumbling bricks first laid in the 13th century but allowed to collapse after the Revolution—stood opposite across a stream so clear one might mistake it for dry. Goudet gave the impression of extreme isolation, though in fact, via those footpaths the postman winds in and Goudet’s youth wind out, like Louis, ripe for adventure, as best modeled by Régis Senac, “Professor of Fencing of the Two Americas,” and nephew of the local innkeeper. Senac’s portrait took a place of honor on the wall of the inn’s café, where his life story could be read.

After taking a midday meal, Louis gazed at Senac’s portrait in the café, awaiting his empty milk bottle to be filled, smoking a cigarette, and day dreaming that, one day, his own portrait could be looked upon by the youth of Edinburgh—perhaps adorning the walls of Rutherford’s on Drummond Street—and he could serve as the inspiration and the impetus for any fresh, talented, and driven boy to make his way out of and beyond the cough-inducing damps of Auld Reekie.

Behind Louis, a woman cleared her throat, startling him.

He took his bottle, thanked her, and returned to Modestine, whom he had tethered outside, although he assumed that even should she get loose, she would not be long to catch up with given her natural and preferred pace. As he loosened the knot and guided her around in the direction of the footpath that would lead out of the valley, there seemed to have been a change in his lady—a sense of repudiation that could not bode well for the remainder of their day’s march.

As they moved up the opposite hill, before they were even out of the sight of town, Modestine slowed her measure as to have effectively stopped, and the switch barely stirred her an inch. Louis prooted. He prooted loudly, softly, far, and wide. He prooted closely, tightly, high, and low. He prooted until his lips ached and his beatings almost brought him to tears. Although, they could have been tears of frustration, as he would certainly not reach the lake by dusk, perhaps not even all night. Once he ceased the lashings altogether and once he prooted his final proot, Modestine began to move, though at her own pace, which was hardly at all and with frequent stops to chew at anything green that garnished the wayside.

When Louis thought it could not get worse, they came upon another ass, of seemingly worse behavior than Modestine, as he roamed the hillside at will and without his master. The reciprocated attraction between the two lovers was immediate and horrifying. As the swine masquerading as a pack animal attempted to mount poor, guiltless Modestine, Louis renewed his thrashing to the both of them, anything to quash the budding romance. As he whipped wildly, he grew more disgusted with Modestine’s suitor, for any man worth his pride should have, at the very least, defended his lady.

When Louis finally got them rid of the amorous beast, new troubles arose. Perhaps the many thousands of knots strapping his pack to Modestine had loosened since the morning, but the sack was now sliding one way and then the other, until finally, as they arrived to the village of Ussel, the entire blasted contraption had spun around completely and hung from Modestine’s belly.

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