The Wolves of
St. Gervas by Susan Coolidge
There never seemed a place more in need of something to make it
merry than was the little Swiss hamlet of St. Gervas toward the end of
March, some years since.
The winter had been the hardest ever known in the Bernese Oberland.
Ever since November the snow had fallen steadily, with few
intermissions, and the fierce winds from the Breithorn and the St.
Theodule Pass had blown day and night, and the drifts deepened in the
valleys, and the icicles on the eaves of the chalets grown thicker and
longer. The old wives had quoted comforting saws about a white
Michaelmas making a brown Easter; but Easter was at hand now, and
there were no signs of relenting yet.
Week after week the strong men had sallied forth with shovels and
pickaxes to dig out the half-buried dwellings, and to open the paths
between them, which had grown so deep that they seemed more like
trenches than footways.
Month after month the intercourse between neighbors had become more
difficult and meetings less frequent. People looked over the white
wastes at each other, the children ran to the doors and shouted
messages across the snow, but no one was brave enough to face the cold
and the drifts.
Even the village inn was deserted. Occasionally some hardy wayfarer
came by and stopped for a mug of beer and to tell Dame Ursel, the
landlady, how deep the snows were, how black clouds lay to the north,
betokening another fall, and that the shoulders and flanks of the
Matterhorn were whiter than man had ever seen them before. Then he
would struggle on his way, and perhaps two or three days would pass
before another guest crossed the threshold.
It was a sad change for the Kröne, whose big sanded kitchen was
usually crowded with jolly peasants, and full of laughter and jest, the
clinking of glasses, and the smoke from long pipes. Dame Ursel felt it
But such jolly meetings were clearly impossible now. The weather was
too hard. Women could not easily make their way through the snow, and
they dared not let the children play even close to the doors; for as
the wind blew strongly down from the sheltering forest on the hill
above, which was the protection of St. Gervas from landslides and
avalanches, shrill yelping cries would ever and anon be heard, which
sounded very near. The mothers listened with a shudder, for it was
known that the wolves, driven by hunger, had ventured nearer to the
hamlet than they had ever before done, and were there just above on the
hillside, waiting to make a prey of anything not strong enough to
protect itself against them.
Three pigs have they carried off since Christmas, said Mère Kronk,
and one of those the pig of a widow! Two sheep and a calf have they
also taken; and only night before last they all but got at the
Alleene's cow. Matters have come to a pass indeed in St. Gervas, if
cows are to be devoured in our very midst! Toinette and Pertal, come in
at once! Thou must not venture even so far as the doorstep unless thy
father be along, and he with his rifle over his shoulder, if he wants
me to sleep of nights.
Oh, dear! sighed little Toinette for the hundredth time. How I
wish the dear summer would come! Then the wolves would go away, and we
could run about as we used, and Gretchen Slaut and I go to the Alp for
berries. It seems as if it had been winter forever and ever. I haven't
seen Gretchen or little Marie for two whole weeks. Their mother,
too, is fearful of the wolves.
All the mothers in St. Gervas were fearful of the wolves.
The little hamlet was, as it were, in a state of siege. Winter, the
fierce foe, was the besieger. Month by month he had drawn his lines
nearer, and made them stronger; the only hope was in the rescue which
spring might bring. Like a beleaguered garrison, whose hopes and
provisions are running low, the villagers looked out with eager eyes
for the signs of coming help, and still the snows fell, and the help
did not come.
How fared it meanwhile in the forest slopes above?
It is not a sin for a wolf to be hungry, any more than it is for a
man; and the wolves of St. Gervas were ravenous indeed. All their
customary supplies were cut off. The leverets and marmots, and other
small animals on which they were accustomed to prey, had been driven by
the cold into the recesses of their hidden holes, from which they did
not venture out. There was no herbage to tempt the rabbits forth, no
tender birch growths for the strong gray hares.
No doubt the wolves talked the situation over in their wolfish
language, realized that it was a desperate one, and planned the daring
forays which resulted in the disappearance of the pigs and sheep and
the attack on the Alleene's cow. The animals killed all belonged to
outlying houses a little further from the village than the rest; but
the wolves had grown bold with impunity, and, as Mère Kronk said, there
was no knowing at what moment they might make a dash at the centre of
I fear they would have enjoyed a fat little boy or girl if they
could have come across one astray on the hillside, near their haunts,
very much. But no such luck befell them. The mothers of St. Gervas were
too wary for that, and no child went out after dark, or ventured more
than a few yards from the open house-door, even at high noon.
Something must be done, declared Johann Vecht, the bailiff. We
are growing sickly and timorous. My wife hasn't smiled for a month. She
talks of nothing but snow and wolves, and it is making the children
fearful. My Annerle cried out in her sleep last night that she was
being devoured, and little Kasper woke up and cried too. Something must
Something must indeed be done! repeated Solomon, the forester. We
are letting the winter get the better of us, and losing heart and
courage. We must make an effort to get together in the old neighborly
way; that's what we want.
This conversation took place at the Kröne, and here the landlady,
who was tired of empty kitchen and scant custom, put in her word:
You are right, neighbors. What we need is to get together, and
feast and make merry, forgetting the hard times. Make your plans, and
trust me to carry them out to the letter. Is it a feast that you decide
upon? I will cook it. Is it a musiker fest? My Carl, there, can
play the zither with any other, no matter whom it be, and can sing.
Himmel! how he can sing! Command me! I will work my fingers to the
bone rather than you shall not be satisfied.
Aha, the sun! cried Solomon; for as the landlady spoke, a pale
yellow ray shot through the pane and streamed over the floor. That is
a good omen. Dame Ursel, thou art right. A jolly merrymaking is what we
all want. We will have one, and thou shalt cook the supper according to
Several neighbors had entered the inn kitchen since the talk began,
so that quite a company had collected,more than had got together
since the mass on Christmas Day. All were feeling cheered by the sight
of the sunshine; it seemed a happy moment to propose the merrymaking.
So it was decided then and there that a supper should be held that
day week at the Kröne, men and women both to be invited,all, in fact,
who could pay and wished to come. It seemed likely that most of the
inhabitants of St. Gervas would be present, such enthusiasm did the
plan awake in young and old. The week's delay would allow time to send
to the villagers lower down in the valley for a reinforcement of
tobacco, for the supply of that essential article was running low, and
what was a feast without tobacco?
We shall have a quarter of mutton, declared the landlady. Neils
Austerman is to kill next Monday, and I will send at once to bespeak
the hind-quarter. That will insure a magnificent roast. Three fat geese
have I also, fit for the spit, and four hens. Oh, I assure you, my
masters, that there shall be no lack on my part! My Fritz shall get a
large mess of eels from the Lake. He fishes through the ice, as thou
knowest, and is lucky; the creatures always take his hook. Fried eels
are excellent eating! You will want a plenty of them. Three months
maigre is good preparation for a feast. Wine and beer we have in
plenty in the cellar, and the cheese I shall cut is as a cartwheel for
bigness. Bring you the appetites, my masters, and I will engage that
the supply is sufficient.
The landlady rubbed her hands as she spoke, with an air of joyful
My mouth waters already with thy list, declared Kronk. I must
hasten home and tell my dame of the plan. It will raise her spirits,
poor soul, and she is sadly in need of cheering.
The next week seemed shorter than any week had seemed since
Michaelmas. True, the weather was no better. The brief sunshine had
been followed by a wild snowstorm, and the wind was still blowing
But now there was something to talk and think about besides weather.
Everybody was full of the forthcoming feast. Morning after morning
Fritz of the Kröne could be seen sitting beside his fishing-holes on
the frozen lake, patiently letting down his lines, and later, climbing
the hill, his basket laden with brown and wriggling eels. Everybody
crowded to the windows to watch him,the catch was a matter of public
Three hardy men on snow-shoes, with guns over their shoulders, had
ventured down to St. Nicklaus, and returned, bringing the wished-for
tobacco and word that the lower valleys were no better off than the
upper, that everything was buried in snow, and no one had got in from
the Rhone valley for three weeks or more.
Anxiously was the weather watched as the day of the feast drew near;
and when the morning dawned, every one gave a sigh of relief that it
did not snow. It was gray and threatening, but the wind had veered, and
blew from the southwest. It was not nearly so cold, and a change seemed
The wolves of St. Gervas were quite as well aware as the inhabitants
that something unusual was going forward.
From their covert in the sheltering wood they watched the stir and
excitement, the running to and fro, the columns of smoke which streamed
upward from the chimneys of the inn. As the afternoon drew on, strange
savory smells were wafted upward by the strong-blowing wind,smells of
frying and roasting, and hissing fat.
Oh, how it smells! How good it does smell! said one wolf. He
snuffed the wind greedily, then threw back his head and gave vent to a
The other wolves joined in the howl.
What can it be? Oh, how hungry it makes me! cried one of the
younger ones. O-w-w-w!
What a dreadful noise those creatures are making up there,
remarked Frau Kronk as, under the protection of her stalwart husband,
she hurried her children along the snow path toward the Kröne. They
sound so hungry! I shall not feel really safe till we are all at home
again, with the door fast barred.
But she forgot her fears when the door of the inn was thrown
hospitably open as they drew near, and the merry scene inside revealed
The big sanded kitchen had been dressed with fir boughs, and was
brightly lighted with many candles. At the great table in the midst sat
rows of men and women, clad in their Sunday best. The men were smoking
long pipes, tall mugs of beer stood before everybody, and a buzz of
talk and laughter filled the place.
Beyond, in the wide chimney, blazed a glorious fire, and about and
over it the supper could be seen cooking. The quarter of mutton, done
to a turn, hung on its spit, and on either side of it sputtered the
geese and the fat hens, brown and savory, and smelling delicious. Over
the fire on iron hooks hung a great kettle of potatoes and another of
On one side of the hearth knelt Gretel, the landlord's daughter,
grinding coffee, while on the other her brother Fritz brandished an
immense frying-pan heaped with sizzling eels, which sent out the
loudest smells of all.
The air of the room was thick with the steam of the fry mingled with
the smoke of the pipes. A fastidious person might have objected to it
as hard to breathe, but the natives of St. Gervas were not fastidious,
and found no fault whatever with the smells and the smoke which, to
them, represented conviviality and good cheer. Even the dogs under the
table were rejoicing in it, and sending looks of expectation toward the
Welcome, welcome! cried the jolly company as the Kronks appeared.
Last to come is as well off as first, if a seat remains, and the
supper is still uneaten. Sit thee down, Dame, while the young ones join
the other children in the little kitchen. Supper is all but ready, and
a good one too, as all noses testify. Those eels smell rarely. It is
but to fetch the wine now, and then fall to, eh, Landlady?
Nor shall the wine be long lacking! cried Dame Ursel, snatching up
a big brown pitcher. Sit thee down, Frau Kronk. That place beside thy
gossip Barbe was saved for thee. 'Tis but to go to the cellar and
return, and all will be ready. Stir the eels once more, Fritz; and
thou, Gretchen, set the coffee-pot on the coals. I shall be back in the
twinkling of an eye.
There was a little hungry pause. From the smaller kitchen, behind,
the children's laughter could be heard.
It is good to be in company again, said Frau Kronk, sinking into
her seat with a sigh of pleasure.
Yes, so we thought,we who got up the feast, responded Solomon,
the forester. 'Neighbors,' says I, 'we are all getting out of spirits
with so much cold and snow, and we must rouse ourselves and do
something.' 'Yes,' says they, 'but what?' 'Nothing can be plainer,'
says I, 'we must'Himmel! what is that?
What was it, indeed?
For even as Solomon spoke, the heavy door of the kitchen burst open,
letting in a whirl of cold wind and sleet, and letting in something
else as well.
For out of the darkness, as if blown by the wind, a troop of dark
swift shapes darted in.
They were the wolves of St. Gervas, who, made bold by hunger, and
attracted and led on by the strong fragrance of the feast, had
forgotten their usual cowardice, and, stealing from the mountain-side
and through the deserted streets of the hamlet, had made a dash at the
There were not less than twenty of them; there seemed to be a
As if acting by a preconcerted plan, they made a rush at the
fireplace. The guests sat petrified round the table, with their dogs
cowering at their feet, and no one stirred or moved, while the biggest
wolf, who seemed the leader of the band, tore the mutton from the spit,
while the next in size made a grab at the fat geese and the fowls, and
the rest seized upon the eels, hissing hot as they were, in the pan.
Gretchen and Fritz sat in their respective corners of the hearth,
paralyzed with fright at the near, snapping jaws and the fierce red
eyes which glared at them.
Then, overturning the cabbage-pot as they went, the whole pack
whirled, and sped out again into the night, which seemed to swallow
them up all in a moment.
And still the guests sat as if turned to stone, their eyes fixed
upon the door, through which the flakes of the snow-squall were rapidly
drifting; and no one had recovered voice to utter a word, when Dame
Ursel, rosy and beaming, came up from the cellar with her brimming
Why is the door open? she demanded. Then her eyes went over to the
fireplace, where but a moment before the supper had been. Had been; for
not an eatable article remained except the potatoes and the cabbages
and cabbage water on the hearth. From far without rang back a long howl
which had in it a note of triumph.
This was the end of the merrymaking. The guests were too startled
and terrified to remain for another supper, even had there been time to
cook one. Potatoes, black bread, and beer remained, and with these the
braver of the guests consoled themselves, while the more timorous
hurried home, well protected with guns, to barricade their doors, and
rejoice that it was their intended feast and not themselves which was
being discussed at that moment by the hungry denizens of the forest
There was a great furbishing up of bolts and locks next day, and a
fitting of stout bars to doors which had hitherto done very well
without such safeguards; but it was a long time before any inhabitant
of St. Gervas felt it safe to go from home alone, or without a rifle
over his shoulder.
So the wolves had the best of the merrymaking, and the villagers
decidedly the worst. Still, the wolves were not altogether to be
congratulated; for, stung by their disappointment and by the unmerciful
laughter and ridicule of the other villages, the men of St. Gervas
organized a great wolf-hunt later in the spring, and killed such a
number that to hear a wolf howl has become a rare thing in that part of
Ha! ha! my fine fellow, you are the one that made off with our
mutton so fast, said the stout forester, as he stripped the skin from
the largest of the slain. Your days for mutton are over, my friend. It
will be one while before you and your thievish pack come down again to
interrupt Christian folk at their supper!
But, in spite of Solomon's bold words, the tale of the frustrated
feast has passed into a proverb; and to-day in the neighboring chalets
and hamlets you may hear people say, Don't count on your mutton till
it's in your mouth, or it may fare with you as with the merry-makers at