WAGNER, THE WEHR-WOLF.
By GEORGE W. M. REYNOLDS.
NEW YORK HURST & COMPANY PUBLISHERS
It was the month of January, 1516.
The night was dark and tempestuous; the thunder growled around; the lightning flashed at short intervals: and the wind swept furiously along in sudden and fitful gusts.
The streams of the great Black Forest of Germany babbled in playful melody no more, but rushed on with deafening din, mingling their torrent roar with the wild creaking of the huge oaks, the rustling of the firs, the howling of the affrighted wolves, and the hollow voices of the storm.
The dense black clouds were driving restlessly athwart the sky; and when the vivid lightning gleamed forth with rapid and eccentric glare, it seemed as if the dark jaws of some hideous monster, floating high above, opened to vomit flame.
And as the abrupt but furious gusts of wind swept through the forest, they raised strange echoes—as if the impervious mazes of that mighty wood were the abode of hideous fiends and evil spirits, who responded in shrieks, moans, and lamentations to the fearful din of the tempest.
It was, indeed, an appalling night!
An old—old man sat in his cottage on the verge of the Black Forest.
He had numbered ninety years; his head was completely bald—his mouth was toothless—his long beard was white as snow, and his limbs were feeble and trembling.
He was alone in the world; his wife, his children, his grandchildren, all his relations, in fine, save one, had preceded him on that long, last voyage, from which no traveler returns.
And that one was a grand-daughter, a beauteous girl of sixteen, who had hitherto been his solace and his comfort, but who had suddenly disappeared—he knew not how—a few days previously to the time when we discover him seated thus lonely in his poor cottage.
But perhaps she also was dead! An accident might have snatched her away from him, and sent her spirit to join those of her father and mother, her sisters and her brothers, whom a terrible pestilence—the Black Death—hurried to the tomb a few years before.
No: the old man could not believe that his darling granddaughter was no more—for he had sought her throughout the neighboring district of the Black Forest, and not a trace of her was to be seen. Had she fallen down a precipice, or perished by the ruthless murderer's hand, he would have discovered her mangled corpse: had she become the prey of the ravenous wolves, certain signs of her fate would have doubtless somewhere appeared.
The sad—the chilling conviction therefore, went to the old man's heart, that the only being left to solace him on earth, had deserted him; and his spirit was bowed down in despair.
Who now would prepare his food, while he tended his little flock? who was there to collect the dry branches in the forest, for the winter's fuel, while the aged shepherd watched a few sheep that he possessed? who would now spin him warm clothing to protect his weak and trembling limbs?
"Oh! Agnes," he murmured, in a tone indicative of a breaking heart, "why couldst thou have thus abandoned me? Didst thou quit the old man to follow some youthful lover, who will buoy thee up with bright hopes, and then deceive thee? O Agnes—my darling! hast thou left me to perish without a soul to close my eyes?"
It was painful how that ancient shepherd wept.
Suddenly a loud knock at the door of the cottage aroused him from his painful reverie; and he hastened, as fast as his trembling limbs would permit him, to answer the summons.
He opened the door; and a tall man, apparently about forty years of age, entered the humble dwelling. His light hair would have been magnificent indeed, were it not sorely neglected; his blue eyes were naturally fine and intelligent, but fearful now to meet, so wild and wandering were their glances: his form was tall and admirably symmetrical, but prematurely bowed by the weight of sorrow, and his attire was of costly material, but indicative of inattention even more than it was travel-soiled.
The old man closed the door, and courteously drew a stool near the fire for the stranger who had sought in his cottage a refuge against the fury of the storm.
He also placed food before him; but the stranger touched it not—horror and dismay appearing to have taken possession of his soul.
Suddenly the thunder which had hitherto growled at a distance, burst above the humble abode; and the wind swept by with so violent a gust, that it shook the little tenement to its foundation, and filled the neighboring forest with strange, unearthly noises.
Then the countenance of the stranger expressed such ineffable horror, amounting to a fearful agony, that the old man was alarmed, and stretched out his hand to grasp a crucifix that hung over the chimney-piece; but his mysterious guest made a forbidding sign of so much earnestness mingled with such proud authority, that the aged shepherd sank back into his seat without touching the sacred symbol.
The roar of the thunder past—the shrieking, whistling, gushing wind became temporarily lulled into low moans and subdued lamentations, amid the mazes of the Black Forest; and the stranger grew more composed.
"Dost thou tremble at the storm?" inquired the old man.
"I am unhappy," was the evasive and somewhat impatient reply. "Seek not to know more of me—beware how you question me. But you, old man, are not happy! The traces of care seem to mingle with the wrinkles of age upon your brow!"
The shepherd narrated, in brief and touching terms, the unaccountable disappearance of his much-beloved granddaughter Agnes.
The stranger listened abstractedly at first; but afterward he appeared to reflect profoundly for several minutes.
"Your lot is wretched, old man," said he at length: "if you live a few years longer, that period must be passed in solitude and cheerlessness:—if you suddenly fall ill you must die the lingering death of famine, without a soul to place a morsel of food, or the cooling cup to your lips; and when you shall be no more, who will follow you to the grave? There are no habitations nigh; the nearest village is half-a-day's journey distant; and ere the peasants of that hamlet, or some passing traveler, might discover that the inmate of this hut had breathed his last, the wolves from the forest would have entered and mangled your corpse."
"Talk not thus!" cried the old man, with a visible shudder; then darting a half-terrified, half-curious glance at his guest, he said, "but who are you that speak in this awful strain—this warning voice?"
Again the thunder rolled, with crashing sound, above the cottage; and once more the wind swept by, laden, as it seemed, with the shrieks and groans of human beings in the agonies of death.
The stranger maintained a certain degree of composure only by means of a desperate effort, but he could not altogether subdue a wild flashing of the eyes and a ghastly change of the countenance—signs of a profoundly felt terror.
"Again I say, ask me not who I am!" he exclaimed, when the thunder and the gust had passed. "My soul recoils from the bare idea of pronouncing my own accursed name! But—unhappy as you see me—crushed, overwhelmed with deep affliction as you behold me—anxious, but unable to repent for the past as I am, and filled with appalling dread for the future as I now proclaim myself to be, still is my power far, far beyond that limit which hems mortal energies within so small a sphere. Speak, old man—wouldst thou change thy condition? For to me—and to me alone of all human beings—belongs the means of giving thee new life—of bestowing upon thee the vigor of youth, of rendering that stooping form upright and strong, of restoring fire to those glazing eyes, and beauty to that wrinkled, sunken, withered countenance—of endowing thee, in a word, with a fresh tenure of existence and making that existence sweet by the aid of treasures so vast that no extravagance can dissipate them!"
A strong though indefinite dread assailed the old man as this astounding proffer was rapidly opened, in all its alluring details, to his mind;—and various images of terror presented themselves to his imagination;—but these feelings were almost immediately dominated by a wild and ardent hope, which became the more attractive and exciting in proportion as a rapid glance at his helpless, wretched, deserted condition led him to survey the contrast between what he then was, and what, if the stranger spoke truly, he might so soon become.
The stranger saw that he had made the desired impression; and he continued thus:
"Give but your assent, old man, and not only will I render thee young, handsome, and wealthy; but I will endow thy mind with an intelligence to match that proud position. Thou shalt go forth into the world to enjoy all those pleasures, those delights, and those luxuries, the names of which are even now scarcely known to thee!"
"And what is the price of this glorious boon?" asked the old man, trembling with mingled joy and terror through every limb.
"There are two conditions," answered the stranger, in a low, mysterious tone. "The first is, that you become the companion of my wanderings for one year and a half from the present time, until the hour of sunset, on the 30th of July, 1517, when we must part forever, you to go whithersoever your inclinations may guide you, and I—— But of that, no matter!" he added, hastily, with a sudden motion as if of deep mental agony, and with wildly flashing eyes.
The old man shrank back in dismay from his mysterious guest: the thunder rolled again, the rude gust swept fiercely by, the dark forest rustled awfully, and the stranger's torturing feelings were evidently prolonged by the voices of the storm.
A pause ensued; and the silence was at length broken by the old man, who said, in a hollow and tremulous tone, "To the first condition I would willingly accede. But the second?"
"That you prey upon the human race, whom I hate; because of all the world I alone am so deeply, so terribly accurst!" was the ominously fearful yet only dimly significant reply.
The old man shook his head, scarcely comprehending the words of his guest, and yet daring not to ask to be more enlightened.
"Listen!" said the stranger, in a hasty but impressive voice: "I require a companion, one who has no human ties, and who still ministers to my caprices,—who will devote himself wholly and solely to watch me in my dark hours, and endeavor to recall me back to enjoyment and pleasure, who, when he shall be acquainted with my power, will devise new means in which to exercise it, for the purpose of conjuring up those scenes of enchantment and delight that may for a season win me away from thought. Such a companion do I need for a period of one year and a half; and you are, of all men, the best suited to my design. But the Spirit whom I must invoke to effect the promised change in thee, and by whose aid you can be given back to youth and comeliness, will demand some fearful sacrifice at your hands. And the nature of that sacrifice—the nature of the condition to be imposed—I can well divine!"
"Name the sacrifice—name the condition!" cried the old man, eagerly. "I am so miserable—so spirit-broken—so totally without hope in this world, that I greedily long to enter upon that new existence which you promised me! Say, then, what is the condition?"
"That you prey upon the human race, whom he hates as well as I," answered the stranger.
"Again those awful words!" ejaculated the old man, casting trembling glances around him.
"Yes—again those words," echoed the mysterious guest, looking with his fierce burning eyes into the glazed orbs of the aged shepherd. "And now learn their import!" he continued, in a solemn tone. "Knowest thou not that there is a belief in many parts of our native land that at particular seasons certain doomed men throw off the human shape and take that of ravenous wolves?"
"Oh, yes—yes—I have indeed heard of those strange legends in which the Wehr-Wolf is represented in such appalling colors!" exclaimed the old man, a terrible suspicion crossing his mind.
"'Tis said that at sunset on the last day of every month the mortal, to whom belongs the destiny of the Wehr-Wolf, must exchange his natural form for that of the savage animal; in which horrible shape he must remain until the moment when the morrow's sun dawns upon the earth."
"The legend that told thee this spoke truly," said the stranger. "And now dost thou comprehend the condition which must be imposed upon thee?"
"I do—I do!" murmured the old man with a fearful shudder. "But he who accepts that condition makes a compact with the evil one, and thereby endangers his immortal soul!"
"Not so," was the reply. "There is naught involved in this condition which—— But hesitate not," added the stranger, hastily: "I have no time to waste in bandying words. Consider all I offer you: in another hour you shall be another man!"
"I accept the boon—and on the conditions stipulated!" exclaimed the shepherd.
"'Tis well, Wagner——"
"What! you know my name!" cried the old man. "And yet, meseems, I did not mention it to thee."
"Canst thou not already perceive that I am no common mortal?" demanded the stranger, bitterly. "And who I am, and whence I derive my power, all shall be revealed to thee so soon as the bond is formed that must link us for eighteen months together! In the meantime, await me here!"
And the mysterious stranger quitted the cottage abruptly, and plunged into the depths of the Black Forest.
One hour elapsed ere he returned—one mortal hour, during which Wagner sat bowed over his miserably scanty fire, dreaming of pleasure, youth, riches, and enjoyment; converting, in imagination, the myriad sparks which shone upon the extinguishing embers into piles of gold, and allowing his now uncurbed fancy to change the one single room of the wretched hovel into a splendid saloon, surrounded by resplendent mirrors and costly hangings, while the untasted fare for the stranger on the rude fir-table, became transformed, in his idea, into a magnificent banquet laid out, on a board glittering with plate, lustrous with innumerable lamps, and surrounded by an atmosphere fragrant with the most exquisite perfumes.
The return of the stranger awoke the old man from his charming dream, during which he had never once thought of the conditions whereby he was to purchase the complete realization of the vision.
"Oh! what a glorious reverie you have dissipated!" exclaimed Wagner. "Fulfill but one tenth part of that delightful dream——"
"I will fulfill it all!" interrupted the stranger: then, producing a small vial from the bosom of his doublet, he said, "Drink!"
The old man seized the bottle, and speedily drained it to the dregs.
He immediately fell back upon the seat, in a state of complete lethargy.
But it lasted not for many minutes; and when he awoke again, he experienced new and extraordinary sensations. His limbs were vigorous, his form was upright as an arrow; his eyes, for many years dim and failing, seemed gifted with the sight of an eagle, his head was warm with a natural covering; not a wrinkle remained upon his brow nor on his cheeks; and, as he smiled with mingled wonderment and delight, the parting lips revealed a set of brilliant teeth. And it seemed, too, as if by one magic touch the long fading tree of his intellect had suddenly burst into full foliage, and every cell of his brain was instantaneously stored with an amount of knowledge, the accumulation of which stunned him for an instant, and in the next appeared as familiar to him as if he had never been without it.
"Oh! great and powerful being, whomsoever thou art," exclaimed Wagner, in the full, melodious voice of a young man of twenty-one, "how can I manifest to thee my deep, my boundless gratitude for this boon which thou hast conferred upon me!"
"By thinking no more of thy lost grand-child Agnes, but by preparing to follow me whither I shall now lead thee," replied the stranger.
"Command me: I am ready to obey in all things," cried Wagner. "But one word ere we set forth—who art thou, wondrous man?"
"Henceforth I have no secrets from thee, Wagner," was the answer, while the stranger's eyes gleamed with unearthly luster; then, bending forward, he whispered a few words in the other's ear.
Wagner started with a cold and fearful shudder as if at some appalling announcement; but he uttered not a word of reply—for his master beckoned him imperiously away from the humble cottage.
THE DEATH-BED—THE OATH—THE LAST INJUNCTIONS.
Our tale commences in the middle of the month of November, 1520, and at the hour of midnight.
In a magnificently furnished chamber, belonging to one of the largest mansions of Florence, a nobleman lay at the point of death.
The light of the lamp suspended to the ceiling played upon the ghastly countenance of the dying man, the stern expression of whose features was not even mitigated by the fears and uncertainties attendant on the hour of dissolution.
He was about forty-eight years of age, and had evidently been wondrously handsome in his youth: for though the frightful pallor of death was already upon his cheeks, and the fire of his large black eyes was dimmed with the ravages of a long-endured disease, still the faultless outlines of the aquiline profile remained unimpaired.
The most superficial observer might have read the aristocratic pride of his soul in the haughty curl of his short upper lip,—the harshness of his domineering character in the lines that marked his forehead,—and the cruel sternness of his disposition in the expression of his entire countenance.
Without absolutely scowling as he lay on that bed of death, his features were characterized by an inexorable severity which seemed to denote the predominant influence of some intense passion—some evil sentiment deeply rooted in his mind.
Two persons leant over the couch to which death was so rapidly approaching.
One was a lady of about twenty-five: the other was a youth of nineteen.
The former was eminently beautiful; but her countenance was marked with much of that severity—that determination—and even of that sternness, which characterized the dying nobleman. Indeed, a single glance was sufficient to show that they stood in the close relationship of father and daughter.
Her long, black, glossy hair now hung disheveled over the shoulders that were left partially bare by the hasty negligence with which she had thrown on a loose wrapper; and those shoulders were of the most dazzling whiteness.
The wrapper was confined by a broad band at the waist; and the slight drapery set off, rather than concealed, the rich contours of a form of mature but admirable symmetry.
Tall, graceful, and elegant, she united easy motion with fine proportion; thus possessing the lightness of the Sylph and the luxuriant fullness of the Hebe.
Her countenance was alike expressive of intellectuality and strong passions. Her large black eyes were full of fire, and their glances seemed to penetrate the soul. Her nose, of the finest aquiline development,—her lips, narrow, but red and pouting, with the upper one short and slightly projecting over the lower,—and her small, delicately rounded chin, indicated both decision and sensuality: but the insolent gaze of the libertine would have quailed beneath the look of sovereign hauteur which flashed from those brilliant eagle eyes.
In a word, she appeared to be a woman well adapted to command the admiration—receive the homage—excite the passions—and yet repel the insolence of the opposite sex.
But those appearances were to some degree deceitful; for never was homage offered to her—never was she courted nor flattered.
Ten years previously to the time of which we are writing—and when she was only fifteen—the death of her mother, under strange and mysterious circumstances, as it was generally reported, made such a terrible impression on her mind, that she hovered for months on the verge of dissolution; and when the physician who attended upon her communicated to her father the fact that her life was at length beyond danger, that assurance was followed by the sad and startling declaration, that she had forever lost the sense of hearing and the power of speech.
No wonder, then, that homage was never paid nor adulation offered to Nisida—the deaf and dumb daughter of the proud Count of Riverola!
Those who were intimate with this family ere the occurrence of that sad event—especially the physician, Dr. Duras, who had attended upon the mother in her last moments, and on the daughter during her illness—declared that, up to the period when the malady assailed her, Nisida was a sweet, amiable and retiring girl; but she had evidently been fearfully changed by the terrible affliction which that malady had left behind. For if she could no longer express herself in words, her eyes darted lightnings upon the unhappy menials who had the misfortune to incur her displeasure; and her lips would quiver with the violence of concentrated passion, at the most trifling neglect or error of which the female dependents immediately attached to her own person might happen to be guilty.
Toward her father she often manifested a strange ebullition of anger—bordering even on inveterate spite, when he offended her: and yet, singular though it were, the count was devotedly attached to his daughter. He frequently declared that, afflicted as she was, he was proud of her: for he was wont to behold in her flashing eyes—her curling lip—and her haughty air, the reflection of his own proud—his own inexorable spirit.
The youth of nineteen to whom we have alluded was Nisida's brother; and much as the father appeared to dote upon the daughter, was the son proportionately disliked by that stern and despotic man.
Perhaps this want of affection—or rather this complete aversion—on the part of the Count of Riverola toward the young Francisco, owed its origin to the total discrepancy of character existing between the father and son. Francisco was as amiable, generous-hearted, frank and agreeable as his sire was austere, stern, reserved and tyrannical. The youth was also unlike his father in personal appearance, his hair being of a rich brown, his eyes of a soft blue, and the general expression of his countenance indicating the fairest and most endearing qualities which can possibly characterize human nature.
We must, however, observe, before we pursue our narrative, that Nisida imitated not her father in her conduct toward Francisco; for she loved him—she loved him with the most ardent affection—such an affection as a sister seldom manifests toward a brother. It was rather the attachment of a mother for her child; inasmuch as Nisida studied all his comforts—watched over him, as it were, with the tenderest solicitude—was happy when he was present, melancholy when he was absent, and seemed to be constantly racking her imagination to devise new means to afford him pleasure.
To treat Francisco with the least neglect was to arouse the wrath of a fury in the breast of Nisida; and every unkind look which the count inflicted upon his son was sure, if perceived by his daughter, to evoke the terrible lightnings of her brilliant eyes.
Such were the three persons whom we have thus minutely described to our readers.
The count had been ill for some weeks at the time when this chapter opens; but on the night which marks that commencement, Dr. Duras had deemed it his duty to warn the nobleman that he had not many hours to live.
The dying man had accordingly desired that his children might be summoned; and when they entered the apartment, the physician and the priest were requested to withdraw.
Francisco now stood on one side of the bed, and Nisida on the other; while the count collected his remaining strength to address his last injunctions to his son.
"Francisco," he said, in a cold tone, "I have little inclination to speak at any great length; but the words I am about to utter are solemnly important. I believe you entertain the most sincere and earnest faith in that symbol which now lies beneath your hand."
"The crucifix!" ejaculated the young man. "Oh, yes, my dear father!—it is the emblem of that faith which teaches us how to live and die!"
"Then take it up—press it to your lips—and swear to obey the instructions which I am about to give you," said the count.
Francisco did as he was desired; and, although tears were streaming from his eyes, he exclaimed, in an emphatic manner, "I swear most solemnly to fulfill your commands, my dear father, so confident am I that you will enjoin nothing that involves aught dishonorable!"
"Spare your qualifications," cried the count, sternly; "and swear without reserve—or expect my dying curse, rather than my blessing."
"Oh! my dear father," ejaculated the youth, with intense anguish of soul; "talk not of so dreadful a thing as bequeathing me your dying curse! I swear to fulfill your injunctions—without reserve."
And he kissed the holy symbol.
"You act wisely," said the count, fixing his glaring eyes upon the handsome countenance of the young man, who now awaited, in breathless suspense, a communication thus solemnly prefaced. "This key," continued the nobleman, taking one from beneath his pillow as he spoke, "belongs to the door in yonder corner of the apartment."
"That door which is never opened!" exclaimed Francisco, casting an anxious glance in the direction indicated.
"Who told you that the door was never opened," demanded the count, sternly.
"I have heard the servants remark——" began the youth in a timid, but still frank and candid manner.
"Then, when I am no more, see that you put an end to such impertinent gossiping," said the nobleman, impatiently; "and you will be the better convinced of the propriety of thus acting, as soon as you have learned the nature of my injunctions. That door," he continued, "communicates with a small closet, which is accessible by no other means. Now my wish—my command is this:—Upon the day of your marriage, whenever such an event may occur—and I suppose you do not intend to remain unwedded all your life—I enjoin you to open the door of that closet. You must be accompanied by your bride—and by no other living soul. I also desire that this may be done with the least possible delay—the very morning—within the very hour after you quit the church. That closet contains the means of elucidating a mystery profoundly connected with me—with you—with the family—a mystery, the developments of which may prove of incalculable service alike to yourself and to her who may share your title and your wealth. But should you never marry, then must the closet remain unvisited by you; nor need you trouble yourself concerning the eventual discovery of the secret which it contains, by any person into whose hands the mansion may fall at your death. It is also my wish that your sister should remain in complete ignorance of the instructions which I am now giving you. Alas! poor girl—she cannot hear the words which fall from my lips! neither shall you communicate their import to her by writing, nor by the language of the fingers. And remember that while I bestow upon you my blessing—my dying blessing—may that blessing become a withering curse—the curse of hell upon you—if in any way you violate one tittle of the injunctions which I have now given you."
"My dearest father," replied the weeping youth, who had listened with the most profound attention, to these extraordinary commands; "I would not for worlds act contrary to your wishes. Singular as they appear to me, they shall be fulfilled to the very letter."
He received from his father's hand the mysterious key, which he had secured about his person.
"You will find," resumed the count after a brief pause, "that I have left the whole of my property to you. At the same time my will specifies certain conditions relative to your sister Nisida, for whom I have made due provision only in the case—which is, alas! almost in defiance of every hope!—of her recovery from that dreadful affliction which renders her so completely dependent upon your kindness."
"Dearest father, you know how sincerely I am attached to my sister—how devoted she is to me——"
"Enough, enough!" cried the count; and overcome by the effort he had made to deliver his last injunction, he fell back insensible on his pillow.
Nisida, who had retained her face buried in her hands during the whole time occupied in the above conversation, happened to look up at that moment; and, perceiving the condition of her father, she made a hasty sign to Francisco to summon the physician and the priest from the room to which they had retired.
This commission was speedily executed, and in a few minutes the physician and the priest were once more by the side of the dying noble.
But the instant that Dr. Duras—who was a venerable looking man of about sixty years of age—approached the bed, he darted, unseen by Francisco, a glance of earnest inquiry toward Nisida, who responded by one of profound meaning, shaking her head gently, but in a manner expressive of deep melancholy, at the same time.
The physician appeared to be astonished at the negative thus conveyed by the beautiful mute; and he even manifested a sign of angry impatience.
But Nisida threw upon him a look of so imploring a nature, that his temporary vexation yielded to a feeling of immense commiseration for that afflicted creature: and he gave her to understand, by another rapid glance, that her prayer was accorded.
This interchange of signs of such deep mystery scarcely occupied a moment, and was altogether unobserved by Francisco.
Dr. Duras proceeded to administer restoratives to the dying nobleman—but in vain!
The count had fallen into a lethargic stupor, which lasted until four in the morning, when his spirit passed gently away.
The moment Francisco and Nisida became aware that they were orphans, they threw themselves into each other's arms, and renewed by that tender embrace the tacit compact of sincere affection which had ever existed between them.
Francisco's tears flowed freely; but Nisida did not weep!
A strange—an almost portentous light shone in her brilliant black eyes; and though that wild gleaming denoted powerful emotions, yet it shed no luster upon the depths of her soul—afforded no clew to the real nature of these agitated feelings.
Suddenly withdrawing himself from his sister's arms, Francisco conveyed to her by the language of the fingers the following tender sentiment:—"You have lost a father, beloved Nisida, but you have a devoted and affectionate brother left to you!"
And Nisida replied through the same medium, "Your happiness, dearest brother, has ever been my only study, and shall continue so."
The physician and Father Marco, the priest, now advanced, and taking the brother and sister by the hands, led them from the chamber of death.
"Kind friends," said Francisco, now Count of Riverola, "I understand you. You would withdraw my sister and myself from a scene too mournful to contemplate. Alas! it is hard to lose a father; but especially so at my age, inexperienced as I am in the ways of the world!"
"The world is indeed made up of thorny paths and devious ways, my dear young friend," returned the physician; "but a stout heart and integrity of purpose will ever be found faithful guides. The more exalted and the wealthier the individual, the greater the temptations he will have to encounter. Reflect upon this, Francisco: it is advice which I, as an old—indeed, the oldest friend of your family—take the liberty to offer."
With these words, the venerable physician wrung the hands of the brother and sister, and hurried from the house, followed by the priest.
The orphans embraced each other, and retired to their respective apartments.
NISIDA—THE MYSTERIOUS CLOSET.
The room to which Nisida withdrew, between four and five o'clock on that mournful winter's morning, was one of a suit entirely appropriated to her own use.
This suit consisted of three apartments, communicating with each other, and all furnished in the elegant and tasteful manner of that age.
The innermost of the three rooms was used as her bed-chamber, and when she now entered it, a young girl of seventeen, beautiful as an angel, but dressed in the attire of a dependent, instantly arose from a seat near the fire that blazed on the hearth, and cast a respectful but inquiring glance toward her mistress.
Nisida gave her to understand, by a sign, that all was over.
The girl started, as if surprised that her lady indicated so little grief; but the latter motioned her, with an impatient gesture, to leave the room.
When Flora—such was the name of the dependent—had retired Nisida threw herself into a large arm-chair near the fire, and immediately became buried in a deep reverie. With her splendid hair flowing upon her white shoulders—her proud forehead supported on her delicate hand—her lips apart, and revealing the pearly teeth—her lids with their long black fringes half-closed over the brilliant eyes—and her fine form cast in voluptuous abandonment upon the soft cushions of the chair—she indeed seemed a magnificent creature!
But when, suddenly awaking from that profound meditation, she started from her seat with flashing eyes—heaving bosom—and an expression of countenance denoting a fixed determination to accomplish some deed from which her better feelings vainly bade her to abstain:—when she drew her tall—her even majestic form up to its full height, the drapery shadowing forth every contour of undulating bust and exquisitely modeled limb—while her haughty lip curled in contempt of any consideration save her own indomitable will—she appeared rather a heroine capable of leading an Amazonian army, than a woman to whom the sighing swain might venture to offer up the incense of love.
There was something awful in the aspect of this mysterious being—something ineffably grand and imposing in her demeanor—as she thus suddenly rose from her almost recumbent posture, and burst into the attitude of a resolute and energetic woman.
Drawing the wrapper around her form, she lighted a lamp, and was about to quit the chamber, when her eyes suddenly encountered the mild and benignant glance which the portrait of a lady appeared to cast upon her.
This portrait, which hung against the wall precisely opposite to the bed, represented a woman of about thirty years of age—a woman of a beauty much in the same style as that of Nisida, but not marred by anything approaching to a sternness of expression. On the contrary, if an angel had looked through those mild black eyes, their glances could not have been endowed with a holier kindness; the smiles of good spirits could not be more plaintively sweet than those which the artist had made to play upon the lips of that portrait.
Yet, in spite of this discrepancy between the expression of Nisida's countenance and that of the lady who had formed the subject of the picture, it was not difficult to perceive a certain physical likeness between the two; nor will the reader be surprised when we state that Nisida was gazing on the portrait of her deceased mother.
And that gaze—oh! how intent, how earnest, how enthusiastic it was! It manifested something more than love—something more impassioned and ardent than the affection which a daughter might exhibit toward even a living mother; it showed a complete devotion—an adoration—a worship!
Long and fixedly did Nisida gaze upon that portrait; till suddenly from her eyes, which shot forth such burning glances, gushed a torrent of tears.
Then—probably fearful lest this weakness on her part might impair the resolution necessary to execute the purpose which she had in view—Nisida dashed away the tears from her long lashes, hastily quitted the room.
Having traversed the other two apartments of her own suit, she cast a searching glance along the passage which she now entered; and, satisfied that none of the domestics were about, for it was not yet six o'clock on that winter's morning, she hastened to the end of the corridor.
The lamp flared with the speed at which she walked; and its uncertain light enhanced the pallor that now covered her countenance.
At the bottom of the passage she cautiously opened the door, and entered the room with which it communicated.
This was the sleeping apartment of her brother.
A single glance convinced her that he was wrapt in the arms of slumber.
He slept soundly too—for he was wearied with the vigil which he had passed by the death-bed of his father—worn out also by the thousand conflicting and unsatisfactory conjectures that the last instructions of his parent had naturally excited in his mind.
He had not, however, been asleep a quarter of an hour when Nisida stole, in the manner described, into his chamber.
A smile of mingled joy and triumph animated her countenance, and a carnation tinge flushed her cheeks when she found he was fast locked in the embrace of slumber.
Without a moment's hesitation, she examined his doublet, and clutched the key that his father had given to him scarcely six hours before.
Then, light as the fawn, she left the room.
Having retraced her steps half-way up the passage, she paused at the door of the chamber in which the corpse of her father lay.
For an instant—a single instant—she seemed to revolt from the prosecution of her design, then, with a stern contraction of the brows, and an imperious curl of the lip—as if she said within herself, "Fool that I am to hesitate!"—she entered the room.
Without fear—without compunction, she approached the bed. The body was laid out: stretched in its winding sheet, stiff and stark did it seem to repose on the mattress—the countenance rendered more ghastly than even death could make it, by the white band which tied up the under jaw.
The nurse who had thus disposed the corpse, had retired to snatch a few hours of rest; and there was consequently no spy upon Nisida's actions.
With a fearless step she advanced toward the closet—the mysterious closet relative to which such strange injunctions had been given.
THE MANUSCRIPT—FLORA FRANCATELLI.
Nisida's hand trembled not as she placed the key in the lock; but when it turned, and she knew that in another instant she might open that door if she chose, she compressed her lips firmly together—she called all her courage to her aid—for she seemed to imagine that it was necessary to prepare herself to behold something frightfully appalling.
And now again her cheeks were deadly pale; but the light that burned in her eyes was brilliant in the extreme.
White as was her countenance, her large black orbs appeared to shine—to glow—to burn, as if with a violent fever.
Advancing with her left hand, she half-opened the door of the closet with her right.
Then she plunged her glances with rapidity into the recess.
But, holy God! what a start that courageous, bold, and energetic woman gave—a start as if the cold hand of a corpse had been suddenly thrust forth to grasp her.
And oh! what horror convulsed her countenance—while her lips were compressed as tightly as if they were an iron vise.
Rapidly and instantly recoiling as that glance was, it had nevertheless revealed to her an object of interest as well as of horror; for with eyes now averted, she seized something within the closet, and thrust it into her bosom.
Then, hastily closing the door, she retraced her way to her brother's chamber.
He still slept soundly; Nisida returned the key to the pocket whence she had taken it, and hurried back to her own room, from which she had scarcely been absent five minutes.
And did she seek her couch? did she repair to rest?
No; that energetic woman experienced no weariness—yielded to no lassitude.
Carefully bolting the door of her innermost chamber, she seated herself in the arm-chair and drew from her bosom the object which she had taken from the mysterious closet.
It was a manuscript, consisting of several small slips of paper, somewhat closely written upon.
The paper was doubtless familiar to her; for she paused not to consider its nature, but greedily addressed herself to the study of the meaning which it conveyed. And of terrible import seemed that manuscript to be; for while Nisida read, her countenance underwent many and awful changes—and her bosom heaved convulsively at one instant, while at another it remained motionless, as if respiration were suspended.
At length the perusal was completed; and grinding her teeth with demoniac rage, she threw the manuscript upon the floor. But at the same moment her eyes, which she cast wildly about her, caught the mild and benign countenance of her mother's portrait; and, as oil stills the fury of the boiling billows, did the influence of that picture calm in an instant the tremendous emotions of Nisida's soul.
Tears burst from her eyes, and she suddenly relapsed from the incarnate fiend into the subdued woman.
Then stooping down, she picked up the papers that lay scattered on the floor: but as she did so she averted her looks, with loathing and disgust, as much as possible from the pages that her hands collected almost at random.
And now another idea struck her—an idea the propriety of which evidently warred against her inclination.
She was not a woman of mere impulses—although she often acted speedily after a thought had entered her brain. But she was wondrously quick at weighing all reasons for or against the suggestions of her imagination; and thus, to any one who was not acquainted with her character, she might frequently appear to obey the first dictates of her impetuous passions.
Scarcely three minutes after the new idea had struck her, her resolution was fixed.
Once more concealing the papers in her bosom, she repaired with the lamp to her brother's room—purloined the key a second time—hastened to the chamber of death—opened the closet again—and again sustained the shock of a single glance at its horrors, as she returned the manuscript to the place whence she had originally taken it.
Then, having once more retraced her way to Francisco's chamber, she restored the key to the folds of his doublet—for he continued to sleep soundly; and Nisida succeeded in regaining her own apartments just in time to avoid the observation of the domestics, who were now beginning to move about.
Nisida sought her couch and slept until nearly ten o'clock, when she awoke with a start—doubtless caused by some unpleasant dream.
Having ascertained the hour by reference to a water-clock, or clepsydra, which stood on a marble pedestal near the head of the bed, she arose—unlocked the door of her apartment—rang a silver bell—and then returned to her bed.
In a few minutes Flora, who had been waiting in the adjoining room, entered the chamber.
Nisida, on regaining her couch, had turned her face toward the wall, and was therefore unable to perceive anything that took place in the apartment.
The mere mention of such a circumstance would be trivial in the extreme, were it not necessary to record it in consequence of an event which now occurred.
For, as Flora advanced into the room, her eyes fell on a written paper that lay immediately beneath the arm-chair; and conceiving from its appearance that it had not been thrown down on purpose, as it was in nowise crushed nor torn, she mechanically picked it up and placed it on the table.
She then proceeded to arrange the toilet table of her mistress, preparatory to that lady's rising; and while she is thus employed, we will endeavor to make our readers a little better acquainted with her than they can possibly yet be.
Flora Francatelli was the orphan daughter of parents who had suddenly been reduced from a state of affluence to a condition of extreme poverty. Signor Francatelli could not survive this blow: he died of a broken heart; and his wife shortly afterward followed him to the tomb—also the victim of grief. They left two children behind them: Flora, who was then an infant, and a little boy, named Alessandro, who was five years old. The orphans were entirely dependent upon the kindness of a maiden aunt—their departed father's sister. This relative, whose name was, of course, also Francatelli, performed a mother's part toward the children: and deprived herself, not only of comforts, but at times even of necessaries, in order that they should not want. Father Marco, a priest belonging to one of the numerous monasteries of Florence, and who was a worthy man, took compassion upon this little family; and not only devoted his attention to teach the orphans to read and write—great accomplishments among the middle classes in those days—but also procured from a fund at the disposal of his abbot, certain pecuniary assistance for the aunt.
The care which this good relative took of the orphans, and the kindness of Father Marco, were well rewarded by the veneration and attachment which Alessandro and Flora manifested toward them. When Alessandro had numbered eighteen summers, he was fortunate enough to procure, through the interest of Father Marco, the situation of secretary to a Florentine noble, who was charged with a diplomatic mission to the Ottoman Porte; and the young man proceeded to Leghorn, whence he embarked for Constantinople, attended by the prayers, blessings, and hopes of the aunt and sister, and of the good priest, whom he left behind.
Two years after his departure, Father Marco obtained for Flora a situation about the person of the Lady Nisida; for the monk was confessor to the family of Riverola, and his influence was sufficient to secure that place for the young maiden.
We have already said that Flora was sweetly beautiful. Her large blue eyes were fringed with dark lashes, which gave them an expression of the most melting softness; her dark brown hair, arranged in the modest bands, seemed of even a darker hue when contrasted with the brilliant and transparent clearness of her complexion, and though her forehead was white and polished as alabaster, yet the rose-tint of health was upon her cheeks, and her lips had the rich redness of coral. Her nose was perfectly straight; her teeth were white and even, and the graceful arching of her swan-neck imparted something of nobility to her tall, sylph-like, and exquisitely proportioned figure.
Retiring and bashful in her manners, every look which fell from her eyes—every smile which wreathed her lips, denoted the chaste purity of her soul. With all her readiness to oblige—with all her anxiety to do her duty as she ought, she frequently incurred the anger of the irascible Nisida; but Flora supported those manifestations of wrath with the sweetest resignation, because the excellence of her disposition taught her to make every allowance for one so deeply afflicted as her mistress.
Such was the young maiden whom the nature of the present tale compels us thus particularly to introduce to our readers.
Having carefully arranged the boudoir, so that its strict neatness might be welcome to her mistress when that lady chose to rise from her couch, Flora seated herself near the table, and gave way to her reflections.
She thought of her aunt, who inhabited a neat little cottage on the banks of the Arno, and whom she was usually permitted to visit every Sabbath afternoon—she thought of her absent brother, who was still in the service of the Florentine Envoy to the Ottomon Porte, where that diplomatist was detained by the tardiness that marked the negotiations with which he was charged; and then she thought—thought too, with an involuntary sigh—of Francisco, Count of Riverola.
She perceived that she had sighed—and, without knowing precisely wherefore, she was angry with herself.
Anxious to turn the channel of her meditations in another direction, she rose from her seat to examine the clepsydra. That movement caused her eyes to fall upon the paper which she had picked up a quarter of an hour previously.
In spite of herself the image of Francisco was still uppermost in her thoughts; and, in the contemplative vein thus encouraged, her eyes lingered, unwittingly—and through no base motive of curiosity—upon the writing which that paper contained.
Thus she actually found herself reading the first four lines of the writing, before she recollected what she was doing.
The act was a purely mechanical one, which not the most rigid moralist could blame.
And had the contents of the paper been of no interest, she might even have continued to read more in that same abstracted mood; but those four first lines were of a nature which sent a thrilling sensation of horror through her entire frame; the feeling terminating with an icy coldness of the heart.
She shuddered without starting—shuddered as she stood; and not even a murmur escaped her lips.
The intenseness of that sudden pang of horror deprived her alike of speech and motion during the instant that it lasted.
And those lines, which produced so strange an impression upon the young maiden, ran thus:
"merciless scalpel hacked and hewed away at the still almost palpitating flesh of the murdered man, in whose breast the dagger remained buried—a ferocious joy—a savage hyena-like triumph——"
Flora read no more; she could not—even if she had wished.
For a minute she remained rooted to the spot; then she threw herself into the chair, bewildered and dismayed at the terrible words which had met her eyes.
She thought that the handwriting was not unknown to her; but she could not recollect whose it was. One fact was, however, certain—it was not the writing of her mistress.
She was musing upon the horrible and mysterious contents of the paper, when Nisida rose from her couch.
Acknowledging with a slight nod of the head the respectful salutation of her attendant, she hastily slipped on a loose wrapper, and seated herself in the arm-chair which Flora had just abandoned.
The young girl then proceeded to comb out the long raven hair of her mistress.
But this occupation was most rudely interrupted: for Nisida's eyes suddenly fell upon the manuscript page on the table; and she started up in a paroxysm of mingled rage and alarm.
Having assured herself by a second glance that it was indeed a portion of the writings which had produced so strange an effect upon her a few hours previously, she turned abruptly toward Flora; and, imperiously confronting the young maiden, pointed to the paper in a significant manner.
Flora immediately indicated by a sign that she had found it on the floor, beneath the arm-chair.
"And you have read it!" was the accusation which, with wonderful rapidity, Nisida conveyed by means of her fingers—fixing her piercing, penetrating eyes on Flora's countenance at the same time.
The young maiden scorned the idea of a falsehood; although she perceived that her reply would prove far from agreeable to her mistress, she unhesitatingly admitted, by the language of the hands. "I read the first four lines, and no more."
A crimson glow instantly suffused the face, neck, shoulders, and bosom of Nisida; but instantly compressing her lips—as was her wont when under the influence of her boiling passions, she turned her flashing eyes once more upon the paper, to ascertain which leaf of the manuscript it was.
That rapid glance revealed to her the import, the dread, but profoundly mysterious import of the four first lines on that page; and, again darting her soul-searching looks upon the trembling Flora, she demanded, by the rapid play of her delicate taper fingers "Will you swear that you read no more?"
"As I hope for salvation!" was Flora's symbolic answer.
The penetrating, imperious glance of Nisida dwelt long upon the maiden's countenance; but no sinister expression—no suspicious change on that fair and candid face contradicted the assertion which she had made.
"I believe you; but beware how you breathe to a living soul a word of what you did read!"
Such was the injunction which Nisida now conveyed by her usual means of communication; and Flora signified implicit obedience.
Nisida then secured the page of writing in her jewel casket; and the details of the toilet were resumed.
THE FUNERAL—THE INTERRUPTION OF THE CEREMONY.
Eight days after the death of the Count of Riverola, the funeral took place.
The obsequies were celebrated at night, with all the pomp observed amongst noble families on such occasions. The church in which the corpse was buried, was hung with black cloth; and even the innumerable wax tapers which burned upon the altar and around the coffin failed to diminish the lugubrious aspect of the scene.
At the head of the bier stood the youthful heir of Riverola; his pale countenance of even feminine beauty contrasting strangely with the mourning garments which he wore, and his eyes bent upon the dark chasm that formed the family vault into which the remains of his sire were about to be lowered.
Around the coffin stood Dr. Duras and other male friends of the deceased: for the females of the family were not permitted, by the custom of the age and the religion, to be present on occasions of this kind.
It was eleven o'clock at night: and the weather without was stormy and tempestuous.
The wind moaned through the long aisles, raising strange and ominous echoes, and making the vast folds of sable drapery wave slowly backward and forward, as if agitated by unseen hands. A few spectators, standing in the background, appeared like grim figures on a black tapestry; and the gleam of the wax tapers, oscillating on their countenances, made them seem death-like and ghastly.
From time to time the shrill wail of the shriek-owl, and the flapping of its wings against the diamond-paned windows of the church, added to the awful gloom of the funeral scene.
And now suddenly arose the chant of the priests—the parting hymn for the dead!
Francisco wept, for though his father had never manifested toward him an affection of the slightest endearing nature, yet the disposition of the young count was excellent; and, when he gazed upon the coffin, he remembered not the coldness with which its inmate in his lifetime had treated him—he thought only of a parent whom he had lost, and whose remains were there!
And truly, on the brink of the tomb no animosity should ever find a resting-place in the human heart. Though elsewhere men yield to the influence of their passions and their feelings, in pursuing each his separate interests—though, in the great world, we push and jostle each other, as if the earth were not large enough to allow us to follow our separate ways—yet, when we meet around the grave, to consign a fellow creature to his last resting-place, let peace and holy forgiveness occupy our souls. There let the clash of interests and the war of jealousies be forgotten; and let us endeavor to persuade ourselves that, as all the conflicting pursuits of life must terminate at this point at last, so should our feelings converge to the one focus of amenity and Christian love. And, after all, how many who have considered themselves to be antagonists must, during a moment of solemn reflection, become convinced that, when toiling in the great workshop of the world, they have been engaged, in unconscious fraternity, in building up the same fabric!
The priests were in the midst of their solemn chant—a deathlike silence and complete immovability prevailed among the mourners and the spectators—and the wind was moaning beneath the vaulted roofs, awaking those strange and tomb-like sounds which are only heard in large churches,—when light but rushing footsteps were heard on the marble pavement; and in another minute a female, not clothed in a mourning garb, but splendidly as for a festival, precipitated herself toward the bier.
There her strength suddenly seemed to be exhausted; and, with a piercing scream, she sank senseless on the cold stones.
The chant of the priest was immediately stilled; and Francisco hurrying forward, raised the female in his arms, while Dr. Duras asked for water to sprinkle on her countenance.
Over her head the stranger wore a white veil of rich material, which was fastened above her brow by a single diamond of unusual size and brilliant luster. When the veil was drawn aside, shining auburn tresses were seen depending in wanton luxuriance over shoulders of alabaster whiteness: a beautiful but deadly pale countenance was revealed; and a splendid purple velvet dress delineated the soft and flowing outlines of a form modeled to the most perfect symmetry.
She seemed to be about twenty years of age,—in the full splendor of loveliness, and endowed with charms which presented to the gaze of those around a very incarnation of the ideal beauty which forms the theme of raptured poets.
And now, as the vacillating and uncertain light of the wax-candles beamed upon her, as she lay senseless in the arms of the Count Riverola, her pale, placid face appeared that of a classic marble statue; but nothing could surpass the splendid effects which the funeral tapers produced on the rich redundancy of her hair, which seemed dark where the shadows rested on it, but glittering as with a bright glory where the luster played on its shining masses.
In spite of the solemnity of the place and the occasion, the mourners were struck by the dazzling beauty of that young female, who had thus appeared so strangely amongst them; but respect still retained at a distance those persons who were merely present from curiosity to witness the obsequies of one of the proudest nobles of Florence.
At length the lady opened her large hazel eyes, and glanced wildly around, a quick spasm passing like an electric shock over her frame at the same instant; for the funeral scene burst upon her view, and reminded her where she was, and why she was there.
Recovering herself almost as rapidly as she had succumbed beneath physical and mental exhaustion, she started from Francisco's arms; and turning upon him a beseeching, inquiring glance, exclaimed in a voice which ineffable anguish could not rob of its melody: "Is it true—oh, tell me is it true that the Count Riverola is no more?"
"It is, alas! too true, lady," answered Francisco, in a tone of the deepest melancholy.
The heart of the fair stranger rebounded at the words which thus seemed to destroy a last hope that lingered in her soul; and a hysterical shriek burst from her lips as she threw her snow-white arms, bare to the shoulders, around the head of the pall-covered coffin.
"Oh! my much-loved—my noble Andrea!" she exclaimed, a torrent of tears now gushing from her eyes.
"That voice!—is it possible?" cried one of the spectators who had been hitherto standing, as before said, at a respectful distance: and the speaker—a man of tall, commanding form, graceful demeanor, wondrously handsome countenance, and rich attire—immediately hurried toward the spot where the young female still clung to the coffin, no one having the heart to remove her.
The individual who had thus stepped forward, gave one rapid but searching glance at the lady's countenance; and, yielding to the surprise and joy which suddenly animated him, he exclaimed: "Yes—it is, indeed, the lost Agnes!"
The young female started when she heard her name thus pronounced in a place where she believed herself to be entirely unknown; and astonishment for an instant triumphed over the anguish of her heart.
Hastily withdrawing her snow-white arms from the head of the coffin, she turned toward the individual who had uttered her name, and he instantly clasped her in his arms, murmuring, "Dearest—dearest Agnes, art thou restored——"
But the lady shrieked, and struggled to escape from that tender embrace, exclaiming, "What means this insolence? will no one protect me?"
"That will I," said Francisco, darting forward, and tearing her away from the stranger's arms. "But, in the name of Heaven! let this misunderstanding be cleared up elsewhere. Lady—and you, signor—I call on you to remember where you are, and how solemn a ceremony you have both aided to interrupt."
"I know not that man!" ejaculated Agnes, indicating the stranger. "I come hither, because I heard—but an hour ago—that my noble Andrea was no more. And I would not believe those who told me. Oh! no—I could not think that Heaven had thus deprived me of all I loved on earth!"
"Lady, you are speaking of my father," said Francisco, in a somewhat severe tone.
"Your father!" cried Agnes, now surveying the young count with interest and curiosity. "Oh! then, my lord, you can pity—you can feel for me, who in losing your father have lost all that could render existence sweet!"
"No—you have not lost all!" exclaimed the handsome stranger, advancing toward Agnes, and speaking in a profoundly impressive tone. "Have you not one single relative left in the world? Consider, lady—an old, old man—a shepherd in the Black Forest of Germany——"
"Speak not of him!" cried Agnes, wildly. "Did he know all, he would curse me—he would spurn me from him—he would discard me forever! Oh! when I think of that poor old man, with his venerable white hair,—that aged, helpless man, who was so kind to me, who loved me so well, and whom I so cruelly abandoned. But tell me, signor," she exclaimed, in suddenly altered tone, while her breath came with the difficulty of acute suspense,—"tell me, signor, does that old man still live?"
"He lives, Agnes," was the reply. "I know him well; at this moment he is in Florence!"
"In Florence!" repeated Agnes; and so unexpectedly came this announcement, that her limbs seemed to give way under her, and she would have fallen on the marble pavement, had not the stranger caught her in his arms.
"I will bear her away," he said; "she has a true friend in me."
And he was moving off with his senseless burden, when Francisco, struck by a sudden idea, caught him by the elegantly slashed sleeve of his doublet, and whispered thus, in a rapid tone: "From the few, but significant words which fell from that lady's lips, and from her still more impressive conduct, it would appear, alas! that my deceased father had wronged her. If so, signor, it will be my duty to make her all the reparation that can be afforded in such a case."
"'Tis well, my lord," answered the stranger, in a cold and haughty tone. "To-morrow evening I will call upon you at your palace."
He then hurried on with the still senseless Agnes in his arms; and the Count of Riverola retraced his steps to the immediate vicinity of the coffin.
This scene, which so strangely interrupted the funeral ceremony, and which has taken so much space to describe, did not actually occupy ten minutes from the moment when the young lady first appeared in the church, until that when she was borne away by the handsome stranger. The funeral obsequies were completed; the coffin was lowered into the family vault; the spectators dispersed, and the mourners, headed by the young count, returned in procession to the Riverola mansion, which was situated at no great distance.
THE READING OF THE WILL.
When the mourners reached the palace, Francisco led the way to an apartment where Nisida was awaiting their coming.
Francisco kissed her affectionately upon the forehead; and then took his seat at the head of the table, his sister placing herself on his right hand.
Dressed in deep mourning, and with her countenance unusually pale, Nisida's appearance inspired a feeling of profound interest in the minds of those who did not perceive that, beneath her calm and mournful demeanor, feelings of painful intensity agitated within her breast. But Dr. Duras, who knew her well—better, far better than even her own brother—noticed an occasional wild flashing of the eye, a nervous motion of the lips, and a degree of forced tranquillity of mien, which proved how acute was the suspense she in reality endured.
On Francisco's left hand the notary-general, who had acted as one of the chief mourners, took a seat. He was a short, thin, middle-aged man, with a pale complexion, twinkling gray eyes, and a sharp expression of countenance. Before him lay a sealed packet, on which the eyes of Nisida darted, at short intervals, looks, the burning impatience of which were comprehended by Dr. Duras alone; for next to Signor Vivaldi, the notary-general—and consequently opposite to Nisida—sat the physician.
The remainder of the company consisted of Father Marco and those most intimate friends of the family who had been invited to the funeral; but whom it is unnecessary to describe more particularly.
Father Marco having recited a short prayer, in obedience to the custom of the age, and the occasion, the notary-general proceeded to break the seals of the large packet which lay before him: then, in a precise and methodical manner, he drew forth a sheet of parchment, closely written on.
Nisida leaned her right arm upon the table, and half-buried her countenance in the snowy cambric handkerchief which she held.
The notary-general commenced the reading of the will.
After bestowing a few legacies, one of which was in favor of Dr. Duras, and another in that of Signor Vivaldi himself, the testamentary document ordained that the estates of the late Andrea, Count of Riverola, should be held in trust by the notary-general and the physician, for the benefit of Francisco, who was merely to enjoy the revenues produced by the same until the age of thirty, at which period the guardianship was to cease, and Francisco was then to enter into full and uncontrolled possession of those immense estates.
But to this clause there was an important condition attached; for the testamentary document ordained that should the Lady Nisida—either by medical skill, or the interposition of Heaven—recover the faculties of hearing and speaking at any time during the interval which was to elapse ere Francisco would attain the age of thirty, then the whole of the estates, with the exception of a very small one in the northern part of Tuscany, were to be immediately made over to her; but without the power of alienation on her part.
It must be observed that, in the middle ages many titles of nobility depended only on the feudal possession of a particular property. This was the case with the Riverola estates; and the title of Count of Riverola was conferred simply by the fact of the ownership of the landed property. Thus, supposing that Nisida became possessed of the estates, she would have enjoyed the title of countess, while her brother Francisco would have lost that of count.
We may also remind our readers that Francisco was now nineteen; and eleven years must consequently elapse ere he could become the lord and master of the vast territorial possessions of Riverola.
Great was the astonishment experienced by all who heard the provisions of this strange will—with the exception of the notary-general and Father Marco, the former of whom had drawn it up, and the latter of whom was privy to its contents (though under a vow of secrecy) in his capacity of father-confessor to the late count.
Francisco was himself surprised, and, in one sense, hurt; because the nature of the testamentary document seemed to imply that the property would have been inevitably left to his sister, with but a very small provision for himself, had she not been so sorely afflicted as she was; and this fact forced upon him the painful conviction that even when contemplating his departure to another world, his father had not softened toward his son!
But, on the other hand, Francisco was pleased that such consideration had been shown toward a sister whom he so devotedly loved; and he hastened, as soon as he could conquer his first emotions, to request the notary-general to permit Nisida to peruse the will, adding, in a mournful tone, "For all that your excellency has read has been, alas! unavailing in respect to her."
Signor Vivaldi handed the document to the young count, who gently touched his sister's shoulder and placed the parchment before her.
Nisida started as if convulsively, and raised from her handkerchief a countenance so pale, so deadly pale, that Francisco shrank back in alarm.
But instantly reflecting that the process of reading aloud a paper had been as it were a kind of mockery in respect to his afflicted sister, he pressed her hand tenderly, and made a sign for her to peruse the document.
She mechanically addressed herself to the task; but ere her eyes—now of burning, unearthly brilliancy—fell upon the parchment, they darted one rapid, electric glance of ineffable anguish toward Dr. Duras, adown whose cheeks large tears were trickling.
In a few minutes Nisida appeared to be absorbed in the perusal of the will; and the most solemn silence prevailed throughout the apartment!
At length she started violently, tossed the paper indignantly to the notary-general, and hastily wrote on a slip of paper these words:
"Should medical skill or the mercy of Heaven restore my speech and faculty of hearing, I will abandon all claim to the estates and title of Riverola to my dear brother Francisco."
She then handed the slip of paper to the notary-general, who read the contents aloud.
Francisco darted upon his sister a look of ineffable gratitude and love, but shook his head, as much as to imply that he could not accept the boon even if circumstances enabled her to confer it!
She returned the look with another, expressive of impatience at his refusal: and her eyes seemed to say, as eyes never yet spoke, "Oh, that I had the power to give verbal utterance to my feelings!"
Meantime the notary-general had written a few words beneath those penned by Nisida, to whom he had handed back the slip; and she hastened to read them, thus: "Your ladyship has no power to alienate the estates, should they come into your possession."
Nisida burst into an agony of tears and rushed from the room.
Her brother immediately followed to console her; and the company retired, each individual to his own abode.
But of all that company who had been present at the reading of the will, none experienced such painful emotions as Dr. Duras.
THE PICTURES—AGNES AND THE UNKNOWN—MYSTERY.
When Agnes awoke from the state of stupor in which she had been conveyed from the church, she found herself lying upon an ottoman, in a large and elegantly furnished apartment.
The room was lighted by two silver lamps suspended to the ceiling, and which, being fed with aromatic oil of the purest quality, imparted a delicious perfume to the atmosphere.
The walls were hung with paintings representing scenes of strange variety and interest, and connected with lands far—far away. Thus, one depicted a council of red men assembled around a blazing fire, on the border of one of the great forests of North America; another showed the interior of an Esquimaux hut amidst the eternal ice of the Pole;—a third delineated, with fearfully graphic truth, the writhing of a human victim in the folds of the terrific anaconda in the island of Ceylon; a fourth exhibited a pleasing contrast to the one previously cited, by having for its subject a family meeting of Chinese on the terraced roof of a high functionary's palace at Perkin; a fifth represented the splendid court of King Henry the Eighth in London; a sixth showed the interior of the harem of the Ottoman Sultan.
But there were two portraits amongst this beautiful and varied collection of pictures, all of which, we should observe, appeared to have been very recently executed—two portraits which we must pause to describe. One represented a tall man of about forty years of age, with magnificent light hair—fine blue eyes, but terrible in expression—a countenance indisputably handsome, though every lineament denoted horror and alarm—and a symmetrical form, bowed by the weight of sorrow. Beneath this portrait was the following inscription:—"F., Count of A., terminated his career on the 1st of August, 1517."
The other portrait alluded to was that of an old—old man, who had apparently numbered ninety winters. He was represented as cowering over a few embers in a miserable hovel, while the most profound sorrow was depicted on his countenance. Beneath this picture was the ensuing inscription:—"F. W., January 7th, 1516. His last day thus."
There was another feature in that apartment to which we must likewise direct our reader's attention, ere we pursue the thread of our narrative. This was an object hanging against the wall, next to the second portrait just now described. It also had the appearance of being a picture—or at all events a frame of the same dimensions as the others; but whether that frame contained a painting, or whether it were empty, it was impossible to say, so long as it remained concealed by the large black cloth which covered it, and which was carefully fastened by small silver nails at each corner.
This strange object gave a lugubrious and sinister appearance to a room in other respects cheerful, gay, and elegant.
But to resume our tale.
When Agnes awoke from her stupor, she found herself reclining on a soft ottoman of purple velvet, fringed with gold; and the handsome stranger, who had borne her from the church, was bathing her brow with water which he took from a crystal vase on a marble table.
As she slowly and languidly opened her large hazel eyes, her thoughts collected themselves in the gradient manner; and when her glance encountered that of her unknown friend, who was bending over her with an expression of deep interest on his features, there flashed upon her mind a recollection of all that had so recently taken place.
"Where am I?" she demanded, starting up, and casting her eyes wildly around her.
"In the abode of one who will not injure you," answered the stranger, in a kind and melodious tone.
"But who are you? and wherefore have you brought me hither?" exclaimed Agnes. "Oh! remember—you spoke of that old man—my grandfather—the shepherd of the Black Forest——"
"You shall see him—you shall be restored to him," answered the stranger.
"But will he receive me—will he not spurn me from him?" asked Agnes, in a wildly impassioned—almost hysterical tone.
"The voice of pity cannot refuse to heave a sigh for thy fall," was the response. "If thou wast guilty in abandoning one who loved thee so tenderly, and whose earthly reliance was on thee, he, whom you did so abandon, has not the less need to ask pardon of thee. For he speedily forgot his darling Agnes—he traveled the world over, yet sought her not—her image was, as it were, effaced from his memory. But when accident——"
"Oh! signor, you are mistaken—you know not the old man whom I deserted, and who was a shepherd on the verge of the Black Forest!" interrupted Agnes, in a tone expressive of bitter disappointment, "for he, who loved me so well, was old—very old, and could not possibly accomplish those long wanderings of which you speak. Indeed, if he be still alive—but that is scarcely possible——"
And she burst into tears.
"Agnes," cried the stranger, "the venerable shepherd of whom you speak accomplished those wanderings in spite of the ninety winters which marked his age. He is alive, too——"
"He is alive!" ejaculated the lady, with reviving hopes.
"He is alive—and at this moment in Florence!" was the emphatic answer. "Did I not ere now tell thee as much in the church?"
"Yes—I remember—but my brain is confused!" murmured Agnes, pressing her beautiful white hands upon her polished brow. "Oh, if he be indeed alive—and so near me as you say—delay not in conducting me to him; for he is now the only being on earth to whom I dare look for solace and sympathy."
"You are even now beneath the roof of your grandfather's dwelling," said the stranger, speaking slowly and anxiously watching the effect which this announcement was calculated to produce upon her to whom he addressed himself.
"Here!—this my grandsire's abode!" she exclaimed, clasping her hands together, and glancing upward, as if to express her gratitude to Heaven for this welcome intelligence. "But how can that old man, whom I left so poor, have become the owner of this lordly palace? Speak, signor!—all you have told me seems to involve some strange mystery," she added with breathless rapidity. "Those wanderings of which you ere now spoke—wanderings over the world, performed by a man bent down by age; and then this noble dwelling—the appearances of wealth which present themselves around—the splendor—the magnificence——"
"All—all are the old man's," answered the stranger, "and may some day become thine!"
"Holy Virgin!" exclaimed Agnes, sinking upon the ottoman from which she had ere now risen, "I thank thee that thou hast bestowed these blessings on my relative in his old age. And yet," she added, again overwhelmed by doubts, "it is scarcely possible—no, it is too romantic to be true! Signor, thou art of a surety mistaken in him whom thou supposes to be my grandsire?"
"Give me thine hand, Agnes—and I will convince thee," said the stranger.
The young lady complied mechanically; and her unknown friend led her toward the portrait of the old man of ninety.
Agnes recognized the countenance at a single glance, and would have fallen upon the floor had not her companion supported her in his arms.
Tears again came to her relief; but hastily wiping them away, she extended her arms passionately toward the portrait, exclaiming, "Oh! now I comprehend you, signor! my grandsire lives in this dwelling indeed—beneath this roof; but lives only in that picture! Alas! alas! It was thus, no doubt, that the poor old man seemed when he was abandoned by me—the lost, the guilty Agnes! It was thus that he sat in his lonely dwelling—crushed and overwhelmed by the black ingratitude of his granddaughter! Oh! that I had never seen this portrait—this perpetuation of so much loneliness and so much grief! Ah! too faithful delineation of that sad scene which was wrought by me—vainly penitent that I am!"
And covering her face with her hands she threw herself on her knees before the portrait, and gave way to all the bitterness and all the wildness of her grief.
The stranger interrupted her not for some minutes: he allowed the flood of that anguish to have its full vent: but when it was partially subsiding he approached the kneeling penitent, raised her gently, and said, "Despair not! your grandsire lives."
"He lives!" she repeated, her countenance once more expressing radiant hope, as the sudden gleam of sunshine bursts forth amidst the last drops of the April shower.
But, almost at the same instant that she uttered those words, her eyes caught sight of the inscription at the foot of the picture; and, bounding forward she read it aloud.
"Holy Virgin! I am deceived—basely, vilely deceived!" she continued, all the violence of her grief, which had begun to ebb so rapidly, now flowing back upon her soul; then turning abruptly round upon the stranger, she said in a hoarse hollow tone: "Signor, wherefore thus ungenerously trifle with my feelings—my best feelings? Who art thou? what would'st thou with me? and wherefore is that portrait here?"
"Agnes—Agnes!" exclaimed her companion, "compose yourself, I implore you! I do not trifle with you—I do not deceive you! Your grandsire, Fernand Wagner, is alive—and in this house. You shall see him presently; but in the meantime, listen to what I am about to say."
Agnes placed her finger impatiently upon the inscription at the bottom of the portrait, and exclaimed in a wild, hysterical tone, "Canst thou explain this, signor? 'January 7th, 1516,'—that was about a week after I abandoned him; and, oh! well indeed might those words be added—'His last day thus!'"
"You comprehend not the meaning of that inscription!" ejaculated the stranger, in an imploring tone, as if to beseech her to have patience to listen to him. "There is a dreadful mystery connected with Fernand Wagner—connected with me—connected with these two portraits—connected also with——"
He checked himself suddenly, and his whole form seemed convulsed with horror as he glanced toward the black cloth covering the neighboring frame.
"A mystery?" repeated Agnes. "Yes—all is mystery: and vague and undefinable terrors oppress my soul!"
"Thou shalt soon—too soon—be enlightened!" said the stranger, in a voice of profound melancholy; "at least, to a certain extent," he added, murmuringly. "But contemplate that other portrait for a few moments—that you may make yourself acquainted with the countenance of a wretch who, in conferring a fearful boon upon your grandsire, has plunged him into an abyss of unredeemable horror!"
Agnes cast her looks toward the portrait of the tall man with the magnificent hair, the flashing blue eyes, the wildly expressive countenance, and the symmetrical form bowed with affliction; and, having surveyed it for some time with repugnance strongly mingled with an invincible interest and curiosity, she suddenly pointed toward the inscription.
"Yes, yes; there is another terrible memorial!" cried the stranger. "But art thou now prepared to listen to a wondrous—an astonishing tale—such a tale as even nurses would scarcely dare narrate to lull children——"
"I am prepared," answered Agnes. "I perceive there is a dreadful mystery connected with my grandsire—with you, also—and perhaps with me;—and better learn at once the truth, than remain in this state of intolerable suspense."
Her unknown friend conducted her back to the ottoman, whereon she placed herself.
He took a seat by her side, and, after a few moments' profound meditation, addressed her in the following manner.
"You remember, Agnes, how happily the times passed when you were the darling of the old man in his poor cottage. All the other members of his once numerous family had been swept away by pestilence, malady, accident, or violence; and you only were left to him. When the trees of this great Black Forest were full of life and vegetable blood, in the genial warmth of summer, you gathered flowers which you arranged tastefully in the little hut; and those gifts of nature, so culled and so dispensed by your hands, gave the dwelling a more cheerful air than if it had been hung with tapestry richly fringed. Of an evening, with the setting sun, glowing gold, you were wont to kneel by the side of that old shepherd; and together ye chanted a hymn giving thanks for the mercies of the day, and imploring the renewal of them for the morrow. Then did the music of your sweet voice, as it flowed upon the old man's ears in its melting, silvery tones, possess a charm for his senses which taught him to rejoice and be grateful that, though the rest of his race was swept away, thou, Agnes, was left!
"When the winter came, and the trees were stripped of their verdure, the poor cottage had still its enjoyments; for though the cold was intense without, yet there were warm hearts within; and the cheerful fire of an evening, when the labors of the day were passed, seemed to make gay and joyous companionship.
"But suddenly you disappeared; and the old man found himself deserted. You left him, too, in the midst of winter—at a time when his age and infirmities demanded additional attentions. For two or three days he sped wearily about, seeking you everywhere in the neighboring district of the Black Forest. His aching limbs were dragged up rude heights, that he might plunge his glances down into the hollow chasms; but still not a trace of Agnes! He roved along the precipices overlooking the rustling streams, and searched—diligently searched the mazes of the dark wood; but still not a trace of Agnes! At length the painful conviction broke upon him that he was deserted—abandoned; and he would sooner have found thee a mangled and disfigured corpse in the forest than have adopted that belief. Nay—weep not now; it is all past; and if I recapitulate these incidents, it is but to convince thee how wretched the old man was, and how great is the extenuation for the course which he was so soon persuaded to adopt."
"Then, who art thou that knowest all this?" exclaimed Agnes, casting looks of alarm upon her companion.
"Thou shalt soon learn who I am," was the reply.
Agnes still gazed upon him in mingled terror and wonder; for his words had gone to her heart, and she remembered how he had embraced her when she first encountered him in the church. His manners, too, were so mild, so kind, so paternal toward her; and yet he seemed but a few years older than herself.
"You have gazed upon the portrait of the old man," he continued, "as he appeared on that memorable evening which sealed his fate!"
Agnes started wildly.
"Yes, sealed his fate, but spared him his life!" said the unknown, emphatically. "As he is represented in that picture, so was he sitting mournfully over the sorry fire, for the morrow's renewal of which there was no wood! At that hour a man appeared—appeared in the midst of the dreadful storm which burst over the Black Forest. This man's countenance is now known to thee; it is perpetuated in the other portrait to which I directed thine attention."
"There is something of a wild and fearful interest in the aspect of that man," said Agnes, casting a shuddering glance behind her, and trembling lest the canvas had burst into life, and the countenance whose lineaments were depicted thereon was peering over her shoulder.
"Yes, and there was much of wild and fearful interest in his history," was the reply; "but of that I cannot speak—no, I dare not. Suffice it to say that he was a being possessed of superhuman powers, and that he proffered his services to the wretched—the abandoned—the deserted Wagner. He proposed to endow him with a new existence—to restore him to youth and manly beauty—to make him rich—to embellish his mind with wondrous attainments—to enable him to cast off the wrinkles of age——"
"Holy Virgin! now I comprehend it all!" shrieked Agnes, throwing herself at the feet of her companion: "and you—you——"
"I am Fernand Wagner!" he exclaimed, folding her in his embrace.
"And can you pardon me, can you forgive my deep—deep ingratitude?" cried Agnes.
"Let us forgive each other!" said Wagner. "You can now understand the meaning of the inscription beneath my portrait. 'His last day thus' signifies that it was the last day on which I wore that aged, decrepit, and sinking form."