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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 keenly.

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 the hamlet.

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 be done!”

“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 thy promise.”

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 anticipation.

“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 furiously.

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 interest.

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 at hand.

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 long “O-w!”

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 itself.

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 cabbage.

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 fireplace.

“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 inn.

There were not less than twenty of them; there seemed to be a hundred.

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 pitcher.

“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 above.

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 the Oberland.

“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 St. Gervas.”