“But why did you not set the dogs after her?” asked Paul, interested, in spite of himself, at the old man’s narrative. “In the open Troska and Bransköe would run down any wolf that ever set foot to the ground in Lithuania.”
“I tried to do so, little father,” answered the old man, solemnly; “but directly they got up to the spot where the beast had executed her last devilish gambol, they put their tails between their legs and ran back to the house as fast as their legs could carry them.”
“Strange,” muttered Paul, thoughtfully, “that is, if it is truth and not vodki that is speaking.”
“My lord,” returned the old man, reproachfully, “man and boy, I have served you and my lord your father for fifty years, and no one can say that they ever saw Michal Vassilitch the worse for liquor.”
‘No one doubts that you are a sly old thief, Michal,” returned his master, with his coarse, jarring laugh; “but for all that, your long stories of having been followed by white wolves won’t prevent me from going to the forest to-day. A couple of good buckshot cartridges will break any spell, though I don’t think that the she-wolf, if she existed anywhere than in your own imagination, has anything to do with magic. Don’t be frightened, Katrina, my pet; you shall have a fine white wolf skin to put your feet on, if what this old fool says is right.”
“Michal is not a fool,” pouted the child, “and it is very wicked of you to call him so. I don’t want any nasty wolf skins, I want the gray squirrels.”
And you shall have them, my precious,” returned her father, setting her down upon the ground. “Be a good girl, and I will not be long away.”
“Father,” said the little Alexis, suddenly, “let me go with you. I should like to see you kill a wolf, and then I should know how to do so, when I grow older and taller.”
“Pshaw,” returned his father, irritably. “Boys are always in the way. Take the lad away, Michal; don’t you see that he is worrying his sweet little sister?”
“No, no, he does not worry me at all,” answered the impetuous little lady, as she flew to her brother and covered him with kisses. “Michal, you shan’t take him away, do you hear?”
“There, there, leave the children together,” returned Paul, as he shouldered his gun, and kissing the tips of his fingers to Katrina, stepped away rapidly in the direction of the dark pine woods. Paul walked on, humming the fragment of an air that he had heard in a very different place many years ago. A strange feeling of elation crept over him, very different to the false excitement which his solitary drinking bouts were wont to produce. A change seemed to have come over his whole life, the skies looked brighter, the spiculæ of the pine trees of a more vivid green, and the landscape seemed to have lost that dull cloud of depression which had for years appeared to hang over it. And beneath all this exaltation of the mind, beneath all this unlooked-for promise of a more happy future, lurked a heavy, inexplicable feeling of a power to come, a something without form or shape, and yet the more terrible because it was shrouded by that thick veil which conceals from the eyes of the soul the strange fantastic designs of the dwellers beyond the line of earthly influences.
There were no signs of the poacher, and wearied with searching for him, Paul made the woods reecho with his name. The great dog, Troska, which had followed his master, looked up wistfully into his face, and at a second repetition of the name “Ivanovitch,” uttered a long plaintive howl, and then, looking round at Paul as though entreating him to follow, moved slowly ahead towards a denser portion of the forest. A little mystified at the hound’s unusual proceedings, Paul followed, keeping his gun ready to fire at the least sign of danger. He thought that he knew the forest well, but the dog led the way to a portion which he never remembered to have visited before. He had got away from the pine trees now, and had entered a dense thicket formed of stunted oaks and hollies. The great dog kept only a yard or so ahead; his lips were drawn back, showing the strong white fangs, the hair upon his neck and back was bristling, and his tail firmly pressed between his hind legs. Evidently the animal was in a state of the most extreme terror, and yet it proceeded bravely forward. Struggling through the dense thicket, Paul suddenly found himself in an open space of some ten or twenty yards in diameter. At one end of it was a slimy pool, into the waters of which several strange-looking reptiles glided as the man and dog made their appearance. Almost in the center of the opening was a shattered stone cross, and at its base lay a dark heap, close to which Troska stopped, and again raising his head, uttered a long melancholy howl. For an instant or two, Paul gazed hesitatingly at the shapeless heap that lay beneath the cross, and then, mustering up all his courage, he stepped forwards and bent anxiously over it. Once glance was enough, for he recognized the body of Ivanovitch the poacher, hideously mangled. With a cry of surprise, he turned over the body and shuddered as he gazed upon the terrible injuries that had been inflicted. The unfortunate man had evidently been attacked by some savage beast, for there were marks of teeth upon the throat, and the jugular vein had been almost torn out. The breast of the corpse had been torn open, evidently by long sharp claws, and there was a gaping orifice upon the left side, round which the blood had formed in a thick coagulated patch. The only animals to be found in the forests of Russia capable of inflicting such wounds are the bear or the wolf, and the question as to the class of the assailant was easily settled by a glance at the dank ground, which showed the prints of a wolf so entirely different from the plantegrade traces of the bear.
“Savage brutes,” muttered Paul. “So, after all, there may have been some truth in Michal’s story, and the old idiot may for once in his life have spoken the truth. Well, it is no concern of mine, and if a fellow chooses to wander about the woods at night to kill my game, instead of remaining in his own hovel, he must take his chance. The strange thing is that the brutes have not eaten him, though they have mauled him so terribly.”
He turned away as he spoke, intending to return home and send out some of the serfs to bring in the body of the unhappy man, when his eye was caught by a small white object, hanging from a bramble bush near the pond. He made towards the spot, and taking up the object, examined it curiously. It was a tuft of coarse white hair, evidently belonging to some animal.”
“A wolf’s hair, or I am much mistaken,” muttered Paul, pressing the hair between his fingers, and then applying it to his nose. “And from its color, I should think that it belonged to the white lady who so terribly alarmed old Michal on the occasion of his night walk through the marsh.”
Paul found it no easy task to retrace his steps towards those parts of the forest with which he was acquainted, and Troska seemed unable to render him the slightest assistance, but followed moodily behind. Many times Paul found his way blocked by impenetrable thicket or dangerous quagmire, and during his many wanderings he had the ever-present sensation that there was a something close to him, an invisible something, a noiseless something, but for all that a presence which moved as he advanced, and halted as he stopped in vain to listen. The certainty that an impalpable thing of some shape or other was close at hand grew so strong, that as the short autumn day began to close, and darker shadows to fall between the trunks of the lofty trees, it made him hurry on at his utmost speed. At length, when he had grown almost mad with terror, he suddenly came upon a path he knew, and with a feeling of intense relief, he stepped briskly forward in the direction of Kostopchin. As he left the forest and came into the open country, a faint wail seemed to ring through the darkness; but Paul’s nerves had been so much shaken that he did not know whether this was an actual fact or only the offspring of his own excited fancy. As he crossed the neglected lawn that lay in front of the house, old Michal came rushing out of the house with terror convulsing every feature.
“Oh, my lord, my lord!” gasped he, “is not this too terrible?”
“Nothing has happened to my Katrina?” cried the father, a sudden sickly feeling of terror passing through his heart.
“No, no, the little lady is quite safe, thanks to the Blessed Virgin and Saint Alexander of Nevskoi,” returned Michal; “but oh, my lord, poor Marta, the herd’s daughter ——”
“Well, what of the slut?” demanded Paul, for now that his momentary fear for the safety of his daughter had passed away, he had but little sympathy to spare for so insignificant a creature as a serf girl.
“I told you that Kosma was dying,” answered Michal. “Well, Marta went across the marsh this afternoon to fetch the priest, but alas! she never came back.”
“What detained her, then?” asked his master.
“One of the neighbors, going in to see how Kosma was getting on, found the poor old man dead; his face was terribly contorted, and he was half in the bed, and half out, as though he had striven to reach the door. The man ran to the village to give the alarm, and as the men returned to the herdsman’s hut, they found the body of Marta in a thicket by the clump of alders on the marsh.”
“Her body — she was dead then?” asked Paul.
“Dead, my lord; killed by wolves,” answered the old man. “And oh, my lord, it is too horrible, her breast was horribly lacerated, and her heart had been taken out and eaten, for it was nowhere to be found.”
Paul started, for the horrible mutilation of the body of Ivanovitch the poacher occurred to his recollection.
“And, my lord,” continued the old man, “this is not all; on a bush close by was this tuft of hair,” and, as he spoke, he took it from a piece of paper in which it was wrapped and handed it to his master.
Paul took it and recognized a similar tuft of hair to that which he had seen upon the bramble bush beside the shattered cross.
“Surely, my lord,” continued Michal, not heeding his master’s look of surprise, “you will have out men and dogs to hunt down this terrible creature, or, better still, send for the priest and holy water, for I have my doubts whether the creature belongs to this earth.”
Paul shuddered, and, after a short pause, he told Michal of the ghastly end of Ivanovitch the poacher.
The old man listened with the utmost excitement, crossing himself repeatedly, and muttering invocations to the Blessed Virgin and the saints every instant; but his master would no longer listen to him, and, ordering him to place brandy on the table, sat drinking moodily until daylight.