Wagner the Wehr-wolf/Chapter III
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 ward 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.