poor beast because some fool has declared him a were-wolf?"

"He has certainly been seen," said Ivan; "as for his being a were-wolf, there is no doubt whatever; it is the wise woman who has said it. Moreover,

the brute can only be killed by bullets over which the true charm has been said. I have here six bullets," Ivan produced half-a-dozen slug-shot, "which have been carefully prepared by Katerina; it was fortunate that she remembered the were-wolf charm, even though her book was taken from her; doubtless the accursed beast was aware that only by her art he might be destroyed, and therefore, by the agency of his kinsman, the evil one, would deprive her of this power over him."

"Give me the slugs," said Johnnie. "Now then, where did you last see this wolf?"

"I have not seen him," replied the keeper, somewhat sheepishly, "but Spiridon has "

"Oh, well, Spiridon, where was this and when ?"

Spiridon cleared his throat and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "The accursed one chased me," he said hoarsely, "it was last Friday night; I returned from Lavick by the wood road, and he followed me roaring and foaming at the mouth: a terrible beast -standing so high," Spiridon placed his hand about five feet from the ground, "and about four paces in length from snout to root of tail."

"That's certainly a very large wolf," said Baxter, keeping his countenance with commendable self-control. "Now you can go, both of you; stay-there was mutton for my dinner to-night; take half the carcase of the sheep, with the head and offal, and lay the meat out in a convenient place in the forest, somewhere near where the brute has been seen."

"What, to-night-in the dark? Have

mercy, my lord, it is terrible to deal with the evil one after the sun has set!" said poor Ivan, haggard with fear. Spiridon looked no more comfortable than his chief.

"They say he is pretty bad to deal with even in the daylight," said Johnnie; "don't be a fool, Ivan, take a lantern if you are frightened; you used not to be such a coward; Spiridon can go with you and hold your hand; here, take my gun and put one of the blessed slugs among the rest, in case he should come and roar at you."

Ivan took the gun; then shook his head doubtfully and expectorated; then he crossed himself.

"I am not a coward, as my lord knows well," he said; "no man can hold his own against the devil."

"Then why did you send for me?" asked Johnnie pertinently. For the first time Ivan was surprised out of his air of solemn conviction.

"My lord is such a good shot," he replied, somewhat weakly, "and the wise woman having prepared the bullets, I thought—”

"Nonsense, go and set out the meat," said Baxter, "and don't be a fool; if the wolf comes, shoot him; if not, I shall spend the night there, and see if I can't get a sight of him when he comes to eat, as he is pretty sure to do. Don't drag the devil into the business, he's busy enough over his own affairs."

An hour later both keepers returned, pale and frightened. They had heard the accursed beast roaring in the forest, they declared. On careful inquiry it transpired that Spiridon had thought he heard the roaring, but that Ivan had imagined the noise to be the screeching of cranes in the marsh, a mile away.

"Look here, Ivan," asked Baxter, "do you know the call of a crane, or do you not?"

"I know what I know," said Ivan

mysteriously, "but what I do not know is the voice of the evil one who speaks in many voices through the mouth of the were-wolf. How shall I say positively that a crane cried, when it might have been the devil himself calling to his own?"

"Well, take me to the place," said Baxter, "and if he comes to eat I shall shoot him, whether he be wolf or devil."

Baxter sat and shivered in a tree close to the sheep's offal. It was a very cold night, and though warmly clad in furs he was half frozen. Moreover the fork of a tree is not comfortable for long, even though at first it may seem almost luxurious. After an hour one doubts its real merit as a couch; after three one loathes it with great loathing; after four one would give untold sums for a nice flat stone pavement to lie upon, if only for a little while; as for the hardest bed that ever a man lay and cursed upon, one would sell one's soul for five minutes of unalloyed repose at full length upon its adamantine mattress. Sleep came, after an hour or two, and during that time his troubles were forgotten; but Johnnie was waked at length by a sound.

He did not know what awoke him, but he had that peculiar sensation that something close by had moved. He listened, breathless, but could detect nothing. Five minutes later, however, he distinctly heard the crunching of a bone, but to his surprise the sound came from a hundred yards away, and not from the spot where the meat had been laid down.

"The brute has dragged a piece away," thought Johnnie; "in order to eat it where he cannot scent me; if he is not the devil, he is about as cunning as his evil kinsman! But he'll come back for more presently, and then I shall shoot by sound."

But apparently the "accursed brute"

had taken as much as he required; he did not return.

"Did not I say he was a were-wolf?" said Ivan, upon hearing of this failure. "Why did not my lord hear him take the food? because he is a supernatural and accursed beast, and can possess himself of food or other things from a distance."

"I fell asleep," said Johnnie, simply; "don't be a fool, Ivan, we are still not too late for the morning tournament of the capercailzies; let us go out into the forest; a big cock or two will console me for my disappointment!"

Ivan shook his head dubiously. "People do not fall asleep in the boughs of trees, which are hard, unless the evil one inspires them to do so," said he.

"Have it so then," said Johnnie, "only let us make haste and get among those capercailzies!"

Now the tournament of the capercailzies is a glorious function, which however cannot be minutely described in this place, by reason of the limitation of space. Suffice to say that in Russia the old cock birds are killed in spring for this reason; their numbers preponderate over those of the hen birds, with disastrous result to the welfare of the community. Therefore the Russian sportsman sallies forth in spring and stalks the old knights as they sit high upon their pine tree mounts and challenge one another to mortal combat. So intent are they upon the business of the moment at this time that they neither see nor hear the lurking sportsman as he creeps towards them, unless he should make a false move, by advancing while the bird is resting from his challenge-song.

Johnnie Baxter had successfully stalked and killed a couple of these splendid fellows-as big as a small turkey and twice as majestic is the average capercailzie-and was busy stalking a third. The great bird sat and chattered vigorously, and Baxter crept

steadily forward, Ivan following at a distance with equal care. Step by step Johnnie gained ground, now creeping cautiously, now-when behind adequate cover-making a few long jumps towards his prey. Already he was within eighty yards of the capercailzie, which he could just make out at the top of a high pine tree, huge and indistinct in the semi-darkness of early dawn; in five minutes he would be within certain range and would send a charge of No. 1 straight for the poor unsuspecting old braggart. Then suddenly, to his surprise, Ivan, fifty yards away among the pine trees, uttered a loud yell, which seemed to modulate into a howl of terror. Away flew the capercailzie. Johnnie Baxter, as was natural and perhaps in this instance pardonable, turned and expressed his opinion in words which were forcible though not the choicest in his vocabulary. I paraphrase them:

"What," he said or implied, “induced you to yell at that critical moment, Ivan? Surely you are woodcraftsman enough to know that you should be silent during the stalking?"

"The accursed beast!" ejaculated Ivan, trembling and pointing-"the English lord stalked the capercailzie, but the were-wolf stalked him-oh, Heaven protect us all and save us from the just punishment of our sins!"-Ivan crossed himself and muttered prayers.

"Good Heavens, man, where? Where is he?" shouted Johnnie, rudely interrupting him: "Where is the wolf?"

"He was there not fifteen paces from my lord," said Ivan. "Does my lord suppose I should be frightened if this were an ordinary beast? It was the accursed one. He was stalking my lord; I swear it is true. His eyes" Johnnie muttered something about the wolf's eyes.

"Show me exactly where he passed," he said aloud; "quickly." Ivan showed the place. There were

patches of snow still lying on the ground here and there. Across one of these there was a track of large paws. Johnnie stood and gazed down at them. "Good Lord!" he presently ejaculated aloud: "it is certainly a wolf, and a huge one; a giant among wolves; he must be twice the size of an ordinary beast!"

Ivan stood and muttered his prayers. The Russian peasant is always very devout in moments of terror; I do not blame him for this; but it would be better, one would think, if he distributed his piety more evenly over the daily round; there are moments when he is far from pious.

At this crisis Ivan was very frightened, therefore very devout. He stood and trembled.

"It would be best, perhaps," he said, "if the priest were sent for from the church-village to exorcise this fiend. If he were to make a krestny Hod (a procession with ikons) around this part of the forest, doubtless the accursed beast would fear to remain and would go elsewhere"

"That would be both cowardly and selfish," said Baxter, "and very idiotic besides. I want this wolf, Ivan, and mean to have it. Are you man enough to help me? If not, I will ask Spiridon, and if he is a coward too I will manage alone. Come, now, will you play the man or be a cowardly fool?"

Ivan crossed himself. "What does the English lord wish me to do?" he asked. Poor Ivan was trying to be brave, but supernatural terrors had got a firm hold upon him.

"I am going to pass to-morrow night in the forest, close to the sheep's offal, which he is sure to visit; I shall lie in wait on the ground, not in the tree this time, but well concealed. You shall have a gun as well as I, and you shall load it as full as it will hold with old what's-her-name's doctored bullets. You shall howl like a wolf-none can

beat you at howling, we all know that; haven't I often heard you get an answer from some prowling beast when no one supposed there was a wolf within ten miles? Come, now, what say you?"

Ivan's sporting ardor began to work. So did his pride in his profession. He was pleased to be reminded by Baxter of his pre-eminence in the art of imitating animal calls, in which art he was indeed a very master. He began to take heart of grace.

"We would get Katerina," he said, to say the charm over another batch of bullets, so that we might each have a full charge of them."

"By all means," said Baxter, "she shall curse a score of them for us."

"And I will bring my ikon," continued Ivan. "It shall hang upon a tree near us—"

Ivan's unconscious mixture of paganism and superstitious Christianity was very refreshing and delightful; Baxter revelled in it. The Church, in rural Russia, has as yet failed to eradicate wholly from the minds of the peasants the lingering relics of their old pagan faith. In many villages the wise woman is still a power, and in times of cholera or of visitation by were-wolves or other supernatural beings, somewhat widely believed in by a population dwelling in or near the forest, she is as often invited to apply her pagan remedies as is the priest to exercise those functions which the Church has substituted for the rites of the wise woman, sometimes in imitation of the same.

"Yes," said Baxter, "we will take every precaution; you shall make your own arrangements, Ivan."

The keeper did so. He took a handful of slugs to old Katerina and had them well cursed and charmed. They were to carry festering sores and an agonizing death to the accursed beast into whose carcase they were to be

driven by the gun of the English lord. When the time came to sally forth into the forest Ivan looked haggard and ill, and Baxter was obliged to have recourse to a dose of English whiskey. This did wonders, and the keeper marched into the forest with the air of one who believes he goes to his death but is ready and willing to die because he is noble, and the kind of man from whom such self-sacrifice is expected as a matter of course. He hung his ikon upon a tree and sat as close to it as possible.

Baxter loaded both guns with cartridges in whose contents the "doctored" bullets or slugs played a large part. Both men reclined at ease behind a thick bush, within ten yards of the decoy; the guns lay to hand; Ivan had finished his muttered prayers and had cleared his throat for action. "Now then, begin!" said Baxter. Ivan began, and suddenly the forest rang with that weirdest, dismalest, most depressing, if not terrifying, of all sounds-the howling of a hungry wolf.

The cries rose and fell in their melancholy cadence, now loud, now soft; here a moment of utter silence, there a gradual crescendo, until the whole forest seemed to resound with the anguished yells of the starving beast represented so ably by Ivan the keeper.

For a while there was no reply, and Baxter began to wonder whether there could really be anything in the theory of a supernatural were-wolf. Surely any real wolf would be taken in by this most realistic appeal to his feelings of comradeship!

Then suddenly there came a reply, and at the first sound of it poor Ivan showed signs of collapse and for a little while was quite unable to continue his vocal efforts. He trembled and crossed himself and gazed blankly into the darkness, first towards his ikon,

then towards the place whence the answering wolf-call seemed to come.

The answer was a loud one; a strident, self-confident-nay, arroganttone; a cry without modulation or conciliation; a howl that had none of the softness of good comradeship in it; something of a defiant if not actually a threatening accent, Baxter thought, was to be distinguished in the voice.

"That is the cry of a devil-wolf," whispered Ivan; "I dare not answer it."

"Try," said Baxter; his own throat felt wonderfully dry. Was he too falling under the spell of supernatural terror?

Ivan tried, but no sound would come. Baxter bethought him of his flask, the English sportsman's refuge in the time of trouble. Both men sipped courage from its mouth. Ivan tried his voice again, and succeeded. He howled back a cry instinct with good fellowship and conciliation.

"Come along," he seemed to say, "there is food here-plenty for two, if you aren't too big."

"I am big, very big," came the answer, or words that seemed to carry this meaning. "There is never enough for two if I am one of them. Touch it before I come, if you dare!" A loud, rudely-toned, defiant, ill-bred voice it was; just such as a huge, over-grown wolf, knowing his own strength, and-like all wolves-a bully by nature, would employ.

Ivan really showed great courage; possibly it was of the Dutch variety, superinduced by English whiskey; but there it was. He gave soft answers, designed to turn away wrath. He howled strictly to time, waiting-according to lupine etiquette for the reply, and then howling again. The were-wolf came nearer and nearer; one could make sure of this by his voice, which was louder and more ter

rible at each recurrence. Ivan trembled from head to foot, but stuck to his guns. Between his howlings he crossed himself and muttered prayers. Even Baxter was agitated.

Suddenly the Englishman half raised his rifle it was still quite dark and he could see little or nothing-and pulled the trigger. Ivan yelled with terror. A great dusky form loomed before his eyes; he too fired; it howled or roared, and semed to advance-Baxter fired again.

Then there was a snarling and a snapping of teeth, and a great scuffling and rending of twigs and kicking up of snow and pine needles. Baxter quickly rammed another pair of cartridges into his gun; Ivan was on his knees crying and crossing himself, Baxter swept him off them, out of his way; he fired twice more—

"Light the lantern, fool, and stop blubbering," cried angry Johnnie a moment later; "he is certainly badly wounded, we must follow him up and find him."

Ivan obeyed, trembling. "It is useless," he said, "we only go to our ruin -let him be, my lord, and let us thank Heaven that we have escaped." Baxter snatched the lantern from his hand and plunged into the forest. There was blood here and there, and the snow close by had been much kicked about and trodden; but the wolf had gone.

Baxter followed for half a mile, but a gust of wind blew his lantern out, and he found his way back with difficulty and, be it admitted, not without trepidation. He found Ivan hugging his ikon. The keeper uttered a sigh of relief.

"It is better to leave the Evil One alone," was all he said. What Baxter replied is not recorded. He had had the worst of luck, but he still hoped that by daylight he would be able to track his quarry down. He would do

« VorigeDoorgaan »