Archive for the ‘Werewolf Wednesday’ Category


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.


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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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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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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There were, in fact, some establishments open in Monastier at dawn. Surprisingly, Surrel had Louis meet him in a quiet billiard room off le Place du Vallat. Still bristling from the old man’s treatment of his beloved Modestine the day before, Louis sat with his shoulder to the man and refrained from joining him after he’d ordered his glass of brandy. Surrel nipped daintily at his payment, smiling at Louis, who fidgeted with the cigarette pinched between his fingers. They spoke French.

“So, what brings a gangly-looking thing like you to my country?” Surrel asked.

Louis stared at the man.

“I said I would make payment of one glass of brandy, but there was nothing in our agreement that said I should sit here and drink it with you.” Louis made to stand. “Good day.”

“Oh, come,” the old man said, reaching a hand out to Louis’s velveteen jacket and tugging it down. “You are too sensitive. Like a woman.”

Again, Louis’s hackles stirred as he sat back down.

“I’ve things to do, you know,” he said to the old man. “Certainly better things than sit here and—”

“You are heading down into Gévaudan, I hear,” said Surrel. He sipped his brandy. His hands were covered with paper cuts in various states of mend, a hazard of his trade.

“Yes, south by way of Lozère,” Louis said, interested to know why the man had acted as if he didn’t know Louis’s business and more interested to know how he did. “It hasn’t been called Gévaudan since the Revolution. Surely, you’re not that old.”

“Some days, I feel it,” Surrel said. “And sometimes, I think, when a place has been soaked with so much blood, you can never change its name.” He looked at Louis from the corner of his eye, seeing if his words had the desired effect.

Louis stared at the old man for a moment.

“Don’t tell me,” he began. “Robbers, probably murderers. And wolves.”

“Wolves are murderers,” Surrel answered.

“They are animals.”

“Not always.” Surrel took another drink. “Just like not all men are men.”

“You would think that after centuries of dealing with wolves, your people would have mastered the art by now,” Louis said. “I’ve got a pistol and if there’s trouble, man or beast, I will let fly the bullet. Simple.”

Surrel shook his head and Louis could no longer control himself.

“Stop it. Stop shaking your head. French necks are full of ball bearings,” he said, exasperated. “They cannot keep them straight.”

“The English don’t know how to deal with beasts,” the old man shot back.

“Says the man who beats his donkey, one smaller than a dog,” Louis parried.

Surrel laughed.

“Your Modestine will break your heart, Monsieur,” he said, and then leveled Louis with a look hot enough to melt the ice between them if only enough to get the message through. “But your heart, Steams, is the least of your worries.”

Louis thought of Fanny and doubted that very much. He lit another cigarette.

“And what should I be worried about?” Louis asked, falling back into his chair and flopping one leg over the other, extending them both long out in front of him.

Surrel leaned over the café table between them, close so as to not rouse the alarm of the whole village.

“The men here will not tell you because they are as afraid as the women, and the women, let me tell you, are like the children that flew off the back of your ass in the courtyard.”

Louis leaned a little closer, but still looked away, watching a solitary man knock billiard balls around a green felt field and exclaiming “a-ya!” each time he sank one.

“Gévaudan is Gévaudan and will always be Gévaudan, so long as the blood of the children and the women push its vegetables up from the soil and the citizens eat of the terror that once roamed its hills,” Surrel continued. “This I believe. And not only that, I do believe that the terror still roams. It still hunts. It kills.”

Louis was now looking at the old man, tracing the lines on his face that ran down his throat and into the collar of his shirt. Although he was old, his eyes pinned Louis.

“What,” Louis said, “on earth are you talking about?”

Surrel leaned so far over as to almost touch noses with Louis and hissed.

“The beast!”

Louis shut his eyes to the man’s flying spittle and used the tablecloth to wipe it from his lids.

“Sit back, man,” he demanded, but Surrel was animated now.

“If you can’t stomach a little bit of saliva, you will no doubt faint away from the spit of loup-garou.”

Louis’s eyes fixed on the old man and refused to budge.

“Wait just a moment,” he said and then he slapped his hand on the table. “I am a fool.”

Surrel nodded, but Louis shook it away.

“No, not in the way you think. You are the fool in that way. You and everyone else in Monastier. I should have put it together right away. The Beast, or Beasts, of Gévaudan!”

Surrel’s face lit up and he threw his hands into the air.


“No!” Louis shook his head and then it was his turn to lean to Surrel. “Look here, this journey will be difficult enough without you and your countrymen needlessly frightening the breeches off me with your silly tales of werewolves.”

Surrel crossed himself. Louis rolled his eyes.

“First, how long ago was that? If memory serves, it was the 1760s, even before your bloody Revolution, which, by the way, proved your countrymen to be as vicious as any wolf on the country side.”

“But we are not talking wolves, monsieur,” Surrel growled and glared.

You aren’t. I am. I am talking about the tragic deaths of poor villagers,” Louis argued.

“Two hundred!” Surrel yelled.

“Who were nothing more than the unlucky victims of a couple of particularly large wolves.”

“One hundred of whom were eaten!”

“When the men your king hired to hunt them down found them—”

“Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his brave son Jean-François, on September twenty-first, 1765, killed Le Loup de Chazes. Sixty kilos, two meters in length, and when they dragged its wicked carcass back to the village and stored it overnight in a citizen’s grain room, the next day it was gone.” Surrel snapped his fingers. “And in its place—”

“A man,” Louis finished. “Who?”

“They did not know his name, nor where he came from. It was what it was.”

“This is ridiculous,” Louis leaned back into his chair.

The old man emptied his glass.

“You cannot say, monsieur, that you have not been warned.”

Louis had been warned of a lot of things. He’d been warned by his father not to lose his faith in God; he’d been warned by his friends not to put faith in Fanny; and now he was being warned by these crazy Frenchmen to not embark on this journey, for fear of . . . werewolves.

“I have been warned,” he said to Surrel. “Merci.”

“Merci to you.” Surrel tipped his empty glass to Louis. “And may God have mercy on you.”

Louis thought of his father—both of his parents. He’d never seen two more broken people in his life since the day he’d admitted—after a particularly deadly episode of ill health—that he’d given up on the possibility of God. The sun, he’d thought, would never shine on the Stevenson household again, nor did he think still to this day that, if there were a God, he would smile mercifully on RLS. With his current predicament, with his heart strewn over an ocean and a continent, surely God hadn’t been merciful so far.

Louis looked at Surrel for one more moment, taking in the details of his face and hair, his garments and his smell, for his nightly notes.

“Without Modestine, how will you move your cart around?” Louis asked.

“The children!” Surrel answered and laughed.

And with that, Louis left the billiard room for his own quarters to take inventory of his pack and assemble everything for departure.

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Again, it’s Wednesday and I’ve got nothing in particular to blog about, but also a thousand things to get done.

So, starting August 18th — after I’ve finished publishing Dread Confluence — I will start publishing The Beast of Gévaudan, for which I used RLS’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cèvennes as a template. This morning I cam across this swell list of his reading during the time he spent in Bournemouth (Skerryvore, 1884-1887) — this is where he wrote and published Jekyll & Hyde, this is where Sargent painted his Stevenson (and Fanny) portraits, and this is where the above picture was taken (which is my favorite). This was among the books listed:

Joseph Pennell and Elizabeth Robins Pennell, A Canterbury Pilgrimage, Ridden, Written, and Ilustrated by J. and E. R. P. (1885)
a tandem tricycle journey from London to Canterbury; volume dedication to Stevenson: ‘To Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, We, who are unknown to him, dedicate this record of one of our short journeys on a Tricycle, in gratitude for the happy hours we have spent travelling with him and his Donkey’; RLS replied with thanks in July 1885: ‘when I received the Pilgrimage, I was in a state (not at all common with me) of depression, and the pleasant testimony that my work had not all been in vain did much to set me up again.’ (L5, p.121).

I just thought this dedication was cute, his response sweet, and I wondered what he’d think about his (clearly) non-fiction travelogue being turned into a murder mystery with werewolves. I like to think he’d be okay with it, and hopefully, he’d at least think the writing was passable.

BoG - LHO Cover

The shame about this book is that, because it’s a “werewolf book,” folks who know anything about Stevenson might be less inclined to check it out, and thus very few people might eventually read it and really appreciate the source material. Such is life.


For the record, this is also my favorite picture of Stevenson:


RLS on the bowsprit of the Equator.

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