A Story of a Weir-Wolf
Catherine Crowe arguably wrote the first werewolf short story by a female. It was reprinted in The Best Werewolf Short Stories 1800-1849: A Classic Werewolf Anthology. Crowe also wrote a few novels, with “Susan Hopley” being her most popular. Yet it is Crowe’s supernatural stories for which she is remembered today.
Two years after “A Story of a Weir-Wolf” appeared in the May 16th, 1846 (Vol. III) issue of James Hogg’s magazine Hogg’s Weekly Instructor, Crowe published a collection she titled “The Night-Side of Nature, or Ghosts and Ghost-seers.” It is a solid compilation of supernatural short stories from real life events. Unfortunately, her werewolf story that begins “on a fine bright summer’s morning” was not contained in “The Night-Side of Nature” and was apparently never re-published by Crowe.
Thankfully the story will live on. Like any werewolf, it has shapeshifted.
In 1876—four years after Crowe’s death—William Forster produced a play called “The Weirwolf: A Tragedy” that he made clear was “from a story by Mrs. Crowe” in the printed script. This appears to be the first werewolf play taken from a werewolf story written by a female. In 1854, at the age of 64, Crowe was found naked wandering the streets of Edinburgh. This is how Charles Dickens described the event on March 7, 1854.
“Mrs Crowe has gone stark mad–and stark naked–on the spirit-rapping imposition. She was found t’other day in the street, clothed only in her chastity, a pocket-handkerchief and a visiting card. She had been informed, it appeared, by the spirits, that if she went out in that trim she would be invisible. She is now in a mad-house and, I fear, hopelessly insane. One of the curious manifestations of her disorder is that she can bear nothing black. There is a terrific business to be done, even when they are obliged to put coals on her fire.”Following is the complete text of the original short story, which is set in the Middle Ages. Enjoy.
A Story of a Weir-Wolf
It was on a fine bright summer’s morning, in the year 1596, that two young girls were seen sitting at the door of a pretty cottage, in a small village that lay buried amidst the mountains of Auvergne. The house belonged to Ludovique Thierry, a tolerably prosperous builder; one of the girls was his daughter Manon, and the other his niece, Francoise, the daughter of his brother-in-law, Michael Thilouze, a physician.
The mother of Francoise had been some years dead, and Michael, a strange old man, learned in all the mystical lore of the middle ages, had educated his daughter after his own fancy; teaching her some things useless and futile, but others beautiful and true. He not only instructed her to glean information from books, but he led her into the fields, taught her to name each herb and flower, making her acquainted with their properties; and, directing her attention ‘to the brave o’erhanging firmament,’ he had told her all that was known of the golden spheres that were rolling above her head.
But Michael was also an alchemist, and he had for years been wasting his health in nightly vigils over crucibles, and his means in expensive experiments; and now, alas! he was nearly seventy years of age, and his lovely Francoise seventeen, and neither the elixir vitæ nor the philosopher’s stone had yet rewarded his labours. It was just at this crisis, when his means were failing and his hopes expiring, that he received a letter from Paris, informing him that the grand secret was at length discovered by an Italian, who had lately arrived there. Upon this intelligence, Michael thought the most prudent thing he could do was to waste no more time and money by groping in the dark himself, but to have recourse to the fountain of light at once; so sending Francoise to spend the interval with her cousin Manon, he himself started for Paris to visit the successful philosopher.
Although she sincerely loved her father, the change was by no means unpleasant to Francoise. The village of Loques, in which Manon resided, humble as it was, was yet more cheerful than the lonely dwelling of the physician; and the conversation of the young girl more amusing than the dreamy speculations of the old alchemist. Manon, too, was rather a gainer by her cousin’s arrival; for as she held her head a little high, on account of her father being the richest man in the village, she was somewhat nice about admitting the neighbouring damsels to her intimacy; and a visiter so unexceptionable as Francoise was by no means unwelcome. Thus both parties were pleased, and the young girls were anticipating a couple of months of pleasant companionship at the moment we have introduced them to our readers, seated at the front of the cottage.
‘The heat of the sun is insupportable, Manon,’ said Francoise; ‘I really must go in.’
‘Do,’ said Manon.
‘But wont you come in too?’ asked Francoise.
‘No, I don’t mind the heat,’ replied the other.
Francoise took up her work and entered the house, but as Manon still remained without, the desire for conversation soon overcame the fear of the heat, and she approached the door again, where, standing partly in the shade, she could continue to discourse. As nobody appeared disposed to brave the heat but Manon, the little street was both empty and silent, so that the sound of a horse’s foot crossing the drawbridge, which stood at the entrance of the village, was heard some time before the animal or his rider were in sight. Francoise put out her head to look in the direction of the sound, and, seeing no one, drew it in again; whilst Marion, after casting an almost imperceptible glance the same way, hung hers over her work, as if very intent on what she was doing; but could Francoise have seen her cousin’s face, the blush that first overspread it, and the paleness that succeeded, might have awakened a suspicion that Manon was not exposing her complexion to the sun for nothing.
When the horse drew near, the rider was seen to be a gay and handsome cavalier, attired in the perfection of fashion, whilst the rich embroidery of the small cloak tint hung gracefully over his left shoulder, sparkling in the sun, testified no less than his distinguished air to his high rank and condition. Francoise, who had never seen anything so bright and beautiful before, was so entirely absorbed in contemplating the pleasing spectacle, that forgetting to be shy or to hide her own pretty face, she continued to gaze on him as he approached with dilated eyes and lips apart, wholly unconscious that the surprise was mutual. It was not till she saw him lift his bonnet from his head, and, with a reverential bow, do homage to her charms, that her eye fell and the blood rushed to her young cheek. Involuntarily, she made a step backward; into the passage; but when the horse and his rider had passed the door, she almost as involuntarily resumed her position, and protruded her head to look after him. He too had turned round on his horse and was ‘riding with his eyes behind,’ and the moment he beheld her he lifted his bonnet again, and then rode slowly forward.
‘Upon my word, Mam’selle Francoise,’ said Manon, with flushed cheeks and angry eyes, ‘this is rather remarkable, I think! I was not aware of your acquaintance with Monsieur de Vardes!’
‘With whom?’ said Francoise. ‘Is that Monsieur de Vardes?’
‘To be sure it is,’ replied Manon; ‘do you pretend to say you did not know it?’
‘Indeed, I did not,’ answered Francoise. ‘I never saw him in my life before.’
‘Oh, I dare say,’ responded Manon, with an incredulous laugh. ‘Do you suppose I’m such a fool as to believe you?’
‘What nonsense, Manon! How should I know Monsieur de Vardes? But do tell me about him? Does he live at the Chateau?’
‘He has been living there lately,’ replied Manon, sulkily.
‘And where did he live before?’ inquired Francoise.
‘He has been travelling, I believe,’ said Manon.
This was true. Victor de Vardes had been making the tour of Europe, visiting foreign courts, jousting in tournaments, and winning fair ladies’ hearts, and was but now returned to inhabit his father’s chateau; who, thinking it high time he should be married, had summoned him home for the purpose of paying his addresses to Clemence de Montmorenci, one of the richest heiresses in France.
Victor, who had left home very young, had been what is commonly called in love a dozen times, but his heart had in reality never been touched. His loves had been mere boyish fancies, ‘dead ere they were born,’ one putting out the fire of another before it had had time to hurt himself or any body else; so that when he heard that he was to marry Clemence de Montmorenci, he felt no aversion to the match, and prepared himself to obey his father’s behest without a murmur. On being introduced to the lady, be was by no means struck with her. She appeared amiable, sensible, and gentle; but she was decidedly plain, and dressed ill. Victor felt no disposition whatever to love her; but, on the other hand, he had no dislike to her; and as his heart was unoccupied, he expressed himself perfectly ready to comply with the wishes of his family and hers, by whom this alliance had been arranged from motives of mutual interest and accommodation.
So he commenced his course of love; which consisted in riding daily to the chateau of his intended father-in-law, where, if there was company, and he found amusement, he frequently remained a great part of the morning. Now, it happened that his road lay through the village of Loques, where Manon lived, and happening one day to see her at the door, with the gallantry of a gay cavalier, he had saluted her. Manon, who was fully as vain as she was pretty, liked this homage to her beauty so well that she thereafter never neglected an opportunity of throwing herself in the way of enjoying it; and the salutation thus accidentally begun had, from almost daily repetition, ripened into a sort of silent flirtation. The young count smiled, she blushed and half smiled too; and whilst he in reality thought nothing about her, she had brought herself to believe he was actually in love with her, and that it was for her sake he so often appeared riding past her door.
But, on the present occasion, the sight of Francoise’s beautiful face had startled the young man out of his good manners. It is difficult to say why a gentleman, who looks upon the features of one pretty girl with indifference, should be ‘frightened from his propriety’ by the sight of another, in whom the world in general sees nothing superior; but such is the case, and so it was with Victor. His heart seemed taken by storm; he could not drive the beautiful features from his brain; and although he laughed at himself for being thus enslaved by a low-born beauty, he could not laugh himself out of the impatience he felt to mount his horse and ride back again in the hope of once more beholding her. But this time Manon alone was risible; and although he lingered, and allowed his eyes to wander over the house and glance in at the windows, no vestige of the lovely vision could he descry.
‘Perhaps she did not live there—she was probably but a visiter to the other girl?’ He would have given the world to ask the question of Manon; but he had never spoken to her, and to commence with such an interrogation was impossible, at least Victor felt it so, for his consciousness already made him shrink from betraying the motives of the inquiry. So he saluted Manon and rode on; but the wandering anxious eyes, the relaxed pace, and the cold salutation, were not lost upon her. Besides, he had returned from the Chateau de Montmorenci before the usual time, and the mortified damsel did not fail to discern the motive of this deviation from his habits.
Manon was such a woman as you might live with well enough as long as you steered clear of her vanity, but once come in collision with that, the strongest passion of her nature, and you aroused a latent venom that was sure to make you smart. Without having ever ‘vowed eternal friendship,’ or pretending to any remarkable affection, the girls had been hitherto very good friends. Manon was aware that Francoise was possessed of a great deal of knowledge of which she was utterly destitute; but as she did not value the knowledge, and had not the slightest conception of what it was worth, she was not mortified by the want of it nor envious of the advantage; she did not consider that it was one. But in the matter of beauty the case was different. She had always persuaded herself that she was much the handsomer of the two. She had black shining hair and dark flashing eyes; and she honestly thought the soft blue eyes and auburn hair of her cousin tame and ineffective.
But the too evident saisissement of the young count had shown her a rival where she had not suspected one, and her vexation was as great as her surprise. Then she was so puzzled what to do. If she abstained from sitting at the door herself, she should not see Monsieur de Vardes, and if she did sit there her cousin would assuredly do the same. It was extremely perplexing; but Francoise settled the question by seating herself at the door of her own accord. Seeing this, Manon came too, to watch her, but she was sulky and snappish, and when Victor not only distinguished Francoise as before, but took an opportunity of alighting from his horse to tighten his girths, just opposite the door, she could scarcely control her passion.
It would be tedious to detail how, for the two months that ensued, this sort of silent courtship was carried on. Suffice it to say, that by the end of Francoise’s visit to Loques she was in complete possession of Victor’s heart, and he of hers, although they had never spoken a word to each other; and when she was summoned home to Cabanis to meet her father, she was completely divided betwixt the joy of once more seeing the dear old man and the grief of losing, as she supposed, all chance of beholding again the first love of her young heart.
But here her fears deceived her. Victor’s passion had by this time overcome his diffidence, and he had contrived to learn all he required to know about her from the blacksmith of the village, one day when his horse very opportunely lost a shoe; and as Cabanis was not a great way from the Chateau de Montmorenci, he took an early opportunity of calling on the old physician, under pretence of needing his advice.
At first he did not succeed in seeing Francoise, but perseverance brought him better success; and when they became acquainted, he was as much charmed and surprised by the cultivation of her mind as he had been by the beauty of her person. It was not difficult for Victor to win the heart of the alchemist, for the young man really felt, without having occasion to feign, on interest and curiosity with respect to the occult researches so prevalent at that period; and thus, gradually, larger and larger portions of his time were subtracted from the Chateau de Montmorenci to be spent at the physician’s. Then, in the green glades of that wide domain which extended many miles around, Victor and Francoise strolled together arm in arm; he vowing eternal affection, and declaring that this rich inheritance of the Montmorenci should never tempt him to forswear his love.
But though thus happy, ‘the world forgetting,’ they were not ‘by the world forgot.’ From the day of Victor’s first salutation to Francoise, Manon had become her implacable enemy. Her pride made her conceal as much as possible the cause of her aversion; and Francoise, who learned from herself that she had no acquaintance with Victor, hardly knew how to attribute her daily increasing coldness to jealousy. But by the time they parted the alienation was complete, and as, after Francoise went home, all communication ceased between them, it was some time before Manon heard of Victor’s visits to Cabanis. But this blissful ignorance was not destined to continue.
There was a young man in the service of the Montmorenci family called Jacques Renard; he was a great favourite with the marquis, who had undertaken to provide for him, when in his early years he was left destitute by the death of his parents, who were old tenants on the estate. Jacques, now filling the office of private secretary to his patron, was extremely in love with the alchemist’s daughter; and Francoise, who had seen too little of the world to have much discrimination, had not wholly discouraged his advances. Her heart, in fact, was quite untouched; but very young girls do not know their own hearts; and when Francoise became acquainted with Victor de Vardes, she first learned what love is, and made the discovery that she entertained no such sentiment for Jacques Renard. The small encouragement she had given him was therefore withdrawn, to the extreme mortification of the disappointed suitor, who naturally suspected a rival, and was extremely curious to learn who that rival could be; nor was it long before he obtained the information he desired.
Though Francoise and her lover cautiously kept far away from that part of the estate which was likely to be frequented by the Montmorenci family, and thus avoided any inconvenient reencounter with them, they could not with equal success elude the watchfulness of the foresters attached to the domain; and some time before the heiress or Manon suspected how Victor was passing his time, these men were well aware of the hours the young people spent together, either in the woods or at the alchemist’s house, which was on their borders. Now the chief forester, Pierre Bloui, was a suitor for Manon’s hand. He was an excellent huntsman, but being a weak, ignorant, ill-mannered fellow, she had a great contempt for him, and had repeatedly declined his proposals. But Pierre, whose dullness rendered his sensibilities little acute, had never been reduced to despair. He knew that his situation rendered him, in a pecuniary point of view, an excellent match, and that old Thierry, Manon’s father, was his friend; so he persevered in his attentions, and seldom came into Loques without paying her a visit. It was from him she first learned what was going on at Cabanis.
‘Ay,’ said Pierre, who had not the slightest suspicion of the jealous feelings he was exciting; ‘ay, there’ll be a precious blow up by and by, when it comes to the ears of the family! What will the Marquis and the old Count de Vardes say, when they find that, instead of making love to Mam’selle Clemence, he spends all his time with Francoise Thilouze?’
‘But is not Mam’selle Clemence angry already that he is not more with her?’ inquired Manon.
‘I don’t know,’ replied Pierre; ‘but that’s what I was thinking of asking Jacques Renard, the first time he comes shooting with me.’
‘I’m sure I would not put up with it if I were she!’ exclaimed Manon, with a toss of the head; ‘and I think you would do very right to mention it to Jacques Renard. Besides, it can come to no good for Francoise; for of course the count would never think of marrying her.’
‘I don’t know that,’ answered Pierre; ‘Margot, their maid, told me another story.’
‘You don’t mean that the count is going to marry Francoise Thilouze!’ exclaimed Manon, with unfeigned astonishment.
‘Margot says he is,’ answered Pierre.
‘Well, then, all I can say is,’ cried Manon, her face crimsoning with passion—‘all I can say is, that they must have bewitched him, between them; she and that old conjuror, my uncle!’
‘Well, I should not wonder,’ said Pierre. ‘I’ve often thought old Michael knew more than he should do.’
Now, Manon in reality entertained no such idea, but under the influence of the evil passions that were raging within her at the moment, she nodded her head as significantly as if she were thoroughly convinced of the fact—in short, as if she knew more than she chose to say; and thus sent away the weak superstitious Pierre possessed with a notion that he lost no time in communicating to his brother huntsmen; nor was it long before Victor’s attentions to Francoise were made known to Jacques Renard, accompanied with certain suggestions, that Michael Thilouze and his daughter were perhaps what the Scotch call, no canny; a persuasion that the foresters themselves found little difficulty in admitting.
In the meanwhile, Clemence de Montmorenci had not been unconscious of Victor’s daily declining attentions. He had certainly never pressed his suit with great earnestness; but now he did not press it at all. Never was so lax a lover! But as the alliance was one planned by the parents of the young people, not by the election of their own hearts, she contemplated his alienation with more surprise than pain.
The elder members of the two families, however, were far from equally indifferent; and when they learned from the irritated, jealous Jacques Renard the cause of the dereliction, their indignation knew no bounds. It was particularly desirable that the estates of Montmorenci and De Vardes should be united, and that the lowly Francoise Thilouze, the daughter of a poor physician, who probably did not know who his grandfather was, should step in to the place designed for the heiress of a hundred quarterings, and mingle her blood with the pure stream that flowed through the veins of the proud De Vardes, was a thing not to be endured.
The strongest expostulations and representations were first tried with Victor, but in vain. ‘He was in love, and pleased with ruin.’ These failing, other measures must be resorted to; and as in those days, pride of blood, contempt for the rights of the people, ignorance, and superstition, were at their climax, there was little scruple as to the means, so that the end was accomplished.
It is highly probable that these great people themselves believed in witchcraft; the learned, as well as the ignorant, believed in it at that period; and so unaccountable a perversion of the senses as Victor’s admiration of Francoise naturally appeared to persons who could discern no merit unadorned by rank, would seem to justify the worst suspicions; so that when Jacques hinted the notion prevailing amongst the foresters with respect to old Michael and his daughter, the idea was seized on with avidity.
Whether Jacques believed in his own allegation it is difficult to say; most likely not; but it gratified his spite and served his turn; and his little scrupulous nature sought no further. The marquis shook his head ominously, looked very dignified and very grave, said that the thing must be investigated, and desired that the foresters, and those who had the best opportunities for observation, should keep an attentive eye on the alchemist and his daughter, and endeavour to obtain some proof of their malpractices, whilst he considered what was best to be done in such an emergency.
The wishes and opinions of the great have at all times a strange omnipotence; and this influence in 1588 was a great deal more potential than it is now. No sooner was it known that the Marquis de Montmorenci and the Count de Vardes entertained an I’ll will against Michael and Francoise, than every body became suddenly aware of their delinquency, and proofs of it poured in from all quarters. Amongst other stories, there was one which sprung from nobody knew where—probably from some hasty word, or slight coincidence, which flew like wildfire amongst the people, and caused an immense sensation. It was asserted that the Montmorenci huntsmen had frequently met Victor and Francoise walking together, in remote parts of the domain; but that when they drew near, she suddenly changed herself into a wolf and ran off. It was a favourite trick of witches to transform themselves into wolves, cats, and hares, and weir-wolves were the terror of the rustics: and as just at that period there happened to be one particularly large wolf, that had almost miraculously escaped the forester’s guns, she was fixed upon as the representative of the metamorphosed Francoise.
Whilst this storm had been brewing, the old man, absorbed in his studies, which had received a fresh impetus from his late journey to Paris, and the young girl, wrapt in the entrancing pleasures of a first love, remained wholly unconscious of the dangers that were gathering around them. Margot, the maid, had indeed not only heard, but had felt the effects of the rising prejudice against her employers. When she went to Loques for her weekly marketings, she found herself coldly received by some of her old familiars; whilst by those more friendly, she was seriously advised to separate her fortunes from that of persons addicted to such unholy arts. But Margot, who had nursed Francoise in her infancy, was deaf to their insinuations. She knew what they said was false; and feeling assured that if the young count married her mistress, the calumny would soon die away, she did not choose to disturb the peace of the family, and the smooth current of the courtship, by communicating those disagreeable rumours.
In the mean time, Pierre Bloui, who potently believed ‘the mischief that himself had made,’ was extremely eager to play some distinguished part in the drama of witch- finding. He knew that he should obtain the favour of his employers if he could bring about the conviction of Francoise; and he also thought that he should gratify his mistress. The source of her enmity he did not know, nor care to inquire; but enmity he perceived there was; and he concluded that the destruction of the object of it would be on agreeable sacrifice to the offended Manon. Moreover, he had no compunction, for the conscience of his superiors was his conscience; and Jacques Renard had so entirely confirmed his belief in the witch story, that his superstitious terrors, as well as his interests, prompted him to take an active part in the affair.
Still he felt some reluctance to shoot the wolf; even could he succeed in so doing, from the thorough conviction that it was in reality not a wolf, but a human being he would be aiming at; but he thought if he could entrap her, it would not only save his own feelings, but answer the purpose much better; and accordingly he placed numerous snares, well baited, in that part of the domain most frequented by the lovers; and expected every day, when he visited them, to find Francoise, either in one shape or the other, fast by the leg. He was for some time disappointed; but at length he found in one of the traps, not the wolf or Francoise, but a wolf’s foot. An animal had evidently been caught, and in the violence of its struggles for freedom had left its foot behind it. Pierre carried away the foot and baited his trap again.
About a week had elapsed since the occurrence of this circumstance, when one of the servants of the chateau, having met with a slight accident, went to the apothecary’s at Loques, for the purpose of purchasing some medicaments; and there met Margot, who had arrived from Cabanis for the same purpose. Mam’selle Francoise, it appeared, had so seriously hurt one of her hands, that her father had been under the necessity of amputating it. As all gossip about the Thilouze family was just then very acceptable at home, the man did not fail to relate what he had heard; and the news, ere long, reached the ears of Pierre Bloui.
It would have been difficult to decide whether horror or triumph prevailed in the countenance of the astonished huntsman at this communication. His face first flushed with joy, and then became pale with affright. It was thus all true! The thing was clear, and he the man destined to produce the proof! It had been Francoise that was caught in the trap; and she had released herself at the expense of one of her hands, which, divided from herself, was no longer under the power of her incantations; and had therefore retained the form she had given it, when she resumed her own.
Here was a discovery! Pierre Bloui actually felt himself so overwhelmed by its magnitude, that he was obliged to swallow a glass of cogniac to restore his equilibrium, before he could present himself before Jacques Renard to detail this stupendous mystery and exhibit the wolf’s foot.
How much Jacques Renard, or the marquis, when he heard it, believed of this strange story, can never be known. Certain it is, however, that within a few hours after this communication had been made to them, the commissaire du quartier, followed by a mob from Loques, arrived at Cabanis, and straightway carried away Michael Thilouze and his daughter, on a charge of witchcraft. The influence of their powerful enemies hurried on the judicial process, by courtesy called a trial, where the advantages were all on one side, and the disadvantages all on the other, and poor, terrified, and unaided, the physician and his daughter were, with little delay, found guilty, and condemned to die at the stake. In vain they pleaded their innocence; the wolf’s foot was produced in court, and, combined with the circumstance that Francoise Thilouze had really lost her left hand, was considered evidence incontrovertible.
But where was her lover the while? Alas, he was in Paris, where, shortly before these late events, his father had on some pretext sent him; the real object being to remove him from the neighbourhood of Cabanis.
Now, when Manon saw the fruits of her folly and spite, she became extremely sorry for what she had done, for she knew very well that it was with herself the report had originated. But though powerful to harm, she was weak to save. When she found that her uncle and cousin were to lose their lives and die a dreadful death on account of the idle words dropped from her own foolish tongue, her remorse became agonising. But what could she do? Where look for assistance? Nowhere, unless in Victor de Vardes, and he was far away. She had no jealousy now; glad, glad would she have been, to be preparing to witness her cousin’s wedding instead of her execution! But those were not the days of fleet posts—if they had been, Manon would have doubtless known how to write.
As it was, she could neither write a letter to the count, nor have sent it when written. And yet, in Victor lay her only hope. In this trait she summoned Pierre Bloui, and asked him if he would go to Paris for her, and inform the young count of the impending misfortune. But it was not easy to persuade Pierre to so rash an enterprise. He was afraid of bringing himself into trouble with the Montmorencis. But Manon’s heart was in the cause. She represented to him, that if he lost one employer he would get another, for that the young count would assuredly become his best friend; and when she found that this was not enough to win him to her purpose, she bravely resolved to sacrifice herself to save her friends.
‘If you will hasten to Paris,’ she said, ‘stopping neither night nor day, and tell Monsieur de Vardes of the danger my uncle and cousin are in, when you come back I will marry you.’
The bribe succeeded, and Pierre consented to go, owning that he was the more willing to do so, because he had privately changed his own opinion with respect to the guilt of the accused parties. ‘For,’ said he, ‘I saw the wolf last night under the chestnut trees, and as she was very lame, I could have shot her, but I feared my lord and lady would be displeased.’
‘Then, how can you be foolish enough to think it’s my cousin,’ said Manon, ‘when you know she is in prison?’
‘That’s what I said to Jacques Renard,’ replied Pierre; ‘but he bade me not meddle with what did not concern me.’
In fine, love and conscience triumphed over fear and servility, and as soon as the sun set behind the hills, Pierre Bloui started for Paris.
How eagerly now did Manon reckon the days and hours that were to elapse before Victor could arrive. She had so imperfect an idea of the distance to be traversed, that after the third day she began hourly to expect him; but sun after sun rose and set, and no Victor appeared; and in the mean time, before the very windows of the house she dwelt in, she beheld preparations making day by day for the fatal ceremony. From early morn to dewy eve, the voices of the workmen, the hammering of the scaffolding, and the hum of the curious and excited spectators, who watched its progress, resounded in the ears of the unhappy Manon; for a witch-burning was a sort of auto da fe, like the burning of a heretic, and was anticipated as a grand spectacle, alike pleasing to gods and men, especially in the little town of Loques, where exciting scenes of any kind were very rare.
Thus time crept on, and still no signs of rescue; whilst the anguish and remorse of the repentant sinner became unbearable.
Now, Manon was not only a girl of strong passions but of a fearless spirit. Indeed the latter was somewhat the offspring of the former; for when her feelings were excited, not only justice and charity, as we have seen, were apt to be forgotten, but personal danger and feminine fears were equally overlooked in the tempest that assailed her. On the present occasion, her better feelings were in full activity. Her whole nature was aroused, self was not thought of, and to save the lives she had endangered by her folly, she would have gladly laid down her own. ‘For why live,’ thought she, ‘if my uncle and cousin die? I can never be happy again; besides, I must keep my promise and marry Pierre Bloui; and I had better lose my life in trying to expiate my fault than live to be miserable.’
Manon had a brother called Alexis, who was now at the wars; often and often, in this great strait, she had wished him at home; for she knew that he would have undertaken the mission to Paris for her, and so have saved her the sacrifice she had made in order to win Pierre to her purpose. Now, when Alexis lived at home, and the feuds between the king and the grand seigneurs had brought the battle to the very doors of the peasants of Auvergne, Manon had many a time braved danger in order to bring this much loved brother refreshments on his night watch; and he had, moreover, as an accomplishment which might be some time needed for her own defence, taught her to carry a gun and shoot at a mark.
In those days of civil broil and bloodshed, country maidens were not unfrequently adept in such exercises. This acquirement she now determined to make available; and when the eve of the day appointed for the execution arrived without any tidings from Paris, she prepared to put her plan in practice. This was no other than to shoot the wolf herself, and, by producing it, to prove the falsity of the accusation. For this purpose, she provided herself with a young pig, which she slung in a sack over her shoulder, and with her brother’s gun on the other, and disguised in his habiliments, when the shadows of twilight fell upon the earth, the brave girl went forth into the forest on her bold enterprise alone.
She knew that the moon would rise ere she reached her destination, and on this she reckoned for success. With a beating heart she traversed the broad glades, and crept through the narrow paths that intersected the wide woods till she reached the chestnut avenue where Pierre said he had seen the lame wolf. She was aware that old or disabled animals, who are rendered unfit to hunt their prey, will be attracted a long distance by the scent of food; so having hung her sack with the pig in it to the lower branch of a tree, she herself ascended another close to it, and then presenting the muzzle of her gun straight in the direction of the bag, she sat still as a statue; and there, for the present, we must leave her, whilst we take a peep into the prison of Loques, and see how the unfortunate victims of malice and superstition are supporting their captivity and prospect of approaching death.
Poor Michael Thilouze and his daughter had had a rude awakening from the joyous dreams in which they had both been wrapt. The old man’s journey to Paris had led to what he believed would prove the most glorious results. It was true that report had as usual exaggerated the success of his fellow labourer there. The Italian Alascer had not actually found the philosopher’s stone—but he was on the eve of finding it—one single obstacle stood in his way, and had for a considerable time arrested his progress; and as he was an old man, worn out by anxious thought and unremitting labour, who could scarcely hope to enjoy his own discovery, he consented to disclose to Michael not only all he knew, but also what was the insurmountable difficulty that had delayed his triumph. This precious stone, he had ascertained, which was not only to ensure to the fortunate possessor illimitable wealth, but perennial youth, could not be procured without the aid of a virgin, innocent, perfect, and pure; and, moreover, capable of inviolably keeping the secret which must necessarily be imparted to her.
‘Now,’ said the Italian, ‘virgins are to be had in plenty; but the second condition I find it impossible to fulfill; for they invariably confide what I tell them to some friend or lover; and thus the whole process becomes vitiated, and I am arrested on the very threshold of success.’
Great was the joy of Michael on hearing this; for he well knew that Francoise, his pure, innocent, beautiful Francoise, could keep a secret; he had often had occasion to prove her fidelity; so bidding the Italian keep himself alive but for a little space, when he, in gratitude for what he had taught him, would return with the long sought for treasure, and restore him to health, wealth, and vigorous youth, the glad old man hurried back to Cabanis, and ‘set himself about it like the sea.’
It was in performing the operation required of her that Francoise had so injured her hand that amputation had become unavoidable; and great as had been the joy of Michael was now his grief. Not only had his beloved daughter lost her hand, but the hopes he had built on her co-operation were forever annihilated; maimed and dismembered, she was no longer eligible to assist in the sublime process. But how much greater was his despair, when he learned the suspicions to which this strange coincidence had subjected her, and beheld the innocent, and till now happy girl, led by his side to a dungeon. For himself he cared nothing; for her everything. He was old and disappointed, and to die was little to him—but his Francoise, his young and beautiful Francoise, cut off in her bloom of years, and by so cruel and ignominious a death! And here they were in prison alone, helpless and forsaken! Absorbed in his studies, the poor physician had lived a solitary life; and his daughter, holding a rank a little above the peasantry and below the gentry, had had no companion but Manon, and she was now her bitterest foe; this at least they were told.
How sadly and slowly, and yet how much too fleetly, passed the days that were to intervene betwixt the sentence and the execution. And where was Victor? Where were his vows of love and eternal faith? All, all forgotten. So thought Francoise, who, ignorant of his absence from the Chateau de Vardes, supposed him well acquainted with her distress.
Thus believing themselves abandoned by the world, the poor father and daughter, in tears, and prayers, and attempts at mutual consolation, spent this sad interval, till at length the morning dawned that was to witness the us accomplishment of their dreadful fate. During the preceding night old Michael had never closed his eyes; but Francoise had fallen asleep shortly before sunrise, and was dreaming that it was her wedding day; and that, followed by the cheers of the villagers, Victor, the still beloved Victor, was leading her to the altar. The cheers awoke her, and with the smile of joy still upon her lips, she turned her face to her father.
He was stretched upon the floor overcome by a burst of uncontrollable anguish at the sounds that had aroused her from her slumbers; for the sounds were real. The voices of the populace, crowding in from the adjacent country and villages to witness the spectacle, had pierced the thick walls of the prison and reached the cars and the hearts of the captives. Whilst the old man threw himself at her feet, and, pouring blessings on her fair young head, besought her pardon, Francoise almost forgot her own misery in his; and when the assistants came to lead them forth to execution, she not only exhorted him to patience, but supported with her arm the feeble frame that, wasted by age and grief, could furnish but little fuel for the flame that awaited them.
Nobody would have imagined that in this thinly peopled neighbourhood so many persons could have been brought together as were assembled in the marketplace of Loques to witness the deaths of Michael Thilouze and his daughter. A scaffolding had been erected all round the square for the spectators—that designed for the gentry being adorned with tapestry and garlands of flowers. There sat, amongst others, the families of Montmorenci and De Vardes—all except the Lady Clemence, whose heart recoiled from beholding the death of her rival; although, no more enlightened than her age, she did not doubt the justice of the sentence that had condemned her. In the centre of the area was a pile of faggots, and near it stood the assistant executioners and several members of the church—priests and friars in their robes of black and grey.
The prisoners, accompanied by a procession which was headed by the judge and terminated by the chief executioner of the law, were first marched round the square several times, in order that the whole of the assembly might be gratified with the sight of them; and then being placed in front of the pile, the bishop of the district, who attended in his full canonicals, commenced a mass for the souls of the unhappy persons about to depart this life under such painful circumstances, after which he pronounced a somewhat lengthy oration on the enormity of their crime, ending with an exhortation to confession and repentance.
These, which constituted the whole of the preliminary ceremonies, being concluded, and the judge having read the sentence, to the effect, that, being found guilty of abominable and devilish magic arts, Michael and Francoise Thilouze were condemned to be burnt, especially for that the said Francoise, by her own arts, and those of her father, had bewitched the Count Victor de Vardes, and had sundry times visibly transformed herself into the shape of a wolf, and being caught in a trap, had thereby lost her hand, &c., the prisoners were delivered to the executioner, who prepared to bind them previously to their being placed on the pile.
Then Michael fell upon his knees, and crying aloud to the multitude, besought them to spare his daughter, and to let him die alone; and the hearts of some amongst the people were moved. But from that part of the area where the nobility were seated, there issued a voice of authority, bidding the executioner proceed; so the old man and the young girl were placed upon the pile, and the assistants, with torches in their hands, drew near to set it alight, when a murmur arose from afar, then a hum of voices, a movement in the assembled crowd, which began to sway to and fro like the awing of vast waters.
Then there was a cry of ‘Make way! make way! open a path! let her advance!’ and the crowd divided, and a path was opened, and there came forward, slowly and with difficulty pie, disheveled, with clothes torn and stained with blood Manon Thierry, dragging behind her a dead wolf. The crowd closed in as she advanced, and when she reached the centre of the arena, there was straightway a dead silence. She stood for a moment looking around, and when she saw where the persons in authority sat, she fell upon her knees and essayed to speak; but her voice was choked by emotion, no word escaped her lips; she could only point to the wolf, and plead for mercy by her looks; where her present anguish of soul, and the danger and terror she had lately encountered, were legibly engraved.
The appeal was understood, and gradually the voices of the people rose again—there was a reaction. They who had been so eager for the spectacle, were now ready to supplicate for the victims—the young girl’s heroism had conquered their sympathies. ‘Pardon! pardon!’ was the cry, and a hope awoke in the hearts of the captives. But the interest of the Montmorencis was too strong for that of the populace—the nobility stood by their order, and stern voices commanded silence, and that the ceremony should proceed; and once more the assistants brandished their torches and advanced to the pile; and then Manon, exhausted with grief, terror, and loss of blood, fell upon her face to the ground.
But now, again, there is a sound from afar, and all voices are hushed, and all ears are strained—it is the echo of a horse’s foot galloping over the drawbridge; it approaches; and again, like the surface of a stormy sea, the dense crowd is in motion; and then a path is opened, and a horse, covered with foam, is seen advancing, and thousands of voices burst forth into ‘Viva! Viva!’ The air rings with acclamations. The rider was Victor de Vardes, bearing in his hand the king’s order for arrest of execution.
Pierre Bloui had faithfully performed his embassy; and the brave Henry IV., moved by the prayers and representations of the ardent lover, had hastily furnished him with a mandate commanding respite till further investigation.
Kings were all-powerful in those days; and it was no sooner known that Henry was favourable to the lovers, than the harmlessness of Michael and his daughter was generally acknowledged; the production of the wolf wanting a foot being now considered as satisfactory a proof of their innocence, as the production of the foot wanting the wolf had formerly been of their guilt.
Strange human passions, subject to such excesses and to such revulsions! Michael Thilouze and his daughter happily escaped; and under the king’s countenance and protection, the young couple were married; but we need not remind such of our readers as are learned in the annals of witchcraft, how many unfortunate persons have died at the stake for crimes imputed to them, on no better evidence than this.
As for the heiress of Montmorenci, she bore her loss with considerable philosophy. She would have married the young Count de Vardes without repugnance, but he had been too cold a lover to touch her heart or occasion regret; but poor Manon was the sacrifice for her own error. What manner of contest she had had with the wolf was never known, for she never sufficiently recovered from the state of exhaustion in which she had fallen to the earth, to be able to describe what had passed. Alone she had vanquished the savage animal, alone dragged it through the forest and the village, to the market square, where every human being able to stir, for miles round, was assembled; so that all other places were wholly deserted. The wolf had been shot, but not mortally; its death had evidently been accelerated by other wounds.
Manon herself was much torn and lacerated; and on the spot where the creature had apparently been slain, was found her gun, a knife, and a pool of blood, in which lay several fragments of her dress: Though unable to give any connected account of her own perilous adventure, she was conscious of the happy result of her generous devotion; and before she died received the heartfelt forgiveness and earnest thanks of her uncle and cousin, the former of whom soon followed her to the grave. Despairing now of ever succeeding in his darling object, what was the world to him! He loved his daughter tenderly, but he was possessed with an idea, which it had been the aim and hope of his life to work out. She was safe and happy, and needed him no more; and the hope being dead, life seemed to ooze out with it.
By the loss of that maiden’s hand, who can tell what we have missed! For doubtless it is the difficulty of fulfilling the last condition named by the Italian, which has been the real impediment in the way of all philosophers who have been engaged in alchemical pursuits; and we may reasonably hope, that when women shall have learned to hold their tongues, the philosopher’s stone will be discovered, and poverty and wrinkles thereafter cease to deform the earth.
For long years after these strange events, over the portcullis of the old chateau of the De Vardes, till it fell into utter ruin, might be discerned the figure of a wolf, carved in stone, wanting one of its fore-feet; and underneath it the following inscription—‘In perpetuam rei memoriam.’
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