In the reign of Egbert the Saxon there dwelt in Britain a maiden named Yseult, who was beloved of all, both for her goodness and for her beauty. But, though many a youth came wooing her, she loved Harold only, and to him she plighted her troth.
Among the other youth of whom Yseult was beloved was Alfred, and he was sore angered that Yseult showed favor to Harold, so that one day Alfred said to Harold: “Is it right that old Siegfried should come from his grave and have Yseult to wife?” Then added he, “Prithee, good sir, why do you turn so white when I speak your grandsire’s name?”
Then Harold asked, “What know you of Siegfried that you taunt me? What memory of him should vex me now?”
“We know and we know,” retorted Alfred. “There are some tales told us by our grandmas we have not forgot.”
So ever after that Alfred’s words and Alfred’s bitter smile haunted Harold by day and night.
Harold’s grandsire, Siegfried the Teuton, had been a man of cruel violence. The legend said that a curse rested upon him, and that at certain times he was possessed of an evil spirit that wreaked its fury on mankind. But Siegfried had been dead full many years, and there was naught to mind the world of him save the legend and a cunning-wrought spear which he had from Brunehilde, the witch. This spear was such a weapon that it never lost its brightness, nor had its point been blunted. It hung in Harold’s chamber, and it was the marvel among weapons of that time.
Yseult knew that Alfred loved her, but she did not know of the bitter words which Alfred had spoken to Harold. Her love for Harold was perfect in its trust and gentleness. But Alfred had hit the truth: the curse of old Siegfried was upon Harold—slumbering a century, it had awakened in the blood of the grandson, and Harold knew the curse that was upon him, and it was this that seemed to stand between him and Yseult. But love is stronger than all else, and Harold loved.
Harold did not tell Yseult of the curse that was upon him, for he feared that she would not love him if she knew. Whensoever he felt the fire of the curse burning in his veins he would say to her, “To-morrow I hunt the wild boar in the uttermost forest,” or, “Next week I go stag-stalking among the distant northern hills.” Even so it was that he ever made good excuse for his absence, and Yseult thought no evil things, for she was trustful; ay, though he went many times away and was long gone, Yseult suspected no wrong. So none beheld Harold when the curse was upon him in its violence.
Alfred alone bethought himself of evil things. “‘T is passing strange,” quoth he, “that ever and anon this gallant lover should quit our company and betake himself whither none knoweth. In sooth ‘t will be well to have an eye on old Siegfried’s grandson.”
Harold knew that Alfred watched him zealously, and he was tormented by a constant fear that Alfred would discover the curse that was on him; but what gave him greater anguish was the fear that mayhap at some moment when he was in Yseult’s presence, the curse would seize upon him and cause him to do great evil unto her, whereby she would be destroyed or her love for him would be undone forever. So Harold lived in terror, feeling that his love was hopeless, yet knowing not how to combat it.
Now, it befell in those times that the country round about was ravaged of a werewolf, a creature that was feared by all men howe’er so valorous. This werewolf was by day a man, but by night a wolf given to ravage and to slaughter, and having a charmed life against which no human agency availed aught. Wheresoever he went he attacked and devoured mankind, spreading terror and desolation round about, and the dream-readers said that the earth would not be freed from the werewolf until some man offered himself a voluntary sacrifice to the monster’s rage.
Now, although Harold was known far and wide as a mighty huntsman, he had never set forth to hunt the werewolf, and, strange enow, the werewolf never ravaged the domain while Harold was therein. Whereat Alfred marvelled much, and oftentimes he said: “Our Harold is a wondrous huntsman. Who is like unto him in stalking the timid doe and in crippling the fleeing boar? But how passing well doth he time his absence from the haunts of the werewolf. Such valor beseemeth our young Siegfried.”
Which being brought to Harold his heart flamed with anger, but he made no answer, lest he should betray the truth he feared.
It happened so about that time that Yseult said to Harold, “Wilt thou go with me to-morrow even to the feast in the sacred grove?”
“That can I not do,” answered Harold. “I am privily summoned hence to Normandy upon a mission of which I shall some time tell thee. And I pray thee, on thy love for me, go not to the feast in the sacred grove without me.”
“What say’st thou?” cried Yseult. “Shall I not go to the feast of Ste. Aelfreda? My father would be sore displeased were I not there with the other maidens. ‘T were greatest pity that I should despite his love thus.”
“But do not, I beseech thee,” Harold implored. “Go not to the feast of Ste. Aelfreda in the sacred grove! And thou would thus love me, go not—see, thou my life, on my two knees I ask it!”
“How pale thou art,” said Yseult, “and trembling.”
“Go not to the sacred grove upon the morrow night,” he begged.
Yseult marvelled at his acts and at his speech. Then, for the first time, she thought him to be jealous—whereat she secretly rejoiced (being a woman).
“Ah,” quoth she, “thou dost doubt my love,” but when she saw a look of pain come on his face she added—as if she repented of the words she had spoken—”or dost thou fear the werewolf?”
Then Harold answered, fixing his eyes on hers, “Thou hast said it; it is the werewolf that I fear.”
“Why dost thou look at me so strangely, Harold?” cried Yseult. “By the cruel light in thine eyes one might almost take thee to be the werewolf!”
“Come hither, sit beside me,” said Harold tremblingly, “and I will tell thee why I fear to have thee go to the feast of Ste. Aelfreda to-morrow evening. Hear what I dreamed last night. I dreamed I was the werewolf—do not shudder, dear love, for ‘t was only a dream.
“A grizzled old man stood at my bedside and strove to pluck my soul from my bosom.
“‘What would’st thou?’ I cried.
“‘Thy soul is mine,’ he said, ‘thou shalt live out my curse. Give me thy soul—hold back thy hands—give me thy soul, I say.’
“‘Thy curse shall not be upon me,’ I cried. ‘What have I done that thy curse should rest upon me? Thou shalt not have my soul.’
“‘For my offence shalt thou suffer, and in my curse thou shalt endure hell—it is so decreed.’
“So spake the old man, and he strove with me, and he prevailed against me, and he plucked my soul from my bosom, and he said, ‘Go, search and kill’—and—and lo, I was a wolf upon the moor.
“The dry grass crackled beneath my tread. The darkness of the night was heavy and it oppressed me. Strange horrors tortured my soul, and it groaned and groaned, gaoled in that wolfish body. The wind whispered to me; with its myriad voices it spake to me and said, ‘Go, search and kill.’ And above these voices sounded the hideous laughter of an old man. I fled the moor—whither I knew not, nor knew I what motive lashed me on.
“I came to a river and I plunged in. A burning thirst consumed me, and I lapped the waters of the river—they were waves of flame, and they flashed around me and hissed, and what they said was, ‘Go, search and kill,’ and I heard the old man’s laughter again.
“A forest lay before me with its gloomy thickets and its sombre shadows—with its ravens, its vampires, its serpents, its reptiles, and all its hideous brood of night. I darted among its thorns and crouched amid the leaves, the nettles, and the brambles. The owls hooted at me and the thorns pierced my flesh. ‘Go, search and kill,’ said everything. The hares sprang from my pathway; the other beasts ran bellowing away; every form of life shrieked in my ears—the curse was on me—I was the werewolf.
“On, on I went with the fleetness of the wind, and my soul groaned in its wolfish prison, and the winds and the waters and the trees bade me, ‘Go, search and kill, thou accursed brute; go, search and kill.’
“Nowhere was there pity for the wolf; what mercy, thus, should I, the werewolf, show? The curse was on me and it filled me with a hunger and a thirst for blood. Skulking on my way within myself I cried, ‘Let me have blood, oh, let me have human blood, that this wrath may be appeased, that this curse may be removed.’
“At last I came to the sacred grove. Sombre loomed the poplars, the oaks frowned upon me. Before me stood an old man—’twas he, grizzled and taunting, whose curse I bore. He feared me not. All other living things fled before me, but the old man feared me not. A maiden stood beside him. She did not see me, for she was blind.
“Kill, kill,’ cried the old man, and he pointed at the girl beside him.
“Hell raged within me—the curse impelled me—I sprang at her throat. I heard the old man’s laughter once more, and then—then I awoke, trembling, cold, horrified.”
Scarce was this dream told when Alfred strode that way.
“Now, by’r Lady,” quoth he, “I bethink me never to have seen a sorrier twain.”
Then Yseult told him of Harold’s going away and how that Harold had besought her not to venture to the feast of Ste. Aelfreda in the sacred grove.
“These fears are childish,” cried Alfred boastfully. “And thou sufferest me, sweet lady, I will bear thee company to the feast, and a score of my lusty yeomen with their good yew-bows and honest spears, they shall attend me. There be no werewolf, I trow, will chance about with us.”
Whereat Yseult laughed merrily, and Harold said: “‘T is well; thou shalt go to the sacred grove, and may my love and Heaven’s grace forefend all evil.”
Then Harold went to his abode, and he fetched old Siegfried’s spear back unto Yseult, and he gave it into her two hands, saying, “Take this spear with thee to the feast to-morrow night. It is old Siegfried’s spear, possessing mighty virtue and marvellous.”
And Harold took Yseult to his heart and blessed her, and he kissed her upon her brow and upon her lips, saying, “Farewell, oh, my beloved. How wilt thou love me when thou know’st my sacrifice. Farewell, farewell forever, oh, alder-liefest mine.”
So Harold went his way, and Yseult was lost in wonderment.
On the morrow night came Yseult to the sacred grove wherein the feast was spread, and she bore old Siegfried’s spear with her in her girdle. Alfred attended her, and a score of lusty yeomen were with him. In the grove there was great merriment, and with singing and dancing and games withal did the honest folk celebrate the feast of the fair Ste. Aelfreda.
But suddenly a mighty tumult arose, and there were cries of “The werewolf!” “The werewolf!” Terror seized upon all—stout hearts were frozen with fear. Out from the further forest rushed the werewolf, wood wroth, bellowing hoarsely, gnashing his fangs and tossing hither and thither the yellow foam from his snapping jaws. He sought Yseult straight, as if an evil power drew him to the spot where she stood. But Yseult was not afeared; like a marble statue she stood and saw the werewolf’s coming. The yeomen, dropping their torches and casting aside their bows, had fled; Alfred alone abided there to do the monster battle.
At the approaching wolf he hurled his heavy lance, but as it struck the werewolf’s bristling back the weapon was all to-shivered.
Then the werewolf, fixing his eyes upon Yseult, skulked for a moment in the shadow of the yews and thinking then of Harold’s words, Yseult plucked old Siegfried’s spear from her girdle, raised it on high, and with the strength of despair sent it hurtling through the air.
The werewolf saw the shining weapon, and a cry burst from his gaping throat—a cry of human agony. And Yseult saw in the werewolf’s eyes the eyes of some one she had seen and known, but ‘t was for an instant only, and then the eyes were no longer human, but wolfish in their ferocity. A supernatural force seemed to speed the spear in its flight. With fearful precision the weapon smote home and buried itself by half its length in the werewolf’s shaggy breast just above the heart, and then, with a monstrous sigh—as if he yielded up his life without regret—the werewolf fell dead in the shadow of the yews.
Then, ah, then in very truth there was great joy, and loud were the acclaims, while, beautiful in her trembling pallor, Yseult was led unto her home, where the people set about to give great feast to do her homage, for the werewolf was dead, and she it was that had slain him.
But Yseult cried out: “Go, search for Harold—go, bring him to me. Nor eat, nor sleep till he be found.”
“Good my lady,” quoth Alfred, “how can that be, since he hath betaken himself to Normandy?”
“I care not where he be,” she cried. “My heart stands still until I look into his eyes again.”
“Surely he hath not gone to Normandy,” outspake Hubert. “This very eventide I saw him enter his abode.”
They hastened thither—a vast company. His chamber door was barred.
“Harold, Harold, come forth!” they cried, as they beat upon the door, but no answer came to their calls and knockings. Afeared, they battered down the door, and when it fell they saw that Harold lay upon his bed.
“He sleeps,” said one. “See, he holds a portrait in his hand—and it is her portrait. How fair he is and how tranquilly he sleeps.”
But no, Harold was not asleep. His face was calm and beautiful, as if he dreamed of his beloved, but his raiment was red with the blood that streamed from a wound in his breast—a gaping, ghastly spear wound just above his heart.