Wolves are found in the colder and more northern parts of Asia and North America, and over the whole of Europe, except the British Isles, where they were exterminated long ago. Some say Lochiel killed the last wolf in Scotland, some say a gamekeeper was the hero. The wolf very much resembles the dog in appearance, except that his eyes are set in obliquely, and nearer his nose. His coat is commonly of a tawny grey colour, but sometimes black or white, and he varies in size according to the climate. Some wolves only measure two and a half feet in length, not counting the tail, others are much larger. They have remarkably keen sight, hearing, and sense of smell, and such a stealthy gait, that their way of slinking along has passed into a proverb in countries where wolves are common. They live in rocky caverns in the forest, sleep by day like other beasts of prey, and go out at night to forage for food. They eat small birds, reptiles, the smaller animals, such as rats and mice, some fruits, grapes among others, and rotten apples; they do not disdain even dead bodies, nor garbage of any sort. But in times of famine or prolonged snow, when all these provisions fail them, and they feel the pinch of hunger, then woe betide the flocks of sheep or the human beings they may encounter. In 1450 wolves actually came into Paris and attacked the citizens. Even so lately as the long and severe winter of 1894-5, the wolves came down into the plains of Piedmont and the lower Alpes Maritimes in such numbers that the soldiery had to be called out to destroy them. In such times a wolf in broad daylight will steal up to a flock of sheep peacefully feeding, seize on a fine fat one, and make away with it, unseen and unsuspected even by the watchful sheep dog. Should a first attempt prove successful, he will return again and again, till, finding he can no longer rob that flock unmolested, he will look out for another one still unsuspicious. If he once gets inside a sheep-fold at night, he massacres and mangles right and left. When he has slain to his heart’s content, he goes off with a victim and devours it, then comes back for a second, a third, and a fourth carcase, which he carries away to hide under a heap of branches or dead leaves. When dawn breaks, he returns gorged with food to his lair, leaving the ground strewn with the bodies of the slain. The wolf even contrives to get the better of his natural enemy, the dog, using stratagem and cleverness in the place of strength. If he spies a gawky long-legged puppy swaggering about his own farmyard, he will come closer and entice him out to play by means of every sort of caper and gambol. When the young simpleton has been induced to come out beyond the farmyard, the wolf, throwing off his disguise of amiable playfulness, falls upon the dog and carries him away to make a meal of. In the case of a dog stronger and more capable of making resistance the stratagem requires two wolves; one appears to the dog in its true character of wolf, and then disappears into an ambush, where the other lies hidden. The dog, following its natural instinct, pursues the wolf into the ambush, where the two conspirators soon make an end of it.
Audubon, in his ‘Quadrupeds of America,’ tells a story of two young negroes who lived on a plantation on the banks of the Ohio in the State of Kentucky, about the year 1820. They each had a sweetheart, whom they used to go to visit every evening after their work was done. These negresses lived on another plantation about four miles away, but a short cut led across a large cane brake. When winter set in with its long dark nights no ray of light illuminated this dismal swamp. But the negroes continued their nightly expeditions notwithstanding, arming themselves by way of precaution with their axes. One dark night they set off over a thin crust of snow, the reflection from which afforded all the light they had to guide them on their way. Hardly a star appeared through the dense masses of cloud that nearly covered the sky, and menaced more snow. About half way to their destination the negroes’ blood froze at the sound of a long and fearful howl that rent the air; they knew it could only come from a pack of hungry and perhaps desperate wolves. They paused to listen, and only a dismal silence succeeded. In the impenetrable darkness nothing was visible a few feet beyond them; grasping their axes they went on their way though with quaking hearts. Suddenly, in single file, out of the darkness sprang several wolves, who seized on the first man, inflicting terrible wounds with their fangs on his legs and arms; others as ravenous leapt on his companion, and dragged him to the ground. Both negroes fought manfully, but soon one had ceased to move, and the other, despairing of aiding his companion, threw down his axe and sprang on to the branch of a tree, where he found safety and shelter for the rest of that miserable night. When day broke, only the bones of his friend lay scattered on the blood-stained, trampled snow; three dead wolves lay near, but the rest of the pack had betaken themselves to their lair, to sleep away the effects of their night’s gorge.
A sledge journey through the plains of Siberia in winter is a perilous undertaking. If a pack of hungry wolves get on the track of a sledge, the travellers know, as soon as they hear the horrid howls and see the grey forms stealing swiftly across the snow, that their chances of escape are small. If the sledge stops one instant men and horses are lost; the only safety is in flight at utmost speed. It is indeed a race for life! The horses, mad with terror, seem to have wings; the wolves, no less swift, pursue them, their cruel eyes gleaming with the lust for blood. From time to time a shot is fired, and a wolf falls dead in the snow; bolder than the others, he has tried to climb into the sledge and has met his reward. This incident gives a momentary respite to the pursued, for the murderous pack will pause to tear in pieces and devour their dead comrade; then, further inflamed with the taste of blood, they will continue the headlong pursuit with redoubled vigour.
Should the travellers be able to reach a village or friendly farmhouse before the horses are completely exhausted, the wolves, frightened by the lights, will slink away into the forest, balked this time of their prey. On the other hand, should no refuge be near, the wolves will keep up with the horses till the poor beasts stumble and fall from fatigue, when the whole pack will instantly spring upon men and horses, and in a few moments the blood-stained snow alone tells the tale.
There have been instances, but fortunately few, of wolves with a perfect craving for human flesh. Such was the notorious Bête (or beast) du Gévaudan, that from the year 1764 and onwards ravaged the district of that name, in Auvergne, to the south of the centre of France. This wolf was of enormous size, measuring six feet from the point of its nose to the tip of its tail. It devoured eighty-three persons, principally women and children, and seriously wounded twenty-five or thirty others. It was attacked from first to last by between two and three hundred thousand hunters, probably not all at once. With half a dozen wolves, each equal to 200,000 men, a country could afford to do without an army. But the wolf of Gévaudan was no common wolf. He never married, having no leisure, fortunately for the human race. The whole of France was in a state of alarm on its account; the peasants dared no longer go to their work in the fields alone and unarmed. Every day brought tidings of some fresh trouble; in the morning he would spread terror and confusion in some village in the plains, in the evening he would carry off some hapless victim from some mountain hamlet fifteen or twenty leagues away. Five little shepherd boys, feeding their flocks on the mountain-side, were attacked suddenly by the ferocious beast, who made off with the youngest of them; the others, armed only with sticks, pursued the wolf, and attacked it so valiantly that they compelled it to drop its prey and slink off into the wood. A poor woman was sitting at her cottage door with her three children, when the wolf came down on them and attempted to carry off each of the children in turn. The mother fought so courageously in defence of her little ones that she succeeded in putting the wolf to flight, but in so doing was terribly bitten herself, and the youngest child died of his wounds.
Sometimes twenty or thirty parishes joined forces to attack the beast, led by the most experienced huntsmen and the chief louvetier of the kingdom. On one occasion twenty thousand hunters surrounded the forest of Preinières, where it lay concealed; but on this, as well as every other occasion, the wolf escaped in the most surprising—one might almost say miraculous—manner, disappearing as if he had been turned into smoke. Some hunters declared that their bullets had rebounded off him, flattened and harmless. Others alleged that when he had been shot, like the great Dundee, with a silver bullet (a well-known charm against sorcery) at such close quarters that it appeared impossible he should not be mortally wounded, in a day or two some fresh horror would announce that the creature was still uninjured. The very dogs refused at length to go after him, and fled howling in the opposite direction. The belief became general that it was no ordinary wolf of flesh and blood, but the Fiend himself in beast shape. Prayers were put up in the churches, processions took place, and the Host remained exhibited as in the times of plague and public calamity.
The State offered a reward of 2,000 francs to whosoever should slay the monster; the syndics of two neighbouring towns added 500 francs, making a total of 100l. English money, a large sum in those days. The young Countess de Mercoire, an orphan, and châtelaine of one of the finest estates of the district, offered her hand and fortune in marriage to whoever should rid the country of the scourge. This inspired the young Count Léonce de Varinas, who, though no sportsman by nature, was so deeply in love with the Countess that he determined to gain the reward or perish in the attempt. Assisted by a small band of well-trained hunters, and by two formidable dogs, a bloodhound and a mastiff, he began a systematic attack on the wolf. After many fruitless attempts they succeeded one day in driving the creature into an abandoned quarry of vast size, the sides of which were twenty or thirty feet high and quite precipitous, and the only entrance a narrow cart track blasted out of the rock. The young Count, determined to do or die alone, sternly refused to allow his men to accompany him into the quarry, and left them posted at the entrance with orders only to fire on the beast should it attempt to force its way out. Taking only the dogs with him, and having carefully seen to the state of his weapons, he went bravely to the encounter. The narrow defile was so completely hemmed in on every side that, to the vanquished, there was no escape nor alternative but death. Here and there, on patches of half-melted snow, were footprints, evidently recent, of the huge beast; but the creature remained invisible, and for nearly ten minutes the Count had wandered among the rocks and bushes before the dogs began to give sign of the enemy’s presence.
About a hundred yards from where he stood was a frozen pool, on the edge of which grew a clump of bulrushes. Among their dry and yellow stalks Léonce suddenly caught a glimpse of a pair of fiery eyes—nothing more; but it was enough to let him know that the longed-for moment had at length arrived. Léonce advanced cautiously, his gun cocked and ready to fire, and the dogs close at his heels, growling with rage and fear. Still the wolf did not stir, and Léonce, determining to try other tactics, stopped, raised his gun to his shoulder, and aimed between the gleaming eyes, nothing more being yet visible. Before he could fire the beast dashed from among the crackling reeds and sprang straight at him. Léonce, nothing daunted, waited till it was within ten paces and then fired. With a howl of anguish the wolf fell as if dead. Before Léonce had time to utter a shout of joy, it was on its feet again. Streaming with blood and terrible in its rage it fell on the young man. He attempted to defend himself with his bayonet, which, though of tempered steel, was broken as if it had been glass; his gun, too, was bent, and he himself was hurled to the ground. But for his faithful dogs it would soon have been all over with him. They flew at the wolf’s throat, who quickly made an end of the bloodhound; one crunch broke his back, while one stroke of the ruthless paw disembowelled him. Castor, the mastiff, had, however, the wolf by the throat, and a fearful struggle ensued over the prostrate body of Léonce. They bit, they tore, they worried, they rolled over and over each other, the wolf, in spite of its wounds, having always the advantage. Half stunned by the fall, suffocated by the weight of the combatants, and blinded by the dust and snow they scattered in the fray, Léonce had just sufficient strength to make one last effort in self-defence. Drawing his hunting-knife, he plunged it to the hilt in the shaggy mass above him. From a distance he seemed to hear shouts of ‘Courage, Monsieur! Courage, Castor! We are coming!’ then conscious only of an overwhelming weight above him, and of iron claws tearing at his chest, he fainted away. When he came to himself he was lying on the ground, surrounded by his men. Starting up, he exclaimed, ‘The beast! where is the beast?’
‘Dead, Monsieur! stone dead!’ answered the head-keeper, showing him the horrid creature, all torn and bloody, stretched out on the snow beside the dead bloodhound. Castor, a little way off, lay panting and bruised, licking his wound. The Count’s knife was firmly embedded in the beast’s ribs; it had gone straight to the heart and death had been instantaneous. A procession was formed to carry the carcase of the wolf in triumph to the castle of the Countess. The news had flown in advance, and she was waiting on the steps to welcome the conquering hero. It was not long before the Countess and the gallant champion were married; and, as the wolf left no family, the country was at peace. Are you not rather sorry for the poor wolf?