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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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Beast8

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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Beast7

It had been a beautiful dawn, exactly the sort of morning on which one would want to start a long trek. The sun peaked orange over the ridge, pinking the thin clouds above, clouds that would dissipate within the hour as the flaming sphere edged ever higher, opening its arms to all of humanity and embracing it with its light.

Louis struggled with his sack. Once full of his provisions, it weighed about forty kilos. He simultaneously thanked the universe for sending him Modestine and felt the rising redness of shame in his face at burdening so a delicate lady with such a load. In the rooming house, his bulk took out several pictures from the walls lining the stairwell while the landlady swore silently behind him as she picked up his mess. He apologized profusely. Finally, he and his sack fell into the street where he was greeted by his four French friends among about a dozen more well-wishers.

Louis was touched, but as the sack slipped from his grip, and he contorted himself every which way to avoid losing it, he realized why everyone was there: to watch him struggle. Several men whooped and everyone laughed.

Annoyed, Louis firmed his hold on the sack and when Henri motioned him to follow, he did. Antoine, Lucien, and Claude fell in line behind Louis, while the rest of the party of gawkers took step behind them. No one offered to help him with his sack.

To forget that he was, in effect, on display for the amusement of the whole village—as the crowd appeared to grow—he made a mental inventory of his sack, hoping to catch any forgotten essential. He brought with him a small spirit lamp and pan, a lantern, a few half-penny candles, a jack knife, and a large leather flask. There were two whole changes of warm clothing, his green velveteen jacket, his pilot coat, and a knitted Spenser waistcoat. His railway rug contained a few books, cakes of chocolate, and tins of Bologna sausage. He added his empty knapsack, for no reason other than to avoid leaving it but also avoid carrying it. Not in the sack, but intended for stowage in a basket alongside Modestine, he had arranged for a leg of cold mutton, a bottle of Beaujolais, an empty bottle for milk, an egg-beater (a gift from Henley’s wife), and several loaves of black and white bread (the former for Modestine, the latter for himself).

On his person he carried his revolver for although Surrel and company were quite mistaken about the threat on the road, threats indeed there could be.

Louis had originally planned to hike the mountains alone, with only what he absolutely needed on his own back. However the sleeping sack itself, empty, was too heavy and too awkward to convey. But, like everything else he packed, it was indispensable, for he meant to sleep as much under the stars as possible, shunning the comforts of the hostel. Louis was roughing it.

As they arrived at the stable, Louis could see his beloved Modestine, fitted with a simple, handsome leather pad furnished with a number of rings through which to slip the straps that would attach the sack to her back.

They began to apply the sack at six, and by six-ten, the pad having slid every possible way there was to slide off a donkey—much to the amusement of the farewell party—Louis had lost his patience. He returned the pad to its manufacturer, or, it could be said, he threw it at the man’s head, who, in turn, threw it back at Louis’s. And so on, back and forth, yelling obscenities that only swelled the audience in numbers, until they tired.

At six-thirty, toward the end of the pad throwing, Claude arrived with a bât—a pack-saddle—that seemed to fit Modestine sufficiently, and they—everyone—proceeded to assist Louis in affixing his things to the little donkey. The sack, his coat, the basket of provisions, all disappeared under a labyrinth of rope and knots, and just when Louis thought the time had come to say their goodbyes, a man would step forward and explain why this system of straps would not do, and he would disassemble the mess to start again. This repeated itself until nine-o’clock, as the last knot was pulled Louis, already exhausted, grabbed Modestine’s bridle and pulled her from the stable. Waving to the crowd over his shoulder, he called back, “Au revoir! Merci! Vous avez été très utile, mais je dois partir![1]

Laughter, the loudest of whom he recognized as his four friends, rose behind him, along with good-natured wishes for a safe and happy journey. Despite his annoyance and weariness, Louis could not suppress a smile, until he heard amongst the crowd what sounded like the baying of a wolf. Both he and Modestine froze and he whipped his head back to locate immediately amongst the crowd, Surrel. He smiled at Louis and winked. Louis glared, tugged gently on Modestine’s bridle, and slowly made his way out of Monastier.

[1] “Goodbye! Thank you! You’ve been very helpful, but I have to go!”

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Beast6

. . . and in the Castle of Besques, the marquess of Apcher showed us this animal who looked like a wolf but with a very different face and different proportions. Three hundred people may certify this.

Many hunters and a lot of experts made us remark that only the tail and the posterior of this animal is of a wolf. Its head is monstrous; its eyes have a particular membrane that can conceal the eye-socket. Its neck is covered with thick reddish hairs, crossed with some black stripes; it has a white mark shaped as a heart on its breast. Its legs have four fingers with longer nails than wolves. They are thick, especially the front legs, and their color is the one of a deer. This was remarkable because all hunters said they had never seen a wolf with such colors. Some also noticed its ribs did not look like the ones of a wolf, therefore this animal could turn around more easily than a wolf that has sidelong ribs.

When Louis returned to his room, stuffed under the door, and with a cover now creased, was a pamphlet accompanied by a map of the region. The title shrieked: La Bête du Gévaudan! It looked to be a text cobbled together from various 18th-century reprints, the main body of which were the words of the royal notary Roche-Etienne Marin who described the second beast killed in June of 1767.

Louis had read about all of this before, on ferry crossing the Channel, if his memory was correct. One of a handful of sensational magazines lying about the boat recounting sordid histories of foreign lands. He’d picked it up as a brief escape from whatever torturous composition he was writing at the time, and ended up reading the thing cover to cover.

La Bête du Gévaudan was the collective name of perhaps more than one beast said to have terrorized the poor people of the département of Gévaudan—renamed Lozère after the Revolution—and areas of Haute-Loire. The first sighting was in early June 1764, when a Langogne woman was charged by what was described as a large wolf. She was saved by bulls from the farm. But by the end of the month Jeanne Boulet, fourteen years of age, was not so lucky.

The attacks continued, long and terrible enough to attract the attention of King Louis XV. It was he who hired the wolf-hunters Jean Charles and his son Jean-François, to track and kill the monster. In February of 1765, the two men brought with them eight bloodhounds and proceeded to thin the Gévaudan forests of wolves, large and small. But Surrel had his facts mixed up—it was not the father-son team d’Enneval that slayed La Bête, but François Antoine, harquebusbearer to the King, and Lieutenant of the Hunt. The old pamphleteer had his dates correct, though, as Antoine proved his mettle on September 21st of that same year, and announced, “We declare by the present report signed from our hand, we never saw a big wolf that could be compared to this one. Which is why we estimate that this could be the fearsome beast that caused so much damage.” La Bête was then stuffed—hopefully better than the poor specimen at le café du loup—and sent to Versailles, along with Antoine, who’d received a hero’s welcome, not to mention many medals and a large monetary reward.

However, by December, the attacks had resumed. Finally, a local hunter, Jean Chastel, on June 19, 1767, once again killed La Bête. And the region hoped this would be the last. La Bête de Chastel’s stomach contained human remains, and therefore confirmed that this was, indeed, one of the monsters that had been attacking villagers in the area. Chastel family tradition claimed that Jean, with his hunting party, sat down to read his Bible and pray, and as he prayed, La Bête emerged from the trees, staring at Chastel as if listening. Chastel finished his prayer and then shot La Bête dead.

Together, it was estimated that two hundred ten people were attacked over three years, one hundred thirteen dead, ninety-eight of whom seemed to have been devoured. But none of the accounts that Louis had read ever mentioned the idea of le loup-garou—a werewolf. Surely, this must be an invention of Surrel, local pamphleteer, to sell more wares. And it would make sense that the entire village believed it—those four Frenchman probably grew up reading Surrel’s imaginative leaflets.

Louis smiled and tossed the werewolfenalia toward the table by the bed with dramatic flourish, but then retrieved the map from the floor. Surrel was, at least, good for this one practical thing.

Once Louis was out of Monastier, he expected he would hear no more of the legendary Bête du Gévaudan. Perhaps he might hear of other creatures and mountain lore, perhaps he might hear the click of a rosary behind him as he passed through a village, but he found it unlikely that something so silly, from so long ago, still lived in this region, outside of this backwards enclave of drunken Frenchmen.

But enough of this! He had a donkey to pilot and a journey to begin!

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Beast5

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.

“Yes!”

“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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Beast4

Louis was up at six the following morning. He dressed, walked out into the street, and saw no one—not Antoine, not a single street vender, not a clucking chicken. No cafés were open, it seemed, so Louis plodded back up to his room, smoked a cigarette, and returned to bed.

At ten o’clock, a boot sailed through his open window and landed on his coverlet. Outside, the world was now awake—people yammered to one another, horses snorted, and wagon wheels cracked over stones. Louis started when the boot hit the bed, one lanky leg free from his bedclothes hung over the side, his sock dangled limp over his toes. His hair stuck to his forehead.

Il est temps de se réveiller!” Antoine’s voice floated up from the street.

Sortir du lit!” shouted another.

Louis listened, rubbed his eyes and flattened his mustache, then pushed the blankets out of the way and swung his feet to the floor. Grabbing the boot, he went to the window. Below, Antoine and Henri stood waving and laughing. Henri was missing a boot. He wiggled his stocking toes toward Louis who lobbed the boot back at him. It overshot and Henri jumped, but missed and ran after it.

“I thought you said you would be up early this morning, Monsieur Steams!” Antoine shook his finger up at Louis.

“I was!”

Antoine nodded his head, but crossed his arms.

“I was!” Louis repeated.

Antoine waved both hands in front of his face to dismiss the silliness and Henri rejoined him, pulling on his boot.

“Enough. Come,” Antoine said. “We haven’t got all day.”

Louis heaved a deep sigh then turned from the window. He re-dressed, combed his hair, threw water on his face, grabbed his bag, and headed down to join the Frenchmen.

Bonjour,” he said to them brushing his moustache down with his hand. They nodded, turned, and started walking. Louis ran to catch up, then equaled their tempo. It seemed that no matter how much time he spent amongst the French, he would never quite match their pace—not just their stride, but their pace of life. He could happily be either productive or lazy, but he could, apparently, never be both at the same time as they were. But no matter—he would be free and clear of most people in just a day or so, if this transaction went as he hoped. Then he would have his donkey, he would have his provisions, he would be ready to start off, and he could be left alone to wallow in his self-pity and tobacco, surviving on his wits.

The three men made their way down the main thoroughfare, turned right, then left. From la Rue de L’Abbaye, Louis absently heard a clanking bell, and as they wound their way, they seemed to be getting closer to it. It became louder and more annoying to him. Finally, they came upon a compact courtyard, and the source of the clanking. There stood an old man next to a small cart pulled by an almost smaller donkey.

Louis recognized the son of the old woman he’d been sketching the previous day.

The cart was piled with what looked like pamphlets, but upon closer examination there were also calendars, maps, tablets of paper, and so on. The man was surrounded by children. All sorts of children, from every class—thin and fat children, clean and dirty children, all of them yowling about one thing or another.

“He is, like, how do you say?” Henri turned to Louis. “Pied Piper.”

“Except with a cow bell,” Louis said. “And he doesn’t much seem to want these children following him.”

“Oh non,” joined Antoine “He hates it. Hates children. And beats his ass.”

“That ass?” Louis asked, incredulous.

The donkey was tiny, mouse colored and sweet looking, but with a jaw as resolute as Jeanne d’Arc’s as the flames touched her nose.

“She is small, but I’ve seen her pull much more than this,” Antoine continued.

“She?” Louis’s heart broke for the animal—to be beaten while one toiled was one thing, but to be beaten by such a brute who would strike a woman; that was too much.

Oui, she could run both you and your sack up and down the mountains,” Henri added.

“I’ll take her,” said Louis. He didn’t know if she could. She didn’t look like she could. But chivalry sometimes took precedence over practicality.

Antoine jerked his head toward the spectacle in the courtyard, signaling their movement into the fray.

The sea of children parted with Antoine in the lead, Henri second, and Louis last. Dirty faces looked up, some nonplussed, some annoyed, a few scared. The one that had been ringing the donkey’s bell all this time finally stopped, having found something more interesting—these three adults who dared breach their ranks.

The old man looked upon them with relief.

Comment puis-je vous servir, messieurs?

Antoine addressed the man. They spoke quietly and Louis couldn’t hear the conversation above the din of children, one of whom kept slapping him across the rear and then looking away as if innocent.

“Is he willing to part with her?” Louis asked Henri, who was closer to the discussion.

“I believe so,” Henri replied. “He wants to demonstrate her worthiness.”

“Not necessary; I’ll take her,” said Louis, turning for the fifth time hoping to catch the slapping culprit in the act. “How much?”

“He insists,” Henri said.

“Really, I’ll take her,” Louis argued, then abruptly spun to the nearest, shortest fellow. “Arrêter maintenant ou je vais vous couper la main!

The crowd became quiet and stared at Louis, even the three men. He turned his palms up to them.

“Obviously, I wouldn’t really cut off his hands, but this one, you see—”

“That is one way to get their attention,” Henri said approvingly. The old man had started unhooking the donkey from his cart and Antoine whispered into the ears of the children closest to him, who, in turn, whispered to their neighbor until word spread throughout the crowd. Most smiled and nodded, some laughed and cheered, a few—just a few—shyly sneaked away.

What happened next Louis might have paid money to see back in his Edinburgh college days. Surrel brought the little donkey around through the mass of children, who moved accordingly and lined up.

“Now,” Antoine said to Louis. “Surrel will demonstrate her strength and endurance.”

Louis made to protest, momentarily afraid of what he was about to witness, but it was too late. The old man lifted the first child in line and sat him on the donkey’s back. She responded accordingly and kicked the child off. The boy flew over the head of the animal and rolled in the dust. The children cheered, Henri laughed out loud, and Antoine smirked. Louis looked on, stunned. For no sooner was the first child stoically dusting himself off, Surrel was loading the donkey’s back with another, who soon went the way of the first. Louis noticed the first boy had actually rejoined the end of the line.

“Won’t someone get hurt?” Louis asked Antoine.

Probablement,” he replied, his eyes trailing up, then down, to watch another child fly through the air.

Surrel loaded one after another, sitting forwards, backwards, laid over sideways, boys and girls, and even a small dog, who aborted his flight mid-launch by flinging himself off to the side. The old man turned and smiled at Louis, as if to say, See? See how many she can go through?

After about ten minutes of this demonstration, the children began to grow weary and lose courage, until they had all cleared the courtyard with the exception of those poor souls who lived there, and they just disappeared into their abodes.

Surrel clapped his hands together.

Ah oui!” he exclaimed.

“You see?” said Henri. “There is no better ass for your journey.”

“What?” Louis answered. “She threw every child in the village. What do you think she will do to my gear?”

His two French friends frowned and then sauntered over to the old man, who stood holding the donkey’s bridle and petting her. They spoke to him, and as they did his face grew firm, his mouth pulling taut into an angry line that threatened to wrap around his head. Suddenly, he flattened his hand and began hitting the poor animal across the nose, yelling obscenities.

Antoine and Henri backed away, but Louis flew forward and grabbed the old man’s arm to keep him from administering one more knock.

“Stop it!” he yelled. “Stop it now, or I’ll cut off your hands!”

The old man stopped, without understanding what Louis had said. Antoine and Henri looked to the Scot, eyebrows raised, seeing that this threat, unlike the one to the children, he may have meant.

The donkey stood, her head raised and eyes closed, expecting another blow. Louis reached over and laid his hand on her brow, drawing his slender fingers down to her snout. She flinched at first, then opened her eyes and looked at him.

Combien?” Louis asked.

Soixante-cinq,” the old man replied, bemused at Louis’s sentiment for such a lowly beast.

“Sixty-five francs?”

Surrel looked at him, and added, “et un verre du brandy.”

Louis sighed. She actually cost less than what he paid for his specially made sleeping sack: eighty francs and two glasses of beer. The monetary cost was a steal, and the glass of brandy he would undoubtedly make up later down the road.

Oui,” Louis agreed and nodded his head to Surrel. He paid the old man the money, and then agreed to pay him his brandy the following morning, before Louis started out on his excursion.

After the old man removed her bell, Henri took the donkey’s reigns and started to lead her away.

“I will take her to Jacque’s and stable her there. He will make you a pad to saddle her with,” he said. “Lots of straps.”

“Wait,” Louis said and walked over to the animal, whose eyes moved about her, knowing something was happening, but not what. Louis stood in front of her and took her bridle with a hand on each side. He straightened out her head and looked at her intently.

“What is her name?” he called out to Surrel, who was counting his payment for a fourth time. “Quel est son nom?

The old man shook his head and waved the question away.

“No name,” Henri confirmed.

Louis looked at the donkey, his donkey. Her deep-chestnut eyes glimmered from her soft grey-brown fur, her eyelashes long and dark. He took her ears in his hands and ran them through his palms, soft like rabbit’s fur. She closed her eyes and lowered her head.

Modestine,” he finally said.

Henri laughed, but Louis ignored him. It was the perfect appellation for this donkey—he was embarrassed now to call this feminine equestrian spirit an “ass”—as here she was, after such a debasing, modest and without conceit. He caressed her ears once more before letting Henri lead her away and thought he felt one small fraction of his heart free itself from Fanny’s grip and fasten to that lovely little being.

Smiling, Louis shook Antoine’s hand, thanked him ten times, and then the men retired to an early lunch at le café du loup.

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Earlier, Louis had agreed to spend this evening with four men—Antoine, Henri, Lucien, and Claude—who, during the day, like many of the town’s citizens, looked upon Louis with contempt, but come evening, as he grew closer to the start of his trek, drank copious amounts of wine with him, to his health, which was precarious, and to his plight, whatever that was. They hadn’t asked, and Louis was grateful.

Earlier that morning he’d returned from Le Puy, about fifteen miles northwest, with a specially constructed sleeping sack. It had taken his whole stay so far to have it made, but now that it was in his possession, he felt optimistic. His success in finally procuring the first of two major components of his trip was all over town by evening and when he entered the café, the patrons greeted him with a roar of congratulations and cheer.

“Monsieur Steams!” some of them shouted. Since he’d arrived, what began mistakenly as “Monsieur Steamson” had deteriorated into “Monsieur Steams,” and in a sense, became a friendly term of endearment, although the affection of the people of Monastier was fickle and fleeting.

The four Frenchmen hugged and kissed him as they directed him bodily to a seat in a comfortable corner behind a small, clothed table. He fell onto the hard, wooden bench, hair flopping over wide-spread eyes, which darted from one companion to the next and back again, volleying between agitation and joviality. The almost violent, jostling proximity of these men—who were in many ways still strangers—made his blood race and his palms sweat, but he attempted to project an air of calm, of good humor, even.

He produced his tobacco pouch and began rolling cigarettes, which he lined up on the table after lighting the first. They called for wine, but the serving maid had already set a few bottles down before the cry for drink ended, followed by a small basket of bread.

Louis pulled at his mustache. If he had been amongst his friends, he would waste no time making himself comfortable. At home, his customary arrangement was half-slumped, half-draped in and across a chair, or more often than not, perched upon the arm, should it be weight bearing. More frequently even than that, his position would matter not, as his mind, more importantly, would be engaged as such to render him blue in the face. Not to mention his listeners exhausted. But he was not at home, and though his limbs ached to animate and his brain bubbled with any number of exhilarating topics, his role as foreigner kept him quiet, or otherwise occupied with the mundane but distracting tasks of cigarette rolling and mustache pulling.

The men re-introduced themselves, but Louis knew each of them from the street. In the last week, he’d overheard all of these men, at all times of the day, with myriad people and at various stages of drunkenness, argue politics. And with three bottles of Bordeaux with which to wet their lips and brains, he feared the four of them together.

Antoine was a Legitimist and longed for the return of the Bourbon kings; Henri was an Orléanist, another monarchist also for the House of Bourbon, but a different branch; Lucien was a staunch Imperialist and wept at the mention of Bonaparte I; and Republican Claude’s mouth watered with words of The Revolution. Being a Scot, Louis understood the passion of bloody political travails but he had little desire, tonight, to engage a discussion on the matter of French rule, particularly if his companions’ sense and sobriety drained with the bottle and so too their grasp on English. Louis loved la langue française, but it was true that the more he drank, the quicker he forgot word order and gender, and it was inevitable that he would inadvertently insult someone before the night was through.

He reached for a boule of bread from the basket, tore it in half, then anxiously pulled small bites from it, popping them into his mouth while the four men settled around him. The café was cozy and lighted by lamps ensconced on the walls. The tables and chairs were rustic, but covered and upholstered, with a crisp, red and white checked cloth. The walls displayed a range of décor, from Royal memorial plates to framed family portraits, from embroideries to antlers, culminating in a massive wolf’s head mounted above the entrance. Its eyes were glassy, its lips curled into a threatening snarl, made tragically comic by the inexpertise of the taxidermist. A quality mount would have looked you in the eye wherever about the room you roamed; you should have felt the breath of the thing on you. This however looked exactly like what it was—a dead animal manipulated grossly with wire and stuffing, collecting dust.

Louis chewed, smiling and nodding at the men around him. Now that their immediate needs were met, they turned to Louis.

Finalement! You have got your sack!” Henri roared and slapped Louis on the back several times causing him to almost choke on a piece of bread. The men laughed.

Oui,” said Louis feebly, crushing out his first cigarette and lighting the next. He mustered a breath to match the men in their zeal and volume. “Finalement, I have got my sack.”   The long vowels and rhotic accent of Louis’s Scotch-English tongue played amusedly on the faces of his companions, though it was his accomplishment that truly stirred their affable response.

They cheered and raised their mugs, Louis snatching his up—nearly spilling it—and joining in their toast to his success. And it was a success. Louis could now enter into the French autumnal wilderness fairly sure of staying warm and dry. He’d opted away from actually packing a tent, for fear that his more unscrupulous fellow travelers would take him for what he was—a relatively inexperienced tourist out camping—and take him unawares as he slept. So, he’d set his mind to devise a piece of green canvas, measuring six by six feet, stuffed with blue sheep’s wool and designed to convert into a sack with which to carry his things.

“This will keep you dry, eh?” asked Claude. “But, eh, la tête . . . your head. It will stick out.” The Frenchman illustrated by tapping his own head and the others laughed.

Louis reached into the knapsack at his side and pulled out what initially looked like a handful of fur. The men fell silent and watched him stretch the thing over his head. It was a cap, with earflaps and some apparatus that covered his nose and mouth like a respirator. Louis pulled the flaps down and tied them under his chin, then pulled the face muff down as well.

“Ha!” he said, his voice muted in the mass of fur. The men stared—he appeared a massive vole wearing a thin mask of flesh and eerily human eyes that blinked. Louis looked from man to man until they burst into another bout of uncontrollable laughter. He squinted approvingly under the fur, then pulled the muff and flaps back up, tying them now over the top of his tête.

“You are very dignified,” laughed Claude and poured more wine into Louis’s now-empty cup. “Like a king.”

Antoine and Henri’s smiles faded and they both simultaneously drank to cover their annoyance. Claude snickered.

“Dignified like an ass,” Henri coughed. “Like a Republican pack mule.”

Claude half-stood, eyes blazing, but settled back, glancing at Lucien, who looked into his cup.

“Better a pack mule peasant than a flatulent Corsican.”

Louis’s face fell and he watched as Antoine and Henri held Lucien from jumping over the table at Claude who chuckled and drank. A flurry of angry French filled the air like black smoke and Louis flew to his feet, waving his hands to clear it.

“Gentlemen! Messieurs!” he pleaded, “S’il vous plait, j’ai d’autres affaires! I am in need of an ass!”

The men quit fighting and looked at Louis. His fur cap had slid down to the tops of his eyes and the string keeping his earflaps up had come loose, allowing them to flop down like a set of donkey’s ears.

Someone on the opposite side of the café brayed, and the anger was dispelled. The four political rivals laughed and slapped each other on their backs. Louis, too, his slight frame shaking beneath each palm of goodwill. He pushed his cap back and retied the flaps as he sat down with his friends.

“So, you are an ass,” said Lucien, and the other three snickered.

Non, I am in need of an ass,” Louis corrected. “L’âne. A donkey.”

The man across the café brayed again and Henri threw a piece of bread in his direction.

Louis was a cup and a half in and feeling the influence—he knew if he’d had to get up quickly, he might fall down just as fast. But on he drank. When men of violently opposing beliefs can sit without strangling each other, it was a cause for celebration, as if Louis needed another reason to celebrate.

“I can help you,” said Antoine, patting his chest.

“Yes?” Louis said and held up his cup to the man, who tapped it with his own.

“Yes.” Antoine drained his mug and pushed the empty bottle out of his way, wrapped his fingers around the neck of a half-full bottle, and poured. Before Louis could lower his own cup, it was being topped off once more.

“There is a man in town, Surrel,” Antoine continued. “A peddler. He moves from village to village; he sells . . . eh, calendrier. Almanach.”

Louis listened, but replied. “I don’t need a calendar. A map, maybe.”

Antoine waved his hand in front of his face, “Non, non. He beats his ass.”

Henri suppressed a giggle and Claude slapped his arm.

Pardon?” Louis asked.

Antoine thought for a moment.

“I think he would be willing to sell his donkey.”

“Oh!” Louis exclaimed. “Really?”

“He hates it,” Antoine continued. “Always beating it.”

“That’s terrible,” Louis said.

The other men nodded and drank.

“Tomorrow,” said Antoine. “I will take you to him.”

I would be most grateful,” Louis said and reached across the table, grabbing Antoine by the hand and shaking it vigorously; it flopped like a fish.

“And a map,” Antoine finished.

“Yes, that certainly couldn’t hurt.”

“Where are you going?” Henri asked.

“Well,” Louis began. He’d been plotting his route in his head for weeks. “I am planning on making my way south through the Cévennes all the way down to St-Jean-du-Gard, where I will take a cab into Alès and pick up my mail.”

His destination was less the town, or even the end of his journey, as it was his mail. He had several letters prepared to put to post before he started—one to each of his friends, one to his mother, and one to Fanny. More than any of them, he hoped most to have received a reply from her.

Since she left, her letters back to him contained just enough interest and affection to keep Louis heart bound, and yet, they never satisfactorily answered his repeated and heartfelt query: Could they be together?

Louis understood the difficulties of divorce and how it might look, but in the end, he didn’t much care how it looked, only that they were together, which he impressed upon her as the most important thing. Because it was, was it not? The slow growing of time and distance between them did nothing to cool his feelings for her. And so, he asked yet again, could they be together? And he hoped desperately that, come the end of his march, he would stumble half-dead into town, fall upon the post waiting for him at the hotel he’d reserved, and his prayers would finally be answered.

Thinking of this, Louis failed to notice that the café had grown quiet. Suddenly, he felt hot and he slowly pulled the fur cap from his head. Everyone was looking at him, even the serving maid who’d come to drop off another basket of bread.

Sud?” Lucien asked.

Oui, south,” replied Louis. “Down to St-Jean-du-Gard. Then to Alès. I have, or will have, post awaiting me there.”

“You will take an eastern route, no?” Claude asked. “To Saint-Agrève?”

“Of course not. That would be almost forty kilometers out of my way,” Louis said. “No, I will go to Le Bouchet St Nicholas, then on to Pradelles, and then to Langogne—”

Mon Dieu!” shouted the brayer from the back. This time no one threw anything at him.

Non, non, non,” Claude shook his head emphatically. “Non. Non, non, non . . .

“What?” Louis asked.

The other three men also shook their heads. The serving maid shook her head as she walked away from their table. Louis thought he heard a woman gasp and his eyes darted in that direction, but Henri brought him back.

“You.” he said, tapping the table in front of him with his forefinger. “You do not want to take this journey.”

“I do,” Louis countered. “I must.”

More shaking heads. The café filled slowly with the low rumble of quiet conversations, out of which Louis pulled a few words: l’agneau, massacre, le loup. He looked at the big, grey head above the door, its pointed yellow teeth.

“What? Him?”

“Worse,” Claude muttered.

“I should think I would have more concern of being robbed.”

“That as well, perhaps.” Henri shrugged.

“No matter,” Louis said. “I carry a pistol. I’m not afraid.”

But now Louis’s head was full of wolves and thieves, and worse. What could be worse?

He drained his cup and stopped Claude from pouring more into it.

Non, s’il vous plait.” Louis smiled an apology. “Up early tomorrow.” He turned to Antoine. “To get an ass.”

Antoine’s stony face broke into a crooked smile.

Oui, Monsieur Steams,” he said. “We will certainly find you your ass.”

The four Frenchmen laughed, though not as boisterously as before. Louis felt the shift in the café was irreversible, or perhaps he would have stayed another round. He left wondering if they were laughing more with him, or at him, but it didn’t matter. He would be leaving this place soon.

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Monastier, Goudet,

Ussel, Bouchet St. Nicolas

 

At Grez-sur-Loing, Louis didn’t make it easy for her, partly because he fought it and partly because he could not stop coughing long enough for the spoon to be in and out without clacking against his teeth. And it wasn’t that he resented being fed like a child, although that didn’t help.

            “It is what it is,” she said, and wiped spilled soup roughly from his nightshirt with an already-filthy towel. His chest shook, the coughing explosive now, and Fanny looked at him flatly until it subsided. “My husband is coming, two weeks from today. You must leave.”

            He felt he might be leaving through Death’s door, if his breaking heart didn’t kill him first.

*

Louis woke.

His journey began here. Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille nestled snug in a green valley below an irregular ridge that separated it from a troubled sky. It was a collection of plain-looking buildings with orange clay-tiled rooves that stood stark from the surrounding backdrop still verdurous from the summer sun, now heading into September.

Lovelorn and worried, Robert Louis Stevenson had flung himself upon the town. Presently, he had just finished entertaining a group of lace makers with the English language. Due to its liberal sprinkling of French, the artisans considered it merely a comical patois of their native tongue. He left some easily-amused ladies with the word “bread”—which they rolled around their lips and the concaves of their mouths until they doubled over with laughter—in search of a less excitable group of people. The rustic streets were created for wandering, in which he now indulged.

He’d arrived in France weeks ago, just after the love of his life, Mrs. Fanny Osbourne, departed London for the United States. He’d written to his parents and friends—Sidney Colvin, his editor and occasional benefactor when funds sank truly low; Charles Baxter, an old, dear college chum; and William Henley, one-legged poet and boisterous pal. All but his parents were aware of Fanny. So far as Louis had mentioned, he was here to write another travel book. But, his relations excluded, all knew of Fanny and knew what had happened.

They knew the two had met, had fallen in love, and had spent nearly two years on an emotional carousel that all too often left Louis too dizzy to stand. They also knew she was much Louis’s senior, married to another man with two children, and that she’d returned abruptly to America, so many miles away.

In all his young years, Louis had never been so in love. And had never felt so irreversibly rejected. Except for that one other time. But this was different.

He’d sent letters to his friends from Le Puy within the week of her departure, going on about the new book, Travels with a Donkey in the French Highlands. They knew Louis hurt and that she had given him only enough reason to hope, but no more. They discouraged it—the entire enterprise, beginning and ending with Fanny—and so he said little, except to declare how enthusiastic he was to embark on such an excursion.

In reality, within him was a tempest, calmed only by the act of getting from one point to another. He meant to adventure so hardily and so thoroughly as to punish the heart straight out of him, literally or figuratively; he didn’t care much which. He could arrive at the end of his journey a man without sentiment or dead. It was all the same to him.

Moreover, when he arrived dead, or dead inside, he must arrive after having conquered the worst circumstances; he must have subjugated, if not his aching soul, then certainly the petit-bourgeois sense of impropriety this sort of plan stoked in peoples’ thoughts during this sad and delicately decadent era. People of a time that at once praised the adventure, hero-worshipped the adventurer, but disdained the thought that anyone they knew should attempt such a thing. Louis scoffed at society’s polite system of tethers and drastically cut them when Fanny had left.

Drawn by the wagging tail of a small mutt, Louis seated himself on a low stone wall that stuck out like a peninsula from the corner of a boulangerie, and proceeded to scratch the animal under the chin. His wavy reflection looked back at him from the shop’s multi-paned window. At twenty-seven years old, he struck a strange and curious figure amongst the French inhabitants. As tall as the average Scotsman, his slender frame and lanky limbs gave the impression of height; his sandy-russet hair brushed the base of his neck, uncut and parted in the center. The mustache he’d long been cultivating was finally gaining respectable coverage and drooping down over the lip enough so that he had developed a nervous habit of pulling at it. Lastly, he wore a deep emerald-green velveteen jacket.

Outside the boulangerie, he sat amongst a pleasant group of women and children of all ages. Little girls in lace-trimmed pinafores skipped rope and harassed their mothers as the women took their mending to the cool, shady street. One girl approached Louis, ran her grubby hands over the sleeve of his soft jacket, then tripped away giggling. The dog went with her.

One very old woman lured him into a conversation that lasted the better part of an hour. She demonstrated her sharp wit and tongue on every subject imaginable, and every opinion Louis expressed. Had she not been so pleasant, it might have been exasperating. It continued after he’d brought out his sketchbook and began to render her as faithfully as his skill would allow. With each attempt, she passed judgment and Louis wished the world were full of more like her, for honesty seemed to be in such short supply these days.

“No, no,” she said. “That is not it. I am old, to be sure, but I’m better looking than that. We must try again.”

Louis smiled, tore the page from the book, and began once more.

Behind her, the women sewed and the children played. Men throughout the street argued and laughed over a thousand topics. Buyers of bread came and went. Louis relaxed.

As he sketched, an old man—old to Louis, but younger than the woman who sat before him—wandered up to her, bent to whisper in her ear, and then, upon her pinched face and shooing hand, left.

Mon fils,” she said, shaking her head.

Her son, Louis thought, must be as big a disappointment to her as he was to his own parents. And again, his heart sank back into the dark depths this light afternoon had brightened for a short time.

The old woman bowed to pick up a potato, signaling that, although she would love to be rendered all day, there was still work to be done. She winked at him and began to peel the vegetable with a paring knife.

Louis continued to scribble away at his work, but allowed his mind to drift over his most immediate plans. Though his boyish spirit was more than up to the journey, his adult frame, weakened by a lifetime of undiagnosable illness, was less enthusiastic. It came and went; his strength ebbed like the swells of a departing sloop against the dock. He was energized when he’d left London and it waned only now in that he could not be off soon enough.

This was not the first time he’d endeavored to make his way through tough and rugged conditions. Two years previous, at about this time of year, Louis and a friend had embarked on a canoe trip through Belgium and northern France, the product of which, An Inland Voyage, had been published just this past April. After so many essays and histories, his first real book had seen print, and now he could call himself a writer, an ink slinger for profit.

In those rare moments of emotional clarity, Louis’s thoughts still inclined to writing, to finding the next conceptual path worth treading, and based on experience, to actually tread a path—to go on an adventure, much to the horror of his parents—was the best way to plot one’s way forward on the page. For now, better than writing fiction—why wrack one’s brains thinking what’s to come next when one can just do and make notes?

But that outing had been before he’d met Fanny.

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