The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Black Wolf's Breed (1899)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Black Wolf’s Breed was written by Harris Dickson. Dickson (1868-1946) was a judge in Mississippi and a noted short story writer and novelist of the post-Civil War South. The Black Wolf’s Breed is a well-written historical romance which is too serious for its own good.
Placide de Mouret is a member of Bienville’s Guards in Louisiana in the seventeenth century, late in the reign of Louis XIV. One day he visits his friend Colonel d’Ortez, a Huguenot refugee who lives alone in the swamps. They have been friends for a long time, but this visit brings something different. This time d’Ortez, feeling that he has not long to live, confesses that he is actually the last Count d’Antin, whose crest is the black wolf. The Count tells Placide the story of his family’s dishonor and its broken lineage and asks Placide to find the last d’Antin. Placide returns to Biloxi and is promptly given a mission by Bienville, the Governor of the colony. Bienville is worried about an imminent war between the French colonists and the rascally Spanish and their Natchez Chickasaw allies. Bienville has also heard that the King is going to turn over control of the revenues and government of the colonies to Antoine Crozat, his minister of finance. So Bienville tells Placide to go to Paris to deliver papers to Serigny, Bienville’s brother, and then to follow whatever instructions Serigny gives him. Placide, who has heard many stories about the grace and courage of Serigny, is happy to make the trip. But Placide is well aware that there may be spies within the French colonists and military, and feels he can’t trust anyone but Bienville. Placide’s suspicions are almost immediately confirmed when he overhears the conversation of a pair of spies soon after boarding Le Dauphin, the ship which is to bring him to Paris. But Placide cannot see who is talking and knows only that there are traitors onboard the Dauphin. He enjoys the trip and becomes close with two men, Levert, an older, taciturn man, and Broussard, who is younger and lighthearted. Unfortunately, a practice duel between Placide and Broussard turns serious, and when Placide masters Broussard their friendship is damaged.
When the Dauphin arrives in France Placide leaves for Versailles. During the trip he is appalled at the cruelties he sees inflicted on the Huguenots and the devastations wrought on the peasants and the countryside by the extravagances of the King. On arriving at Versailles he goes to the palace and arranges an interview with Serigny. But Placide is dressed like a colonist and attracts the jibes of a courtier, who provokes a duel with Placide, which Placide easily wins. Placide refuses to kill the courtier, who is one of the King’s soldiers, and tells the man that “I can not turn the King’s sword against one of his servants.”1 Fortunately for Placide, the King is standing behind him when this happens, and His Royal Highness is favorably impressed with Placide’s conduct. The King agrees to see Placide the next morning, and struts off into the crowd. Placide’s opponent begs his pardon, and introduces Placide to the Duke of Orleans, the rival of the Duke of Maine for the forthcoming Regency of France. When Serigny is pointed out to Placide, he approaches Serigny and tells Serigny when he has come from Louisiana. Placide and Serigny retire to the privacy of one of Versailles’ gardens, and Placide gives Serigny Bienville’s papers. Serigny is pleased to get them, and teaches Placide a little about the politics of the court. They agree to meet the following day, after Placide’s meeting with the King.
The meeting goes well. Placide shows his loyalty to the King but speaks boldly to the King when necessary. The King is swayed by Placide’s words and reappoints Bienville as the Governor of the Province of Louisiana, which pleases Serigny. Serigny then gives Placide a mission: go to Paris and assist in the apprehension of the spy Yvard. In Paris Placide attempts to save a woman from being assaulted, and forces the man assaulting her to break and run, only to discover that the man was Yvard, and that the woman was a “decoy pigeon” for a wine room. Placide pursues Yvard and gets into a gambling match with him–their previous fight had been in the dark, so Yvard had not clearly seen Placide’s face–but this leads to another fight, and Placide only escapes from the inn with the help of Florine, the waitress he had saved from Yvard. Placide meets Jerome de Greville, Serigny’s agent. They become friends, and Placide accompanies Jerome to a ball, where Placide meets a masked woman. The woman flirts with him and enchants him, and Placide accedes to her requests. This leads him into trouble, and he ends up trapped in a house with Broussard, who Placide discovers is a Spanish agent. A grueling struggle follows in which Placide is forced to kill Broussard by strangling him, something that momentarily drives Placide insane. He falls into a fever, recovering some time later in the care of Jerome and Florine. Placide resumes his work for Serigny, but he allows himself to be gulled by the masked woman, who he discovers to be the maid to the Queen, who is playing the King, the Duke of Orleans, and the Duke of Maine against each other. To serve the queen the woman manipulates Placide into killing a man Placide had previously refused to duel with, and then further manipulates events so that Placide is declared an outlaw by the King.
After that Placide flees Paris, meets his true love, finds the last of the d’Antins, returns to Louisiana, and fights in the battle of Pensacola. He ends up living happily ever after.
The Black Wolf’s Breed has a number of virtues, and is clearly a well-intentioned, serious novel with much to recommend it. Its only real flaw is the lack of a sense of humor and any real feeling of fun. This is understandable, as the world of eighteenth century Louisiana and Paris, as Dickson recreates it, hasn’t much room for humor or a light atmosphere. Dickson obviously took the writing of the novel seriously, and if he did not produce High Art, he still managed to treat the novel’s individual elements seriously. Dickson is careful with his details. He differentiates between Indian tribes, between Choctaw and Chickasaw, something many nineteenth century writers of historical romances were unable or unwilling to do. Dickson makes good use of real world history, unfortunately to the point of requiring readers to know a lot of eighteenth century French history in order to fully enjoy the novel. Dickson treats issues of social inequality, powerlessness and class seriously. He shows an acute awareness of the cost of monarchy. The upper classes are most often the focus of nineteenth century historical romances, but Dickson unusually stresses the price paid by the people whose work supports the upper classes. In The Black Wolf’s Breed the reader is always aware of what it was to be poor under the kings of France. Dickson is equally keen on showing the reader the human pain which religious bigotry can cause. His descriptions of anti-Huguenot violence and the victims of religious bigotry can verge on gruesome, but they are effective. And unlike many other swashbucklers, The Black Wolf’s Breed does not portray the killing of another human being as a small thing. Placide’s strangulation of Broussard devastates Placide.
Dickson’s style works well for these purposes. Although his recreation of Louisiana and Paris is only average, his characterization is good and occasionally vivid, as when de Mouret slips into fever and madness following his killing of Broussard. Dickson’s tone and vocabulary are better than average, and the novel has a suitably fast pace.
The Black Wolf’s Breed is a fine example of the historical romances written during the 1890s which were not influenced by the Weyman School (see: Historical Romance). Whether the latter is superior to the former is a matter of taste, but both are very well done, as is The Black Wolf’s Breed.
Print: Harris Dickson, The Black Wolf’s Breed. London: Forgotten Books, 2018.
1 Harris Dickson, The Black Wolf’s Breed (Indianapolis, IN: Bowen-Merrill Co., 1899), 37.