The White Wolf of Kostopchin
By Sir Gilbert Campbell
(From “Wild and Weird Tales of Imagination and Mystery.”)
“A wide sandy expanse of country, flat and uninteresting in appearance, with a great staring whitewashed house standing in the midst of wide fields of cultivated land; whilst far away were the low sand hills and pine forests to be met with in the district of Lithuania, in Russian Poland. Not far from the great white house was the village in which the serfs dwelt, with the large bakehouse and the public bath which are invariably to be found in all Russian villages, however humble. The fields were negligently cultivated, the hedges broken down and the fences in bad repair, shattered agricultural implements had been carelessly flung aside in remote corners, and the whole estate showed the want of the superintending eye of an energetic master. The great white house was no better looked after, the garden was an utter wilderness, great patches of plaster had fallen from the walls, and many of the Venetian shutters were almost off the hinges. Over all was the dark lowering sky of a Russian autumn, and there were no signs of life to be seen, save a few peasants lounging idly towards the vodki ship, and a gaunt halt-starved cat creeping stealthily abroad in quest of a meal.
The estate, which was known by the name of Kostopchin, was the property of Paul Sergevitch, a gentleman of means, and the most discontented man in Russian Poland. Like most wealthy Muscovites, he had traveled much, and had spent the gold which had been amassed by serf labor, like water, in all the dissolute revelries of the capitals of Europe. Paul’s figure was as well known in the boudoirs of the demi mondaines as his face was familiar at the public gaming tables. He appeared to have no thought for the future, but only to live in the excitement of the mad career of dissipation which he was pursuing. His means, enormous as they were, were all forestalled, and he was continually sending to his intendant for fresh supplies of money. His fortune would not have long held out against the constant inroads that were being made upon it, when an unexpected circumstance took place which stopped his career like a flash of lightning. This was a fatal duel, in which a young man of great promise, the son of the prime minister of the country in which he then resided, fell by his hand. Representatives were made to the Tsar, and Paul Sergevitch was recalled, and, after receiving a severe reprimand was ordered to return to his estates in Lithuania. Horribly discontented, yet not daring to disobey the Imperial mandate, Paul buried himself at Kostopchin, a place he had not visited since his boyhood. At first he endeavored to interest himself in the workings of the vast estate; but agriculture had no charm for him, and the only result was that he quarreled with and dismissed his German intendant, replacing him by an old serf, Michal Vassilitch, who had been his father’s valet. Then he took to wandering about the country, gun in hand, and upon his return home would sit moodily drinking brandy and smoking innumerable cigarettes, as he cursed his lord and master, the emperor, for consigning him to such a course of dullness and ennui. For a couple of years he led this aimless life, and at last, hardly knowing the reason for so doing, he married the daughter of a neighboring landed proprietor. The marriage was a most unhappy one; the girl had really never cared for Paul, but had married him in obedience to her father’s mandates, and the man, whose temper was always brutal and violent, treated her, after a brief interval of contemptuous indifference, with savage cruelty. After three years the unhappy woman expired, leaving behind her two children — a boy, Alexis, and a girl, Katrina. Paul treated his wife’s death with the most perfect indifference; but he did not put any one in her place. He was very fond of the little Katrina, but did not take much notice of the boy, and resumed his lonely wanderings about the country with dog and gun. Five years had passed since the death of his wife. Alexis was a fine, healthy boy of seven, whilst Katrina was some eighteen months younger. Paul was lighting one of his eternal cigarettes at the door of his house, when the little girl came running up to him.
“You bad, wicked papa,” said she. “How is it that you have never brought me the pretty gray squirrels that you promised I should have the next time you went to the forest?”
“Because I have never yet been able to find any, my treasure,” returned her father, taking up his child in his arms and half smothering her with kisses. “Because I have not found them yet, my golden queen; but I am bound to find Ivanovitch, the poacher, smoking about the woods, and if he can’t show me where they are, no one can.”
“Ah, little father,” broke in old Michal, using the term of address with which a Russian of humble position usually accosts his superior; “Ah, little father, take care; you will go to those woods once too often.”
“Do you think I am afraid of Ivanovitch?” returned his master, with a coarse laugh. “Why, he and I are the best of friends; at any rate, if he robs me, he does so openly, and keeps other poachers away from my woods.”
“It is not of Ivanovitch that I am thinking,” answered the old man. “But oh! Gospodin, do not go into these dark solitudes; there are terrible tales told about them, of witches that dance in the moonlight, of strange, shadowy forms that are seen amongst the trunks of the tall pines, and of whispered voices that tempt the listeners to eternal perdition.”
Again the rude laugh of the lord of the manor rang out, as Paul observed, “If you go on addling your brain, old man, with these nearly half-forgotten legends, I shall have to look out for a new intendant.”
“But I was not thinking of these fearful creatures only,” returned Michal, crossing himself piously. “It was against the wolves that I meant to warn you.”
“Oh, father, dear, I am frightened now,” whimpered little Katrina, hiding her head on her father’s shoulder. “Wolves are such cruel, wicked things.”
“See there, graybearded dotard,” cried Paul, furiously, “you have terrified this sweet angel by your farrago of lies; besides, who ever heard of wolves so early as this? You are dreaming, Michal Vassilitch, or have taken your morning dram of vodki too strong.”
“AS I hope for future happiness,” answered the old man, solemnly, “as I came through the marsh last night from Kosma the herdsman’s cottage — you know, my lord, that he has been bitten by a viper, and is seriously ill — as I came through the marsh, I repeat, I saw something like sparks of fire in the clump of alders on the right-hand side. I was anxious to know what they could be, and cautiously moved a little nearer, recommending my soul to the protection of Saint Vladamir. I had not gone a couple of paces when a wild howl came that chilled the very marrow of my bones, and a pack of some ten or a dozen wolves, gaunt and famished as you see them, my lord, in the winter, rushed out. At their head was a white she-wolf, as big as any of the male ones, with gleaming tusks and a pair of yellow eyes that blazed with lurid fire. I had round my neck a crucifix that had been given me by the priest of Streletza, and the savage beasts knew this and broke away across the marsh, sending up the mud and water in showers in the air; but the white she-wolf, little father, circled round me three times, as though endeavoring to find some place from which to attack me. Three times she did this, and then, with a snap of her teeth and a howl of impotent malice, she galloped away some fifty yards and sat down, watching my every movement with her fiery eyes. I did not delay any longer in so dangerous a spot, as you may well imagine, Gospodin, but walked hurriedly home, crossing myself at every step; but, as I am a living man, that white devil followed me the whole distance, keeping fifty paces in the rear, and every now and then licking her lips with a sound that made my flesh creep. When I got to the last fence before you come to the house I raised up my voice and shouted for the dogs, and soon I heard the deep bay of Troska and Bransköe as they came bounding towards me. The white devil heard it, too, and, giving a high bound into the air, she uttered a loud howl of disappointment, and trotted back leisurely towards the marsh.”