“The Wehr-wolf” by George W.M. Reynolds

Halloween:
A monster’s frenzied night run of true awfulness and horror. Have a Happy Halloween Night!
-The Voice before the Void

“The Wehr-wolf”

from Wagner the Wehr-wolf

George W.M. Reynolds

‘Twas the hour of sunset.

The eastern horizon, with its gloomy and somber twilight, offered a strange contrast to the glorious glowing hues of vermilion, and purple, and gold, that blended in long streaks athwart the western sky.

For even the winter sunset of Italy is accompanied with resplendent tints—as if an emperor, decked with a refulgent diadem, were repairing to his imperial couch.

The declining rays of the orb of light bathed in molten gold the pinnacles, steeples, and lofty palaces of proud Florence, and toyed with the limpid waves of the Arno, on whose banks innumerable villas and casinos already sent forth delicious strains of music, broken only by the mirth of joyous revelers.

And by degrees as the sun went down, the palaces of the superb city began to shed light from their lattices, set in rich sculptured masonry; and here and there, where festivity prevailed, grand illuminations sprung up with magical quickness, the reflection from each separate galaxy rendering it bright as day far, far around.

Vocal and instrumental melody floated through the still air; and the perfume of exotics, decorating the halls of the Florentine nobles, poured from the widely-opened portals, and rendered the air delicious.

For Florence was gay that evening—the last day of each month being the one which the wealthy lords and high-born ladies set apart for the reception of their friends.

The sun sank behind the western hills; and even the hot-house flowers closed up their buds—as if they were eyelids weighed down by slumber, and not to wake until the morning should arouse them again to welcome the return of their lover—that glorious sun!

Darkness seemed to dilate upon the sky like an image in the midst of a mirage, expanding into superhuman dimensions—then rapidly losing its shapeliness, and covering the vault above densely and confusedly.

But, by degrees, countless stars began to stud the colorless canopy of heaven, like gems of orient splendor; for the last—last flickering ray of the twilight in the west had expired in the increasing obscurity.

But, hark! what is that wild and fearful cry?

In the midst of a wood of evergreens on the banks of the Arno, a man—young, handsome, and splendidly attired—has thrown himself upon the ground, where he writhes like a stricken serpent, in horrible convulsions.

He is the prey of a demoniac excitement: an appalling consternation is on him—madness is in his brain—his mind is on fire.

Lightnings appear to gleam from his eyes, as if his soul were dismayed, and withering within his breast.

“Oh! no—no!” he cries with a piercing shriek, as if wrestling madly, furiously, but vainly against some unseen fiend that holds him in his grasp.

And the wood echoes to that terrible wail; and the startled bird flies fluttering from its bough.

But, lo! what awful change is taking place in the form of that doomed being? His handsome countenance elongates into one of savage and brute-like shape; the rich garments which he wears become a rough, shaggy, and wiry skin; his body loses its human contours, his arms and limbs take another form; and, with a frantic howl of misery, to which the woods give horribly faithful reverberations, and, with a rush like a hurling wind, the wretch starts wildly away, no longer a man, but a monstrous wolf!

On, on he goes: the wood is cleared—the open country is gained. Tree, hedge, and isolated cottage appear but dim points in the landscape—a moment seen, the next left behind; the very hills appear to leap after each other.

A cemetery stands in the monster’s way, but he turns not aside—through the sacred inclosure—on, on he goes. There are situated many tombs, stretching up the slope of a gentle acclivity, from the dark soil of which the white monuments stand forth with white and ghastly gleaming, and on the summit of the hill is the church of St. Benedict the Blessed.

From the summit of the ivy-grown tower the very rooks, in the midst of their cawing, are scared away by the furious rush and the wild howl with which the Wehr-Wolf thunders over the hallowed ground.

At the same instant a train of monks appear round the angle of the church—for there is a funeral at that hour; and their torches flaring with the breeze that is now springing up, cast an awful and almost magical light on the dark gray walls of the edifice, the strange effect being enhanced by the prismatic reflection of the lurid blaze from the stained glass of the oriel window.

The solemn spectacle seemed to madden the Wehr-Wolf. His speed increased—he dashed through the funeral train—appalling cries of terror and alarm burst from the lips of the holy fathers—and the solemn procession was thrown into confusion. The coffin-bearers dropped their burden, and the corpse rolled out upon the ground, its decomposing countenance seeming horrible by the glare of the torch-light.

The monk who walked nearest the head of the coffin was thrown down by the violence with which the ferocious monster cleared its passage; and the venerable father—on whose brow sat the snow of eighty winters—fell with his head against a monument, and his brains were dashed out.

On, on fled the Wehr-Wolf, over mead and hill, through valley and dale. The very wind seemed to make way: he clove the air—he appeared to skim the ground—to fly.

Through the romantic glades and rural scenes of Etruria the monster sped—sounds, resembling shrieking howls, bursting ever and anon from his foaming mouth—his red eyes glaring in the dusk of the evening like ominous meteors—and his whole aspect so full of appalling ferocity, that never was seen so monstrous, so terrific a spectacle!

A village is gained; he turns not aside, but dashes madly through the little street formed by the huts and cottages of the Tuscan vine-dressers.

A little child is in his path—a sweet, blooming, ruddy, noble boy; with violet-colored eyes and flaxen hair—disporting merrily at a short distance from his parents, who are seated at the threshold of their dwelling.

Suddenly a strange and ominous rush—an unknown trampling of rapid feet falls upon their ears; then, with a savage cry, a monster sweeps past.

“My child! my child!” screams the affrighted mother; and simultaneously the shrill cry of an infant in the sudden agony of death carries desolation to the ear!

‘Tis done—’twas but the work of a moment; the wolf has swept by, the quick rustling of his feet is no longer heard in the village. But those sounds are succeeded by awful wails and heart-rending lamentations: for the child—the blooming, violet-eyed, flaxen-haired boy—the darling of his poor but tender parents, is weltering in his blood!

On, on speeds the destroyer, urged by an infernal influence which maddens the more intensely because its victim strives vainly to struggle against it: on, on, over the beaten road—over the fallow field—over the cottager’s garden—over the grounds of the rich one’s rural villa.

And now, to add to the horrors of the scene, a pack of dogs have started in pursuit of the wolf—dashing—hurrying—pushing—pressing upon one another in all the anxious ardor of the chase.

The silence and shade of the open country, in the mild star-light, seem eloquently to proclaim the peace and happiness of a rural life; but now that silence is broken by the mingled howling of the wolf, and the deep baying of the hounds—and this shade is crossed and darkened by the forms of the animals as they scour so fleetly—oh! with such whirlwind speed along.

But that Wehr-Wolf bears a charmed life; for though the hounds overtake him—fall upon him—and attack him with all the courage of their nature, yet does he hurl them from him, toss them aside, spurn them away, and at length free himself from their pursuit altogether!

And now the moon rises with unclouded splendor, like a maiden looking from her lattice screened with purple curtains; and still the monster hurries madly on with unrelaxing speed.

For hours has he pursued his way thus madly; and, on a sudden, as he passes the outskirts of a sleeping town, the church-bell is struck by the watcher’s hand to proclaim midnight.

Over the town, over the neighboring fields—through the far-off forest, clanged that iron tongue: and the Wehr-Wolf sped all the faster, as if he were running a race with that Time whose voice had just spoken.

On, on went the Wehr-Wolf; but now his course began to deviate from the right line which he had hitherto pursued, and to assume a curved direction.

From a field a poor man was turning an ox into the main road, that he might drive the animal to his master’s residence by daylight; the wolf swept by, and snapped furiously at the ox as he passed: and the beast, affrighted by the sudden appearance, gushing sound, and abrupt though evanescent attack of the infuriate monster, turned on the herdsman and gored him to death.

On went the terrific wolf, with wilder and more frequent howlings, which were answered in a thousand tones from the rocks and caverns overlooking the valley through whose bosom he was now careering with whirlwind speed along.

It was now two o’clock in the morning, and he had already described an immense circuit from the point where he had begun to deviate from a direct course.

At a turning of the road, as he emerged from the valley, the monster encountered a party of village girls repairing with the produce of their dairies, and of their poultry-yards, to some still far distant town, which they had hoped to reach shortly after daybreak.

Fair, gay, and smiling was the foremost maiden, as the bright moon and the silver starlight shone upon her countenance; but that sweet face, clad in the richest hues of health, was suddenly convulsed with horror, as the terrible Wehr-Wolf thundered by with appalling howls.

For a few moments the foremost village maiden stood rooted to the spot in speechless horror: then, uttering a wild cry, she fell backward, rolled down a steep bank, and was ingulfed in the rapid stream that chafed and fretted along the side of the path.

Her companions shrieked in agony of mind—the wail was echoed by a despairing cry from the drowning girl—a cry that swept frantically over the rippling waters; and, in another moment, she sank to rise no more!

The breeze had by this time increased to a sharp wind, icy and cold, as it usually is, even in southern climes, when the dawn is approaching; and the gale now whistled through the branches of the evergreen wood in the neighborhood of Florence—that vicinity to which the Wehr-Wolf was at length returning!

Still was his pace of arrow-like velocity—for some terrible power appeared to urge him on; and though his limbs failed not, though he staggered not in his lightning speed, yet did the foam at his mouth, the thick flakes of perspiration on his body, and the steam that enveloped him as in a dense vapor, denote how distressed the unhappy being in reality was.

At last—at last a faint tinge was visible above the eastern horizon; gradually the light increased and put to flight the stars.

But now the Oriental sky was to some extent obscured with clouds; and the Wehr-Wolf gnashed his teeth with rage, and uttered a savage howl, as if impatient of the delay of dawn.

His speed began to relax; the infernal influence which had governed him for so many hours already grew less stern, less powerful, and as the twilight shone forth more plainly in proportion did the Wehr-Wolf’s velocity diminish.

Suddenly a piercing chill darted through his frame, and he fell in strong convulsions upon the ground, in the midst of the same wood where his transformation had taken place on the preceding evening.

The sun rose angrily, imparting a lurid, reddened hue to the dark clouds that hung upon the Oriental heaven, as if the mantling curtains of a night’s pavilion strove to repel the wooing kisses of the morn; and the cold chill breeze made the branches swing to and fro with ominous flapping, like the wings of the fabulous Simoorg.

But in the midst of the appalling spasmodic convulsions, with direful writhings on the soil, and with cries of bitter anguish, the Wehr-Wolf gradually threw off his monster-shape; and at the very moment when the first sunbeam penetrated the wood and glinted on his face he rose a handsome, young, and perfect man once more!