Battling The Beast of Dartmoor
Sabine Baring Gould
Sabine Baring Gould (1834 - 1924) was one of those gentleman scholars whose very lives seem to define what we think of as the Victorian Age.
Most know him best as the author of the famous hymn 'Onward Christian Soldiers', yet there was far more to the man than this one song.
As parson and squire of Lew Trenchard in Devon, he had the time and resources available to pursue his academic interests. An amateur archaeologist, he was largely responsible for excavating Dartmoor's hut circles, stone rows and circles, which date back to ancient times.
A keen folklorist, Sabine collected the myths and legends of Devon and Cornwall from the mouths of those who knew them. He recorded the region's folk songs in the same way.
He also wrote many books, both fiction and non-fiction. In total, no fewer than 1,240 publications bear his name.
One of these, 1835' 'The Book of Were-Wolves' is the inspiration behind the novel, 'Forever Onward, Battling The Beast of Dartmoor'.
Set amidst the barren wastes of Dartmoor, in the shadow of the district's sinister tors, Forever Onward is about a feared beast, and the brave men and women sworn to end its reign of murderous evil. It is a gothic chiller in the great Victorian tradition, one that is "guaranteed to provoke fear, excitement and terror in the reader".
Here you will find the opening chapter of the book...
Battling The Beast of Dartmoor
by Lawrence McNeela
Chapter I, Les Loups-Garoux
I SHALL never forget the walk I took one night in Vienne, after having accomplished the examination of an unknown Druidical relic, the Pierre Labie, at La Rondelle near Champigni.
How can I, when the journey proved so utterly terrifying, in ways that appeared to defy all laws of faith, science and nature? It's an experience that hangs on my mind even now, some three decades after the event. I'm telling no lie when I say it retains the power to give me nightmares.
My interest in the druids took me to a godforsaken little hamlet in rural France, for upon arriving in Champigni, my innkeeper mentioned a little-visited site those mysterious priests once thought sacred. It was, he assured me, well worth the ten-mile trek. So, with the enthusiasm of youth crying in my veins, I set off immediately to view it.
The evening's better part was then spent sketching its venerable pile of grey stones, and I became so engrossed in my work that I barely noticed the sun start to set. It was only when I saw the evening star lit that I realised nightfall was upon me.
The thought of then hiking the ten miles back to my inn didn’t appeal, so I set off instead in the opposite direction, where a small hamlet stood. I hoped to hire a trap there, that it might ferry me home in comfort and speed. In that hope, I was left disappointed.
To begin with, few in the place spoke proper French. They used an old local dialect when talking with one another. I therefore got little joy when trying one ramshackle hovel after another. I couldn't for the life of me understand their ancient patois, while my Parisian French left the locals baffled.
Giving up on the peasants, I tried their priest instead. An elderly man of some seventy or so years. Being posted there, to such a remote and backward little hamlet, was clearly a sort of retirement for him. As such, he’d grown round and happy with life.
Monsieur le Curé was educated, of course, and he knew a little proper French, but he wasn't much help all the same. He assured me there was nothing better to be found in the hamlet than a common charue with solid wooden wheels, and said there were no horses fit for riding the long journey to Champigni. To be fair to the aging cleric, he proved to be both friendly and kind. He even offered to give me a bed for the night, so I could return to my inn the following morning.
“That's very good of you, Father.” I said. “But I'm afraid I must decline. You see, my family are also there, and they expect me back tonight.”
Until that point, my adventures had been frustrating, but that was all. Suddenly, they took a turn for the strange...
I was surprised to see his tired grey eyes take on an expression of alarm when hearing my words. Gnarled hands played anxiously in his lap. As one might expect from a man of such age, the priest's lips were thin and his stumpy teeth brown. I got a good view of those tobacco-stained gnashers when he hurried into an impassioned sermon.
“Non Monsieur, vous ne pouvez pas partir ce soir. C'est tard. Et sombre. Je ne serais pas content que tu marches seul si tard dans la nuit. Vous devez dormir ici ce soir. J'ai du jambon et des pommes de terre, et une cruche de bon vin. Veuillez rester ici, ou vous serez en securite et a l'aise.”
I was lucky enough to have travelled through France when young, so translating these words was easy enough. The crux of the old cleric's speech was that he wanted me to stay the night at his crumbling presbytery. There, I'd be served ham and spuds, washed down with vast quantities of wine.
A generous offer. And typical of a priest or vicar, for our cellars are seldom dry! Very tempting, too. If I hadn't needed to get back to my family in Champigni, I'd have happily stayed and got drunk with him.
Sadly, I had to leave, and I told my host this for a second time. Realising I couldn't be persuaded to stay, he grew even more agitated, and insisted I remain while he fetched me an escort. He was away for five or so minutes, and I heard him rouse the hamlet’s other households. When he returned, he had with him a handful of local men and the promised jug of claret.
Once seated, and with a glass of red liquor in their hands, the villagers started discussing my plan.
They were surprisingly animated about something as mundane as a stranger attempting a long country walk, and argued to and fro with passion in their voices. Being Gallic, they spoke also with their hands; strong points forcefully made by throwing their arms into all kind of shapes and sentiments. Between that, and the odd French word intruding upon their dialect, I managed to understand the general theme.
One of the men was especially bald and especially fat. Judging by the way the others deferred to him, he was some kind of mayor in that tiny community. He spoke at length, and with a great deal of confidence in himself, which seemed to confirm my deductions. After all, I’d never met a politician before who didn't like the sound of his or her own voice!
Parts of his speech were in the rustic local dialect, parts in French, and he used a hundred words where five would’ve done. The occasional Latin phrase was even thrown in for good measure, to prove his education and standing. This is the gist of what he said.
“Monsieur can never go back tonight across the flats...The fens are unsafe, and...a traveller must not venture there alone. He must not venture there alone because...”
(And here his confident voice suddenly faltered, dropping to the hushed tones of the cemetery)
Les loups-garoux? My translation wasn't perfect because my boyhood tutors never felt the need to discuss such things when teaching me enough French to navigate everyday life. However, I thought I knew what the pompous oaf said. He was talking about werewolves!
“The Englishman says he must return tonight to Champigni,” the priest interjected in French. “This is not open to debate. I have summoned you all here to ask but one question. Who amongst you will go with him?”
I can only tell you what happened next because the aging cleric later gave me a full translation of events. At the time, I took in snippets of conversation, and guessed the missing bits. But here is a fullish account, as best as the old priest recalls. It begins with the mayor in full flow.
“Ah ha! Monsieur le Curé, it is all very well for one of us to accompany the Englishman. But think of the coming back alone!”
“Then two of you must go with him, and you can take care of each other as you return.”
“Which sounds wonderful. Except, what use are plain folk against the works of the devil? Surely we’d be better off with you undertaking the trip. That way, we can rely on your prayers, holy water and crucifix.”
“Yes,” agreed a third man, “that’s a fine idea. And we can see for ourselves whether they really are as good as you claim!”
The conversation went backwards and forwards like this for a while, before one of the peasants made the most outlandish of statements.
“Picou tells me that he saw the werewolf only this evening,” he said with a shudder. “My friend was down by the hedge of his buckwheat field, and the sun had set, and he was thinking of coming home, when he heard a rustle on the far side of the hedge. He looked over and there stood the wolf, as big as a calf against the horizon. Its tongue was out, and its eyes glared like marsh fires. Mon Dieu! You won't catch me going over the marais tonight. Two men could no nothing if attacked by that wolf-fiend.”
Such cowardice wouldn’t silence their priest that night, nor persuade him his flock should remain safely behind closed doors. He all but demanded an escort for me, right to the door of my room at the inn. It was, he said, his parishioners’ Christian duty to look after a traveller to their district. One of the more cunning amongst them knew the perfect rebuttal.
“Yes, but it’s also tempting Providence,” he said slyly, “and worse besides. For no man has a right to expect God's help if he throws himself wilfully in the way of danger. Is that not the case, Monsieur le Curé? I'm sure I’ve heard you preach this from the pulpit many times.”
“Indeed so,” the mayor agreed. “In fact, I'm pretty sure it was your sermon during the first Sunday in Lent.”
The poor old priest had no answer to this! His own words had been quoted to outwit him.
“His tongue hanging out, and his eyes glaring like marsh fires...” Picou's friend recalled. “And as large as a calf.”
The mayor gulped down his wine. He was keen to bring the meeting to a close, so he could return to the safety and comfort of his home. There, no doubt, a comely wife and more claret awaited.
“If the loup-garou were a natural wolf, then things would be different,” he said. “After all, we Frenchmen are renowned the world over for our bravery and courage. But, Monsieur le Curé, we are not discussing such an animal tonight, only something far worse. It is a fiend that patrols the wastes outside the village. A man-fiend. And even worse than a man-fiend, it is a man-wolf-fiend.”
“But what is the young monsieur to do?” The priest asked in terror. “Will nobody go with him?”
Every pair of eyes descended to the room’s dusty floor. It was clear that nobody would.
Now, I'd grown pretty tired of the debate by this point and, since the evening wasn't getting any earlier, I decided it was time to swallow my own wine and press on for the road to Champigni. I thanked the priest for his kind offer of a bed for the night, and his attempts at procuring an escort from his cowardly neighbours.
To be honest, I paid little heed to the men's conversation, for old superstitions didn’t scare me, who came from a land of science, progress and reason. I couldn’t have cared less about their argument, nor about receiving company for the walk back to my inn. The villagers seemed very happy with this and let out noticeable sighs of relief. They clearly felt pleased at not being forced to accompany me on the trip.
I was at the presbytery's solid oak door when the priest said his goodbyes. His face was hooded with fear. The misgivings he had about my decision shone as brightly as the evening stars now blazing the sky.
He knew I was English, and an Anglican, yet still thought it appropriate to thrust Papish tokens on me, in the mistaken belief I'd welcome such gifts. An amber rosary was placed in my hands, its crucifix crafted from base metal, maybe tin. Alongside it, I was given a bottle of holy water, crafted in the shape of the Blessed Virgin.
“Ces objets sacres vous serviront bien lors de otre retour a l'auberge,” he said sombrely. “Fiez-vous a eux et au pouvoir de la priere. Ce sont peut-etre les seules armes que vous possedez si le loup-garou attaque!”
The words were strange to me. Ridiculous, fantastical, yet clearly very genuinely felt.
The old priest was as serious as the grave when he told me to rely upon the sacred objects now placed in my hand. They were, he assured me, the only weapons I had, should the werewolf attack.
Regardless of local ignorance and peasant superstition, of colourful folktales concerning men who could turn themselves into beasts, I didn't relish the long walk back to Champigni.
For one thing, I was alone in a part of the French countryside I didn't know, and there may well have been outlaws of one kind or another hiding in its wastes. I didn’t need werewolves to scare me. My imagination began to create all kinds of enemies there. Highwaymen and brigands were joined by half-crazy thugs and insane cutthroats; Gallic desperadoes, whose hatred of English swine could be traced to their nation's defeat at Waterloo. In my mind, any of these threats could be lying in wait.
I tried to ignore such thoughts but enjoyed no great success in pushing them aside. It was difficult to do so because of one wholly irrefutable fact. I was a long, long way from the nearest gendarme.
I also had a long way to travel before reaching the inn. Ten miles in fact, and I was already tired from the day's exertions. The final reason for my disquiet was that I expected the journey to need making in the dark, it now being late. On this last point, at least, I was pleased to see I was wrong.
For a full moon was out. It bathed the world in a fine, silvery light.
“Thank God for that, if nothing else,” I said to myself. “Providence has furnished me no carriage, horse or escort tonight, but at least I've a bright moon to guide me.”
I left the hamlet by the one dirty lane that led to and from it. A rutted, muddy track, like a slough cake. Lonely woods surrounded the cottages, skeletal trees quiet for winter. No doubt they were filled with nocturnal beasts like the badger, the owl and the fox.
Or the wolf, I thought with a shudder.
But could a large, hungry specimen be hiding amongst those sleeping ashes and elms? Surely not, for an animal as hated as a wolf would never dare creep this close to the homes of men.
“Come on Sabine,” I spoke to the quiet night air, “time to stop making up dangers like beasts and brigands, and press on for Champigni.”
The trees soon gave out to the low boggy fens that were that poor district's greatest countryside feature. A flat, melancholy plain was this marais; desolate enough by day, but now in the moonlight, perhaps ten times as miserable. There was barely a thing of note to be seen and nothing at all of any beauty. It was grim, sombre and unwelcoming. As bleak a place as could be found in the whole of France.
Wiry stands of heather covered the ground, alongside rusty dead fronds of bracken and fern. Black ponds of stagnant water were filled with the sound of lusty bullfrogs trilling away. Almost the only sound present, apart from my own heavy breathing.
I say almost, for there was something else I could hear. Fringing the water were dense masses of flag and bulrush, the latter ghostly-white in the moon shine. Through that dank vegetation, the wind sighed like the moans of a dying man.
There were no other signs of life and no hint of civilisation. The only proof such a thing ever touched this wilderness came in the form of the muddy track that I walked. The dim lights of the hamlet's small hovels soon faded from view and no others appeared in the distance. I was left feeling very alone.
Fearing there might be a kernel of truth in the locals’ superstition, and that it was perhaps inspired by the district harbouring packs of lupine predators, I chose to arm myself with the first strong-looking stick I found lying on the ground. It wasn't a moment too soon, for not another minute passed before I heard an unmistakeable cry, one that has frozen the blood of countless nocturnal travellers. It carried on the cold breeze, a sound to strike terror in the stoutest of hearts. Drifting over the flat and empty fen, it was the howling of a wolf.
I hurried on, yet still had many miles to go before reaching the safety of the town of Champigni. Its wealthy suburbs remained far away; their twinkling lights, handsome villas and busy hotels just thoughts in my head. For all the good she could do me right then, the town was like a mirage seen by a desert wanderer, shimmering like an illusion likely to remain forever out of reach. I was alone in a desolate place, and the only company I had was a wild, hungry beast.
And I heard it approach!
Not even stealthily, for its ghastly howls grew ever louder as it approached from the east. The animal clearly felt no fear in revealing its whereabouts and intentions to me, the prey whose scent had been carried to its nostrils by the wind. Savage brute though it was, instinct taught the wolf it possessed advantages in speed, power and strength. A lone traveller had no hope of fighting it off.
My eyes searched the fen to my right. Where was this foul creature, that I could hear it clawing its way across the heather, howling madly at the moon, yet somehow fail to make it out in the featureless wastes? Suddenly I had my answer, for it appeared before me in all its vile truth. I'd no idea how it was able to reach me without being seen, yet there it was all the same. As nasty looking a thing as ever stepped foot on this Earth.
And what was it? A wolf, obviously, but unlike any wolf I'd seen in a painting or zoo. It was far larger, for one thing. The size of a calf, as the peasant Picou had claimed. The beast must've measured nine feet long from tail to snout; the latter dripped with a vile grey mucous of some kind, which seemed to glow with an eerie phosphorescence. It opened its mouth to growl at me, and the moonlight revealed a set of fangs as sharp as any cutlass.
“Be gone!” I commanded in as loud and confident a voice as I could muster. “Take your supper from a sheep tonight. You'll not feed on man-flesh.”
As I spoke, I thrust my stick out as a kind of weapon, as though the blunt staff might frighten the huge beast away.
Some chance of that.
And though what happened next did so very quickly, and to a man whose beating heart was quickened further by floods of adrenaline and fear, I was sure I heard the wolf laugh. I could’ve been mistaken, I must have been mistaken, for wild animals have never been known to do such things. However, there was no doubting its following move. The beast suddenly reared up on its two hind legs.
How man-like the creature now looked, as though it took on the shape of both human and wolf alike. There was an intelligence of sorts in its muzzled face. No compassion, culture or education, of course, but a greater awareness of its own savage mind than I would've credited an animal possessing.
Its yellow eyes blazed with the excitement of the kill, as one who hunts for sport as much as food. There was sadism there, a desire to inflict pain and cruelty. This thing appeared to take pleasure in its acts. For a moment, they didn’t look like canine eyes at all, but something altogether different. They resembled very closely the clever eyes of a man.
It was then that I remembered the words of the priest, that his idolatrous gifts were the only weapons I had to repel the loup-garou's attack. Reaching into my coat pocket, I pulled out the amber rosary beads and held them, crucifix pointing out, at my foe. However, the jewellery's presence didn't seem to scare the animal at all, quite the opposite. The sacred beads seemed to enrage it.
Roaring with anger at the image of Christ, the wolf suddenly rushed at me with its foreclaws shining like talons. In that moment, and with certain death upon me, I forced open the bottle of holy water and flung its contents at the beast.
Now, I've no explanation for what happened that night, nor the nature of the predator I encountered on that lonely fenside road. All I know for sure is what I saw, which was the wolf shrivel back as though struck by a bullet or sword. I heard a hissing sound too, as one hears when fur is singed by something incredibly hot. The wolf gave a yelp of pain and retreated into the marais. I watched it lope away at astonishing speed and did not see it again.
The remainder of my journey passed without further incident. I reached my inn at Champigni after another two hours' walk, which was just as well, seeing as how I’d no water left in the Holy Virgin-shaped bottle.
Interestingly, as a little postscript to this experience, the innkeeper remarked on my frightened appearance when I reached his handsome lodging house shortly after ten. He asked me why I looked so upset, perhaps even distressed and dishevelled. Leaving all superstition and folklore from my tale, I kept to the simple facts of what I’d encountered that night. In doing so, I shared a brief account of my meeting with the wolf.
Laughing, the garrulous Frenchman dismissed my version of events out of hand.
“Oh, there hasn't been a wolf in the department of Vienne for one hundred years,” he grinned. “Farmers shot the last of them a century ago. What you probably came across was a large fox or a shepherd's dog, which has escaped from its master. Some of those brutes can be vicious, especially the ones from Alsace.”
“I'm sure it was no mere dog or fox I saw, Monsieur.”
“Maybe so, but it's a lonely road over the fens, especially at night. One's imagination can play all sorts of tricks when one is up there alone.”