Wagner the Wehr-wolf/Chapter I
|←Prologue||Wagner the Wehr-wolf by
CHAPTER I: 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.