THE WERWOLF IN FRANCE
IN no country has the werwolf flourished as in France, where it is known as the loup garou; where it has existed in all parts, in every age, and where it is even yet to be found in the more remote districts. Hence one could fill a dozen volumes with the stories, many of them well authenticated, of French werwolves. As far back as the sixth century we hear of them infesting the woods and valleys of Brittany and Burgundy, the Landes, and the mountainous regions of the Côte d’Or and the Cevennes.
Occasionally a werwolf would break into a convent and make its meal off the defenceless nuns; occasionally it would select for its repast some nice fat abbot waddling unsuspectingly home to his monastery.
Not all these werwolves were evilly disposed people; many, on the contrary, were exceedingly virtuous, and owed their metamorphosis to the vengeance of witch or wizard. When this was the case their piety sometimes prevailed to such an extent that not even metamorphosis into wolfish form could render it ineffective; and there are instances where werwolves of this type have not only refrained from taking human life, but have actually gone out of their way to protect it. Of such instances, well authenticated, probably none would be more remarkable than those I am about to narrate.
The Case of the Abbot Gilbert, of the Arc Monastery, on the Banks of the Loire
Gilbert had been to a village fair, where the good vintage and hot sun combined had proved so trying that on his way home, through a dense and lonely forest, he had gone to sleep and been thrown from his horse. In falling he had bruised and cut himself so prodigiously that the blood from his wounds attracted to the spot a number of big wild cats. Taken at a strong disadvantage, and without any weapons to defend himself, Gilbert would soon have fallen a victim to the ferocity of these savage creatures had it not been for the opportune arrival of a werwolf. A desperate battle at once ensued, in which the werwolf eventually gained the victory, though not without being severely lacerated.
Despite Gilbert’s protestations, for he was loath to be seen in such strange company, the werwolf accompanied him back to the monastery, where, upon hearing the Abbot’s story, it was enthusiastically welcomed and its wounds attended to. At dawn it was restored to its natural shape, and the monks, one and all, were startled out of their senses to find themselves in the presence of a stern and awesome dignitary of the Church, who immediately began to lecture the Abbot for his unseemly conduct the previous day, ordering him to undergo such penance as eventually, robbing him of half his size and all his self-importance, led to his resignation.
The Case of Roland Bertin
André Bonivon, the hero of the other incident, was eminently a man of war. He commanded a schooner called the “Bonaventure,” which was engaged in harassing the Huguenot settlements along the shores of the Gulf of Lions, during the reign of Louis XIV. On one of his marauding expeditions Bonivon sailed up an estuary of the Rhone rather further than he had intended, and having no pilot on board, ran ashore in the darkness. A thunderstorm came on; a general panic ensued; and Bonivon soon found himself struggling in a whirlpool. Powerful swimmer though he was, he would most certainly have been drowned had not some one come to his assistance, and, freeing him from the heavy clothes which weighed him down, dragged him on dry land. The moment Bonivon got on terra firma, sailor-like, he extended his hand to grip that of his rescuer, when, to his dismay and terror, instead of a hand he grasped a huge hairy paw.
Convinced that he was in the presence of the Devil, who doubtless highly approved of the thousand and one atrocities he had perpetrated on the helpless Huguenots, he threw himself on his knees and implored the forgiveness of Heaven.
His rescuer waited awhile in grim silence, and then, lifting him gently to his feet, led him some considerable distance inland till they arrived at a house on the outskirts of a small town.
Here Bonivon’s conductor halted, and, opening the door, signed to the captain to enter. All within was dark and silent, and the air was tainted with a sickly, pungent odour that filled Bonivon with the gravest apprehensions. Dragging him along, Bonivon’s guide took him into a room, and leaving him there for some seconds, reappeared carrying a lantern. Bonivon now saw for the first time the face of his conductor—it was that of a werwolf. With a shriek of terror Bonivon turned to run, but, catching his foot on a mat, fell sprawling on the floor.
Here he remained sobbing and shaking with fear till he was once more taken by the werwolf and set gently on his feet.
To Bonivon’s surprise a tray full of eatables was standing on the table, and the werwolf, motioning to him to sit down, signed to him to eat.
Being ravenously hungry, Bonivon “fell to,” and, despite his fears—for being by nature alive to, and, by reason of his calling, forced to guard against the treachery of his fellow creatures, he more than half suspected some subtle design underlying this act of kindness—demolished every particle of food. The meal thus concluded, Bonivon’s benefactor retired, locking the door after him.
No sooner had the sound of his steps in the stone hall ceased than Bonivon ran to the window, hoping thereby to make his escape. But the iron bars were too firmly fixed—no matter how hard he pulled, tugged and wrenched, they remained as immovable as ever. Then his heart began to palpitate, his hair to bristle up, and his knees to totter; his thoughts were full of speculations as to how he would be killed and what it would feel like to be eaten alive. His conscience, too, rising up in judgment against him, added its own paroxysms of dismay, paroxysms which were still further augmented by the finding of the dead body of a woman, nude and horribly mutilated, lying doubled up and partly concealed by a curtain. Such a discovery could not fail to fill his heart with unspeakable horror; for he concluded that he himself, unless saved by a miracle—a favour he could hardly hope for, considering his past conduct—would undergo the same fate before morning. At a loss to know what else to do, he sat upon the corner of the table, resting his chin on the palms of his hands, and engaged in anticipations of the most frightful nature.
Shortly after dawn he heard the sound of footsteps approaching the room; the door slowly began to open: a little wider and a little wider, and then, when Bonivon’s heart was on the point of bursting, it suddenly swung open wide, and the cold, grey dawn falling on the threshold revealed not a werwolf, but—a human being: a man in the unmistakable garb of a Huguenot minister!
The reaction was so great that Bonivon rolled off the table and went into paroxysms of ungovernable laughter.
At length, when he had sobered down, the Huguenot, laying a hand on his shoulder, said: “Do you know now where you are? Do you recognize this room? No! Well, I will explain. You are in the house of Roland Bertin, and the body lying over yonder is that of my wife, whom your crew barbarously murdered yesterday when they sacked this village. They took me with them, and it was your intention to have me tortured and then drowned as soon as you got to sea. Do you know me now?”
Bonivon nodded—he could not have spoken to save his life.
“Bien!” the minister went on. “I am a werwolf—I was bewitched some years ago by the woman Grénier, Mère Grénier, who lives in the forest at the back of our village. As soon as it was dark I metamorphosed; then the ship ran ashore, and every one leaped overboard. I saw you drowning. I saved you.”
The captain again made a fruitless effort to speak, and the Huguenot continued:—
“Why did I save you?—you, who had been instrumental in murdering my wife and ruining my home! Why? I do not know! Had I preferred for you a less pleasant death than drowning, I could have taken you ashore and killed you. Yet—I did not, because it is not in my nature to destroy anything. I have never in my life killed an animal, nor, to my knowledge, an insect; I love all life—animal life and vegetable life—everything that breathes and grows. Yet I am a Huguenot!—one of the race you hate and despise and are paid to exterminate. Assassin, I have spared you. Be not ungenerous. Spare others.”
The captain was moved. Still speechless, he seized the minister’s hands and wrung them. And from that hour to the day of his death—which was not for many years afterwards—the Huguenots had no truer friend than André Bonivon.
Werwolves and Witches
Other instances of werwolves of a benignant nature are to be found in the “Bisclaveret” in Marie de France’s poem, composed in 1200 a.d.; and in the hero of “William and the Werwolf” (translated from the French about 1350).
To inflict the evil property of werwolfery upon those against whom they—or some other—bore a grudge was, in the Middle Ages, a method of revenge frequently resorted to by witches; and countless knights and ladies were thus victimized. Nor were such practices confined to ancient times; for as late as the eighteenth century a case of this kind of witchcraft is reported to have happened in the vicinity of Blois.
In a village some three miles from Blois, on the outskirts of a forest, dwelt an innkeeper called Antonio Cellini, who, as the name suggests, was of Italian origin. Antonio had only one child, Beatrice, a very pretty girl, who at the time of this story was about nineteen years of age. As might be expected, Beatrice had many admirers; but none were so passionately attached to her as Herbert Poyer, a handsome youth, and one Henri Sangfeu, an extremely plain youth. Beatrice—and one can scarcely blame her for it—preferred Herbert, and with the whole-hearted approval of her father consented to marry him. Sangfeu was not unnaturally upset; but, in all probability, he would have eventually resigned himself to the inevitable, had it not been for a village wag, who in an idle moment wrote a poem and entitled it
“Sansfeu the Ugly; or, Love Unrequited.“
The poem, which was illustrated with several clever caricatures of the unfortunate Henri and contained much caustic wit, took like wildfire in the village; and Henri, in consequence, had a very bad time. Eventually it was shown to Beatrice, and it was then that the climax was reached. Although Henri was present at the moment, unable to restrain herself, she went into peals of laughter at the drawings, saying over and over again: “How like him—how very like! His nose to a nicety! It is certainly correct to style him Sansfeu—for no one could call him Sansnez!”
Her mirth was infectious; every one joined in; only Henri slunk away, crimson with rage and mortification. He hated Beatrice now as much as he had loved her before; and he thirsted only for revenge.
Some distance from the village and in the heart of the forest lived an old woman known as Mère Maxim, who was said to be a witch, and, therefore, shunned by every one. All sorts of unsavoury stories were told of her, and she was held responsible for several outbreaks of epidemics—hitherto unknown in the neighbourhood—many accidents, and more than one death.
The spot where she lived was carefully avoided. Those who ventured far in the forest after nightfall either never came back at all or returned half imbecile with terror, and afterwards poured out to their affrighted friends incoherent stories of the strange lights and terrible forms they had encountered, moving about amid the trees. Up to the present Henri had been just as scared by these tales as the rest of the villagers; but so intense was his longing for revenge that he at length resolved to visit Mère Maxim and solicit her assistance. Choosing a morning when the sun was shining brightly, he screwed up his courage, and after many bad scares finally succeeded in reaching her dwelling—or, I might say, her shanty, for by a more appropriate term than the latter such a queer-looking untidy habitation could not be described. To his astonishment Mère Maxim was by no means so unprepossessing as he had imagined. On the contrary, she was more than passably good-looking, with black hair, rosy cheeks, and exceedingly white teeth. What he did not altogether like were her eyes—which, though large and well shaped, had in them an occasional glitter—and her hands, which, though remarkably white and slender, had very long and curved nails, that to his mind suggested all sorts of unpleasant ideas. She was becomingly dressed in brown—brown woolly garments, with a brown fur cap, brown stockings, and brown shoes ornamented with very bright silver buckles. Altogether she was decidedly chic; and if a little incongruous in her surroundings, such incongruity only made her the more alluring; and as far as Henri was concerned rather added to her charms.
At all events, he needed no second invitation to seat himself by her side in the chimney-corner, and his heart thumped as it had never thumped before when she encouraged him to put his arm round her waist and kiss her. It was the first time a woman had ever suffered him to kiss her without violent protestations and avowals of disgust.
“You are not very handsome, it is true,” Mère Maxim remarked, “but you are fat—and I like fat young men,” and she pinched his cheeks playfully and patted his hands. “Are you sure no one knows you have come to see me?” she asked.
“Certain!” Henri replied; “I haven’t confided in a soul; I haven’t even so much as dropped a hint that I intended seeing you.”
“That is good!” Mère Maxim said. “Tell no one, otherwise I shall not be able to help you. Also, on no account let the girl Beatrice think you bear her animosity. Be civil and friendly to her whenever you meet; then give her, as a wedding present, this belt and box of bonbons.” So saying, she handed him a beautiful belt composed of the skin of some wild animal and fastened with a gold buckle, and a box of delicious pink and white sugarplums. “Do not give her these things till the marriage eve,” she added, “and directly you have given them come and see me—always observing the greatest secrecy.” She then kissed him, and he went away brimming over with passion for her, and longing feverishly for the hour to arrive when he could be with her again.
All day and all night he thought of her—of her gay and sparkling beauty, of her kisses and caresses, and the delightful coolness of her thin and supple hands. His mad infatuation for her made him oblivious to the taunts and jeers of the villagers, who seldom saw him without making ribald allusion to the poem.
“There goes Sansfeu! alias Monsieur Grosnez!” they called out. “Why don’t you cut off your nose for a present to mademoiselle? She would then have no need to buy a kitchen poker. Ha! ha! ha!” But their coarse wit fell flat. Henri hardly heard it—all his thoughts, his burning love, his unquenchable passion, were centred in Mère Maxim: in spirit he was with her, alone with her, in the innermost recesses of the grim, silent forest.
The marriage eve came; he handed Beatrice the presents, and ere she had time to thank him—for the magnificence of the belt rendered her momentarily speechless—he had flown from the house, and was hurrying as fast as his legs could carry him to his tryst. The shadows of night were already on the forest when he entered it; and the silence and solitude of the place, the indistinct images of the trees, and their dismal sighing, that seemed to foretell a storm, all combined to disturb his fancy and raise strange spectres in his imagination. The shrill hooting of an owl, as it rustled overhead, caused him an unprecedented shock, and the great rush of blood to his head made him stagger and clutch hold of the nearest object for support. He had barely recovered from this alarm when his eyes almost started out of their sockets with fright as he caught sight of a queer shape gliding silently from tree to tree; and shortly afterwards he was again terrified—this time by a pale face, whether of a human being or animal he could not say, peering down at him from the gnarled and fantastic branches of a gigantic oak. He was now so frightened that he ran, and queer—indefinably queer footsteps ran after him, and followed him persistently until he reached the shanty, when he heard them turn and leap lightly away.
On this occasion, the occurrence of Henri’s second visit, Mère Maxim was more captivating than ever. She was dressed with wonderful effect all in white. She wore sparkling jewels at her throat and waist, buckles of burnished gold on her shoes; her teeth flashed like polished ivory, and her nails like agates. Henri was enraptured. He fell on his knees before her, he caught her hands and covered them with kisses.
“How nice you look to-day, my sweetheart,” she said; “and how fat! It does my heart good to see you. Come in, and sit close to me, and tell me how you have fared.”
She led him in, and after locking and barring the door, conducted him to the chimney-corner. And there he lay in her arms. She fondled him; she pressed her lips on his, and gleefully felt his cheeks and arms. And after a time, when, intoxicated with the joy of it all, he lay still and quiet, wishing only to remain like that for eternity, she stooped down, and, fetching a knot of cord from under the seat, began laughingly to bind his hands and feet. And at each turn and twist of the rope she laughed the louder. And when she had finished binding his arms and legs she made him lie on his back, and lashed him so tightly to the seat that, had he possessed the strength of six men, he could not have freed himself.
Then she sat beside him, and moving aside the clothes that covered his chest and throat, said:—
“By this time Beatrice—pretty Beatrice, vain and sensual Beatrice, the Beatrice you once loved and admired so much—will have worn the belt, will have eaten the sweets. She is now a werwolf. Every night at twelve o’clock she will creep out of bed and glide about the house and village in search of human prey, some bonny babe, or weak, defenceless woman, but always some one fat, tender, and juicy—some one like you.” And bending low over him, she bared her teeth, and dug her cruel nails deep into his flesh. A flame from the wood fire suddenly shot up. It flickered oddly on the figure of Mère Maxim—so oddly that Henri received a shock. He realized with an awful thrill that the face into which he peered was no longer that of a human being; it was—but he could no longer think—he could only gaze.