The Case of the Family of Kloska and the Lycanthropous Flower
In the mountainous regions of Austria-Hungary and the Balkan Peninsula are certain flowers credited with the property of converting into werwolves whoever plucks and wears them.
Ivan and Olga were the children of Otto and Vera Kloska—the former a storekeeper of Kerovitch, a village on the Roumanian side of the Transylvanian Alps. One morning they were out with their mother, watching her wash clothes in a brook at the back of their house, when, getting tired of their occupation, they wandered into a thicket.
“Let’s make a chaplet of flowers,” Olga said, plucking a daisy. “You gather the flowers and I’ll weave them together.”
“It’s not much of a game,” Ivan grumbled, “but I can’t think of anything more exciting just now, so I’ll play it. But let’s both make wreaths and see which makes the best.”
To this Olga agreed, and they were soon busily hunting amidst the grass and undergrowth, and scrambling into all sorts of possible and impossible places.
Presently Ivan heard a scream, followed by a heavy thud, and running in the direction of the noise, narrowly avoided falling into a pit, the sides of which were partly overgrown with weeds and brambles.
“It’s all right,” Olga shouted; “I’m not hurt. I landed on soft ground. It’s not very deep, and there’s such a queer flower here—I don’t know what it is; I’ve never seen one like it before.”
Ivan’s curiosity thus aroused, he carefully examined the sides of the pit, and, selecting the shallowest spot, lowered himself slowly over and then dropped. It was nothing of a distance, seven or eight feet at the most, and he alighted without mishap on a clump of rank, luxuriant grass. “See! here it is,” his sister cried, pointing to a large, very vivid white flower, shaped something like a sunflower, but soft and pulpy, and full of a sweet, nauseating odour. “It’s too big to put in a wreath, so I’ll wear it in my buttonhole.”
“Better not,” Ivan said, snatching it from her; “I don’t like it. It’s a nasty-looking thing. I believe it’s a sort of fungus.”
Olga then began to cry, and as Ivan was desirous of keeping the peace, he gave her back the flower. She was a prepossessing child, with black hair and large dark eyes, pretty teeth and plump, sunburnt cheeks. Nor was she altogether unaware of her attractions, for even at so early an age she had a goodly share of the inordinate vanity common to her sex, and liked nothing better than appearing out-of-doors in a new frock plentifully besprinkled with rosettes and ribbons. The flower, she told herself, would look well on her scarlet bodice, and would be a good set-off to her black hair and olive complexion. All this was, of course, beyond the comprehension of Ivan, who regarded his sister’s weakness with the most supreme contempt, and for his own part was never so happy as when skylarking with other boys and getting into every conceivable kind of mischief. Yet for all that he was in the main sensible, almost beyond his years, and extremely fond, and—though he would not admit it—proud of Olga.
She fixed the flower in her dress, and imitating to the best of her knowledge the carriage of royalty, strutted up and down, saying “Am I not grand? Don’t I look nice? Ivan—salute me!”
And Ivan was preparing to salute her in the proper military style, taught him by a great friend of his in the village, a soldier in the carabineers for whom he had an intense admiration, when his jaw suddenly fell and his eyes bulged.
“Whatever is the matter with you?” Olga asked.
“There’s nothing the matter with me,” Ivan cried, shrinking away from her; “but there is with you. Don’t! don’t make such faces—they frighten me,” and turning round, he ran to the place where he had made his descent and tried to climb up.
Some minutes later the mother of the children, hearing piercing shrieks for help, flew to the pit, and, missing her footing, slipped over the brink, and falling some ten or more feet, broke one of her legs and otherwise bruised herself. For some seconds she was unconscious, and the first sight that met her eyes on coming to was Ivan kneeling on the ground, feebly endeavouring to hold at bay a gaunt grey wolf that had already bitten him about the legs and thigh, and was now trying hard to fix its wicked white fangs into his throat.
“Help me, mother!” Ivan gasped; “I’m getting exhausted. It’s Olga.”
“Olga!” the mother screamed, making frantic efforts to come to his assistance. “Olga! what do you mean?”
“It’s all owing to a flower—a white flower,” Ivan panted; “Olga would pluck it, and no sooner had she fixed it on her dress than she turned into a wolf! Quick, quick! I can’t hold it off any longer.”
Thus adjured the wretched woman made a terrific effort to rise, and failing in this, clenched her teeth, and, lying down, rolled over and over till she arrived at the spot where the struggle was taking place. By this time, however, the wolf had broken through Ivan’s guard, and he was now on his back with his right arm in the grip of his ferocious enemy.
The mother had not a knife, but she had a long steel skewer she used for sticking into a tree as a means of fastening one end of her washing line. She wore it hanging to her girdle, and it was quite by a miracle it had not run into her when she fell.
“Take care, mother,” Ivan cried, as she raised it ready to strike; “remember, it is Olga.”
This indeed was an ugly fact that the woman in her anxiety to save the boy had forgotten. What should she do? To merely wound the animal would be to make it ten times more savage, in which case it would almost inevitably destroy them both. To kill it would mean killing Olga. Which did she love the most, the boy or the girl? Never was a mother placed in such a dilemma. And she had no time to deliberate, not even a second. God help her, she chose. And like ninety-nine out of a hundred mothers would have done, she chose the boy; he—he at all costs must be saved. She struck, struck with all the pent-up energy of despair, and in her blind, mad zeal she struck again.
The first blow, penetrating the werwolf’s eye, sank deep into its brain, but the second blow missed—missed, and falling aslant, alighted on the form beneath.
An hour later a villager on his way home, hearing extraordinary sounds of mirth, went to the side of the pit and peeped over.
“Vera Kloska!” he screamed; “Heaven have mercy on us, what have you there?”
“He! he! he!” came the answer. “He! he! he! My children! Don’t they look funny? Olga has such a pretty white flower in her buttonhole, and Ivan a red stain on his forehead. They are deaf—they won’t reply when I speak to them. See if you can make them hear.”
But the villager shook his head. “They’ll never hear again in this world, mad soul,” he muttered. “You’ve murdered them.”
Besides this white flower there is a yellow one, of the same shape and size as a snapdragon; and a red one, something similar to an ox-eyed daisy, both of which have the power of metamorphosing the plucker and wearer into a werwolf. Both have the same peculiar vividness of colour, the same thick, sticky sap, and the same sickly, faint odour. They are both natives of Austria-Hungary and the Balkan Peninsula, and are occasionally to be met with in damp, marshy places.
Certain flowers (lilies-of-the-valley, marigolds, and azaleas), as also diamonds, are said to attract werwolves, thus proving a source of danger to those who wear them. And à propos of this magnetic property of diamonds … —
A Werwolf in Innsbruck
Madame Mildau was one of the prettiest women in Innsbruck. She had golden hair, large violet eyes, a smile that would melt a Loyola, and diamonds that set every woman’s mouth watering. With such inducements to seduction, how could Madame Mildau help delighting in balls and fêtes, and in promenading constantly before the public? She revelled in a universal admiration—she aimed at a monopoly—and she lived wholly and solely to exact homage. To be deprived of any single opportunity of displaying her charms and consequent triumphs would indeed have been a hardship, and to nothing short of a very serious indisposition would Madame Mildau have sacrificed her pleasure.
Now it so happened that three of the most brilliant entertainments of the season fell on the same night, and Madame Mildau, with all the unreason of her sex, desired to attend each one of them.
“I have accepted these three invitations,” she informed her husband, “and to these three balls I mean to go. I shall apportion the time equally between them. You forget,” she added, “that the success of these entertainments really depends on me. Crowds go only to see me, and I should never forgive myself if I disappointed them.”
But her husband, with the perversity characteristic of gout and middle age, combined, no doubt, with a not unnatural modicum of jealousy, maintained that one such fête should be sufficient amusement for one night. She might take her choice of one; he would on no account permit her to attend all three. Much to his surprise and delight Madame Mildau made no scene, but graciously submitted after a few mild protestations. A little later her husband remarked encouragingly:—
“I congratulate you, Julia, on your philosophy and self-restraint. In yielding to my wishes you have pleased me immeasurably, and I should like to show my gratification in some substantial manner. As it is some months since I gave you a present, I have resolved to make you one now. You may choose what you like.”
“I have chosen,” Madame Mildau replied calmly.
“What, already!” her husband cried. “You sly creature. You have been keeping this up your sleeve. What is it?”
“A diamond tiara,” was the cool reply. “The one you said you could not afford last Christmas.”
“Mon Dieu!” her husband gasped. “I shall be ruined.”
“You will be ruined if you do not give it to me,” Madame Mildau replied, “for in that case I should leave you. I couldn’t live with a liar.”
Her husband wrung his hands. He implored her to choose something else, but it was of no avail, and within two hours Madame Mildau had visited the jeweller and the tiara was hers.
The eventful day came at last, and Madame Mildau, escorted by her husband, attended one of the most popular balls of the season. She did not wear her tiara. There had been several highway jewellery robberies in the neighbourhood of late, and she pleased her husband immensely by leaving her diamonds carefully locked up at home.
“You are prudence itself,” he said, gazing at her in admiration. “And as a reward you shall dance all the evening whilst I look on and admire you.”
But soon Madame Mildau could dance no longer. She had a very bad headache, and begged her husband to take her home. M. Mildau was very sympathetic. He was very sorry for his wife, and suggested that she should take some brandy. She readily agreed that a little brandy might do her good, and they took some together in their bedroom, after which madame’s husband remembered little more. He had a vague notion that his wife was rolling his neck-handkerchief round his forehead in the form of a Turkish turban, and patting him on the cheeks and smilingly wishing him a thousand pleasant dreams, and then—all was a blank. He might as well have been dead. With madame it was otherwise. The headache was, of course, a ruse. The brandy she had given her husband had been well drugged, and no sooner had she made sure it had taken effect than she snapped her daintily manicured finger-tips in the air, and retiring to her dressing-room, changed the dress she was wearing for one ten times more costly and beautiful—a dress of rose-coloured gauze, upon which a drapery of lace was suspended by agraffes of diamonds. A wreath of pale roses, that seemed to have been bathed in the dew of the morning, the better to harmonize with the delicate complexion of her lovely face, nestled in her hair, and above it, more magnificent than anything yet seen in Innsbruck, and setting off to perfection the dazzling lustre of her yellow curls, the tiara of diamonds.
After a final survey of herself in the glass, she slipped on her cloak, and stole softly out to join her intimate friend, the Countess Linitz, who was also going to the ball. All things so far had worked wonderfully well; not even a servant suspected her. In order to avoid trusting her secret to anyone in the house, she had employed a stranger to hire an elegant carriage, which was in waiting for her at a discreet distance from the front door. The ball at which Madame Mildau soon arrived with her friend was much more to her liking than the one to which she had been previously escorted by her husband. The music was more harmonious, the conversation more amiable, the dresses more elaborate, and, what was more important than all, Madame Mildau’s success was even more instantaneous and complete. The whole room—host, guests, musicians, even waiters—one and all were literally dumbfounded at the extraordinary beauty of her face and costume, to say nothing of her jewels. Such an entrancing spectacle was without parallel in a ballroom in Innsbruck; and when she left, before the entertainment was over, all the life, the light, the gaiety went with her.
But it was at the third ball, to which the same equipage surreptitiously bore her, that Madame Mildau’s enjoyment and triumphs reached their zenith; and it was only towards the close of that entertainment — when she felt, by that revelation of instinct which never deceives women on similar occasions, that it was time to depart; that the brilliancy of her eyes, no less than the beauty of her dress, was fading; that her lips, parched with fatigue, had lost that humid red which rendered them so pretty and inviting, and that the dust had taken the beautiful gloss off her hair—that she experienced, for the first time, a sentiment of uneasiness in reviewing the rashness of her conduct. How was it possible, she asked herself, to prevent a casual acquaintance—her friends she could warn—letting out in conversation before her husband that she had been to these balls. And supposing he thus got to know of her deceit, what then?
This idea—the idea of being found out—with all its consequences, rose before her. Her exhausted imagination could find nothing to oppose it, nothing to relieve the feeling of depression which took possession of her, and she almost felt remorse when she threw herself into her carriage. It was a very dark night, cold and windy, and she was only too thankful to nestle close into the soft cushions at her back, and bury her face in the warm fur of her costly wrap. For some minutes she remained absorbed in thought; but it was not long before the monotonous rumble, rumble of the carriage produced a sensation of drowsiness, from which she was rudely awakened by the sound of a cough. Glancing in the direction from whence it came, to her utmost dismay and astonishment she saw, seated in the opposite corner of the vehicle, a young man of good, if somewhat peculiar appearance, and extremely well dressed. Madame Mildau instantly took in all the disadvantages of her situation, and, overwhelmed by the imprudence of her conduct, exclaimed in a tone in which dignity and terror struggled for mastery, “Sir, what audacity!”
“Yes, indeed, what audacity!” the stranger replied, affecting to be shocked. “What pride! What a love of display!” and he rolled his big eyes at her and bared his teeth.
“But, sir,” Madame Mildau cried in horror, concluding that the unknown was a madman, “this is my carriage. I beg you will depart—I beseech you—I command you. I will summon my servants.”
“That will be a vain waste of valuable breath,” replied the young man coolly. “You may call your servants—but there is only one, and he is mine. He will not answer you.”
“Where am I, then? How infamous!” exclaimed Madame Mildau, and she burst into tears. “Oh, how cruelly punished I am!”
“It is true, madame, you will be punished for having been agreeable, gay, and brilliant to-night without the consent of your husband; but at present he knows nothing about it, for at this moment he reposes in the sleep of the just, confident that you are enjoying the same repose close to him. As to yourself, madame, why this fear? You will have nothing to dread, I assure you, from my indiscretion; but, as you may be aware, there is no fault, however small, that has not its expiation. Nay, do not weep. Am I so ugly? Why should you dread me so, madame? I am a great admirer of your charms, desirous to know you better. Nay, have no suspicions as to my morality—I am no profligate. I came to the ball to-night for quite another purpose.”
“Sir, I understand you. You are employed by my husband. A spy! Detestable!”
“Stop, madame,” the stranger said, laying his hand gently on hers. “Debase not the dignity of man by imagining for one instant that there is anyone who would lend himself so readily to act the odious part you impute to me. I am no spy.”
“In Heaven’s name, then,” Madame Mildau exclaimed, “what brings you here? What do you want? Who are you?”
“One at a time, madame,” the young man ejaculated. “To begin with, it was those diamonds of yours—those rings on your soft and delicate fingers, those bracelets on your slender rounded wrists, that necklace and pendant on your snowy breast, and over and above all that splendid tiara on your matchless hair. It was the sight of all those bright and gleaming stars that attracted me, just as the light of a candle attracts a moth. I could not resist them.”
“Then you—you are a robber!” stammered the lady, ready to faint with terror.
“Wrong again!” the young man said; “I admire your jewels, it is true, but I am no thief.”
“Then, in mercy’s name, what are you?” demanded the lady.
“Well!” the stranger replied, speaking with a slight snarl, “I am a man now, but I shall soon change.”
“A man and will soon change?” Madame Mildau cried; “oh, you’re mad, mad—and I’m shut up in here with a lunatic! Help! help!”
“Calmly, calmly,” the stranger exclaimed, lifting her hands to his lips and kissing them. “I’m perfectly sane, and at present perfectly harmless. Now tell me, madame—and mind, be candid with me—why don’t you love your husband?”
“How do you know I don’t?” Madame Mildau faltered.
“Tut, tut!” the young man said. “Anyone could see that with half an eye. Besides, consider your conduct to-night! Answer my questions.”
“Well, you see!” Madame Mildau stammered, having come to the conclusion that even if the man were not mad it would be highly impolitic to provoke him, “I’m so much younger than he is. I’m only twenty-three, whereas he is forty-five. Besides, he detests all amusements, and I love them — especially dances. He is too fat to——”
“Are you sure he is fat? Will you swear he is fat?” the stranger asked, grasping her hands so tightly that she screamed.
“I swear it!” she said, “he is quite the fattest man I know.”
“And tender! But no, he can’t be very tender!”
“What questions to ask!” Madame Mildau said. “How do I know whether he is tender! Besides, what does it concern you?”
“It concerns me much,” the young man retorted; “and you, too, madame. You asked me just now a question concerning myself. Your curiosity shall be satisfied. I am a werwolf. My servant on the box who took the place of your employé is a werwolf. In an hour the metamorphosis will take place. You are out here in the Wood of Arlan alone with us.”
“In the Wood of Arlan!”
“Yes, madame, in the Wood of Arlan, which is, as you know, one of the wildest and least frequented spots in this part of the Tyrol. We are both ravenously hungry, and—well, you can judge the rest!”
Madame Mildau, who regarded werwolves in the same category as satyrs and mermaids, was once more convinced that she had to deal with a lunatic, but thinking it wisest to humour him, she said, “I shouldn’t advise you to eat me. I’m not at all nice. I’m dreadfully tough.”
“You’re not that,” the young man said, “but I’m not at all sure that the paint and powder on your cheeks might not prove injurious. Anyhow, I have decided to spare you on one condition!”
“Yes! and that is?” Madame Mildau exclaimed, clapping her hands joyfully.
“That you let me have your husband instead. Give me the keys of your house, and my man and I will fetch him. Did you leave him sound asleep?”
“Yes!” Madame Mildau faltered.
“In other words you drugged him! I knew it! I can read it in your eyes. Well—so much the better. Your foresight has proved quite providential. We will bind you securely and leave you here whilst we are gone, and when we return with your husband you shall be freed, and my man shall drive you home. The key?”
Madame Mildau gave it him. With the aid of his servant—a huge man, well over six feet and with the chest and limbs of a Hercules—the stranger then proceeded to gag and bind Madame Mildau hand and foot, and lifting her gently on to the road, fastened her securely to the trunk of a tree.
“Au revoir!” he exclaimed, kissing her lightly on the forehead. “We shan’t be long! These horses go like the wind.”
The next moment he was gone. For some seconds Madame Mildau struggled desperately to free herself; then, recognizing the futility of her efforts, resigned herself to her fate. At last she heard the clatter of horses’ hoofs and the rumble of wheels, and in a few minutes she was once again free.
“Quick!” the stranger said, leading her by the arm, “there’s not a moment to lose. The transmutation has already begun. In a few seconds we shall both be wolves and your fate will be sealed. We’ve got your husband, and, fortunately for you, he is as you described him, nice and plump. If you want to take a final peep at him, do so at once; it’s your last chance.”
But Madame Mildau had no such desire. She moved aside as her husband, clad in his pyjamas and still sleeping soundly, was lifted out of the vehicle and placed on the ground, and then, hurriedly brushing past him, was about to enter the carriage, when the young man interposed.
“On the box, madame. We could not find you a coachman—you must drive yourself; and as you value your life, drive like the——”
But madame did not wait for further instructions. Springing lightly on the box, she picked up the reins, and with a crack of the whip the horses were off. A minute later, and the wild howl of wolves, followed by a piercing human scream, rang out in the still morning air.
“That’s my husband! I recognize his voice,” Madame Mildau sighed. “Ah, well! thank God, the man wasn’t a robber. My diamonds are safe.”