Wagner the Wehr-wolf/Chapter LVIII
THE roseate streaks which the departing glories of a Mediterranean sunset left lingering for a few minutes in the western horizon, were yielding to the deeper gloom of evening, a few days after the scene related in the preceding chapter, as Nisida rose from her seat at the open windows of her splendid saloon on board the Ottoman Admiral's ship, and began to lay aside her apparel, preparatory to retiring to rest. She was already wearied of the monotonous life of ship-board; and the strange revelations which the discourse between Ibrahim Pasha and Demetrius had developed to her ears, rendered her doubly anxious to set foot upon her native soil.
The grand vizier had paid his respects to her every day since she first embarked on board the Turkish ship; and they exchanged a few observations, rather of courtesy than in any deeper interest, by means of the tablets. Ibrahim's manner toward her was respectful; but when he imagined himself to be unperceived by her, his eyes were suddenly lighted up with the fires of ardent passion; and he devoured her with his burning glances. She failed not to notice the effect which her glorious beauty produced upon him, and she studiously avoided the imprudence of giving him the least encouragement; not from any innate feeling of virtue, but because she detested him as a man who was bent on accomplishing a marriage between her brother and Flora Francatelli. This hatred she concealed, and even the eagle-sighted Ibrahim perceived not that he was in any way displeasing to the lovely Nisida. With the exception of the grand vizier, and the slaves who waited upon her, the lady saw no one on board the ship; for she never quitted the saloon allotted to her, but passed her time chiefly in surveying the broad sea and the other vessels of the fleet from the windows, or in meditating upon the course which she should pursue on her arrival in Florence.
But let us return to the thread of our narrative. The last tints of the sunset were, we said, fading away, when the Lady Nisida commenced her preparations for retiring to rest. She closed the casements, satisfied herself that the partition door between the two saloons was well secured, and then threw herself upon the voluptuous couch spread in one of the smaller cabins opening from her own magnificent apartment. She thought of Fernand, her handsome Fernand, whom she had abandoned on the Isle of Snakes, and profound sighs escaped her. Then she thought of Francisco; and the idea of serving that much-beloved brother's interests afforded her a consolation for having thus quitted the clime where she had passed so many happy days with Wagner.
At length sleep fell upon her, and closed over the large, dark, brilliant eyes the white lids, beneath the transparent skin of which the blue veins were so delicately traced; and the long, jetty lashes reposed on the cheeks which the heat of the atmosphere tinged with a rich carnation glow. And when the moon arose that night, its silver rays streamed through the window set in the porthole of that small cabin, upon the beauteous face of the sleeper.
But hark! there is the light sound of a footfall in the saloon from which that cabin opens.
The treacherous Ibrahim possesses a key to the partition door; and having successfuly wrestled with his raging desires until this moment, he is at length no longer able to resist the temptation of invading the sanctity of Nisida's sleeping-place. Already has he set his foot upon the very threshold of the little side-cabin, having traversed the spacious saloon, when a hand is laid upon his shoulder, and a voice behind him says in a low tone, "Your highness has forgotten the fate of the murdered Calanthe."
Ibrahim started, shook the hand from off him, and exclaimed, "Dog of a negro! what and who has made thee a spy upon my actions?"
At the same instant that Ibrahim felt the hand on his shoulder, and heard the well-known voice uttering the dreadful warning in his ears, Nisida awoke. Her first impulse was to start up; but, checking herself with wondrous presence of mind, as the part of the deaf and dumb person which she had imposed upon herself to play flashed with lightning velocity across her brain—comprehending, too, in an instant, that the grand vizier had violated her privacy, but that some unknown succor was at hand, she remained perfectly motionless, as if still wrapped up in an undisturbed slumber. The grand vizier, and the individual whom he had in his rage addressed as a "dog of a negro," retreated into the saloon, Nisida holding her very breath so as not to lose a word that might pass between them should their dialogue be resumed.
"Your highness asks me what and who has made me a spy upon your actions," said the negro in a low, monotonous voice, and speaking with mingled firmness and respect. "Those questions are easily answered. The same authority which ordered me to wrest from thine arms some months past the lady who might be unfortunate enough to please your highness' fancy, exercises an unceasing supervision over you, even on this ship, and in the middle of the mighty sea. To that authority all your deeds and acts are matters of indifference save those which would render your highness faithless to an adoring wife. Remember, my lord, the fate of Calanthe, the sister of your dependent Demetrius, she who was torn from your arms, and whose beauteous form became food for the fishes of the Bosporus."
"How knew you who she was?" demanded the grand vizier, in a low, hoarse voice, the power of his utterance having been temporarily suspended by the rage that filled his soul at finding his iniquitous design in respect to Nisida thus suddenly baffled by the chief of the three black slaves, whose attendance in this expedition had been forced upon him by the Sultana Valida; "how knew you who she was?" he again asked.
"Rather demand, my lord, what can escape the prying eyes of those by whom your highness has been surrounded ever since the seals of office were in your grasp," returned the slave.
"But you would not betray that secret to Demetrius, who is now devoted to me, who is necessary to me, and who would loathe me were he to learn the dreadful fate of his sister!" said the grand vizier, with rapid and excited utterance.
"I have no eyes and no ears, great pasha," said the negro, "save in respect to those matters which would render you faithless to the sister of the sultan."
"Would to Heaven that you had neither eyes nor ears at all—that you did not exist, indeed!" exclaimed Ibrahim, unable to repress his wrath; then, in a different and milder tone, he immediately added, "Slave, I can make thee free—I can give thee wealth—and thou mayest dwell in happy Italy, whither we are going, for the remainder of thy days. Reflect, consider! I love that deaf and dumb Christian woman who sleepeth there—I already love her to distraction! Thwart me not, good slave, and thou mayest command my eternal gratitude."
"My lord, two other slaves overhear every word that now passes between us," responded the Ethiopian, his voice remaining calm and monotonous; "and even were we alone in all respects, I would not betray the trust reposed in me. But not on your highness would the effects of your infidelity to the Princess Aischa fall. No, my lord—I have no authority to harm you. Had your highness succeeded in your purpose ere now, the bow-string would have forever stifled the breath in the body of that deaf and dumb Christian lady; and her corpse would have been thrown forth from these windows into the sea. Such are my instructions, my lord; and thus every object of your sated passion must become your victim also."
"Better—better were it," exclaimed Ibrahim, in a tone denoting the profoundest mental anguish, "to be the veriest mendicant who implores alms at the gate of the mosque of St. Sophia, than the grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire."
With these words he rushed into the adjoining saloon, the negro following and fastening the door behind him. Nisida now began to breathe freely once more. From what perils had she escaped! The violation of her couch by the unprincipled Ibrahim would have been followed by her immediate assassination at the hands of the Ethiopian whom the sultana-mother had placed as a spy on the actions of her son-in-law. On the other hand, she felt rejoiced that the incident of this night had occurred; for it had been the means of revealing to her a secret of immense importance in connection with the grand vizier. She remembered the terms of grief and affection in which Demetrius had spoken of the disappearance of Calanthe; and she had heard enough on that occasion to convince her that the Greek would become the implacable enemy of any man who had wronged that much-loved sister. How bitter, then, would be the hatred of Demetrius—how dreadful would be the vengeance which he must crave against him whose lustful passion had led to the murder of Calanthe. Yes, Ibrahim, thy secret is now in possession of Nisida of Riverola; in the possession of that woman of iron mind and potent energy, and whom thou fondly believest to be deaf and dumb!
Nisida slept no more that night, the occurrences of which furnished her with so much food for profound meditation: and with the earliest gleam of dawn that tinged the eastern heaven, she rose from her couch. Entering the saloon, she opened the windows to admit the gentle breeze of morning; and ere she commenced her toilet, she lingered to gaze upon the stately ships that were plowing the blue sea in the wake of the admiral's vessel wherein she was. Suddenly her eyes fell upon what appeared to be a small speck at a little distance; but as this object was moving rapidly along on the surface of the Mediterranean, it soon approached sufficiently near to enable her to discern that it was a boat impelled by a single sail. Urged by an undefinable and yet a strong sentiment of curiosity, Nisida remained at the saloon window, watching the progress of the little bark, which bounded over the waves with extraordinary speed, bending gracefully to the breeze that thus wafted it onward. Nearer and nearer toward the vessel it came, though not pursuing the same direction; and in five minutes it passed within a few yards of the stern of the Kapitan-Pasha's ship.
But, oh! wondrous and unaccountable fact. There, stretched upon his back in that bounding boat, and evidently buried in deep slumber, with the rays of the rising sun gleaming upon his fine and now slightly flushed countenance, lay he whose image was so indelibly impressed upon the heart of Nisida—her handsome and strangely-fated Fernand Wagner! The moment the conviction that the sleeper was indeed he struck to the mind of Nisida, she would have called him by name—she would have endeavored to awake him, if only to exchange a single word of fondness, for her assumed dumbness was for the moment forgotten; but she was rendered motionless and remained speechless—stupefied, paralyzed, as it were, with mingled wonder and joy; wonder that he should have found the means of escape from the island, and joy that she was thus permitted to behold him at least once again. But the pleasure which this incident excited in her mind was transitory indeed; for the boat swept by, as if urged on by a stronger impulse than that of the gentle breeze of morning—and in another minute Nisida beheld it no more.
The sun was setting behind the western hills of Sicily as Fernand Wagner entered the squalid suburb which at that period stretched from the town of Syracuse to the sea. His step was elastic, and he held his head high—for his heart was full of joyous and burning hope. Hitherto the promises of the angel who had last appeared to him were completely fulfilled. The boat was wafted by a favorable breeze direct from the Island of Snakes to the shores of Sicily; and he had landed in the immediate vicinity of Syracuse—the town in which a further revelation was to be made in respect to the breaking of the spell which had fixed upon him the frightful doom of the Wehr-Wolf! But little suspected Fernand Wagner that one morning, while he slept, his boat had borne him through the proud fleet of the Ottomans—little wist he that his beloved Nisida had caught sight of him as he was wafted rapidly past the stern of the Kapitan-Pasha's ship! For on that occasion he had slept during hours; and when he had awakened, not a bark nor sail save his own was visible on the mighty expanse of water.
And now it was with elastic step and joyous heart that the hero of our tale entered the town of Syracuse. But suddenly he remembered the singular nature of the inquiry that he was there to make—an inquiry concerning a man whose years had numbered one hundred and sixty-two!
"Nevertheless," thought Wagner, "that good angel who gave me a sign whereby I should become convinced of the reality of her appearance, and whose promises have all been fulfilled up to this point, could not possibly mislead me. No; I will obey the command which I received, even though I should visit every human dwelling in the town of Syracuse! For Heaven works out its wise purposes in wondrous manners; and it is not for me to shrink from yielding obedience to its orders, nor to pause to question their propriety. And oh! if I can but shake off that demon influence which weighs upon my soul—if I can but escape from the shackles which still enchain me to a horrible doom, how sincere will be my thanks to Heaven, how unbounded my rejoicings!"
As Wagner had reached this point in his meditations, he stopped at the door of a barber shop of mean appearance—the pole, with the basin hanging to it, denoting that the occupant of the place combined, as was usual in those times, the functions of shaver and blood-letter or surgeon. Hastily surveying the exterior of the shop, and fancying that it was precisely the one at which his inquiries should commence—barbers in that age being as famous for their gossiping propensities as in this—Fernand entered, and was immediately accosted by a short, sharp-visaged, dark-complexioned old man, who pointed to a seat, saying in a courteous, or rather obsequious tone, "What is your will, signor?"
Fernand desired the barber-surgeon to shave his superfluous beard and trim his hair; and while that individual was preparing his lather and sharpening his razor in the most approved style of the craft, Wagner asked in a seemingly careless tone, "What news have you, good master, in Syracuse?"
"Naught of importance, signor," was the reply; "mere everyday matters. Syracuse is indeed wretchedly dull. There were only two murders and three attempts at assassination reported to the lieutenant of police this morning, and that is nothing for a town usually so active and bustling as ours. For my part, I don't know what has come over the people? I stepped as far as the dead-house just now to view the body of a young lady, unclaimed as yet, who had her head nearly severed from her trunk last night; and then I proceeded to the great square to see whether any executions are to take place to-morrow; but really there is nothing of any consequence to induce one to stir abroad in Syracuse just at this moment."
"Murders and attempts at assassination are matters of very common occurrence amongst you, then?" said Wagner, inquiringly.
"We get a perfect surfeit of them, signor," returned the barber, now applying the soap to his customer's face. "They fail to create any sensation now, I can assure you. Beside, one gets tired of executions."
"Naturally enough," said Fernand. "But I have heard that there are some very extraordinary personages in Syracuse; indeed, there is one who has lived to a remarkable age——"
"The oldest person I know of, is the Abbot of St. Mary's," interrupted the barber, "and he——"
"And he——" repeated Wagner, with feverish impatience.
"Is ninety-seven and three months, signor; a great age, truly," responded the barber-surgeon.
Fernand's hopes were immediately cooled down; but thinking that he ought to put his inquiry in a direct manner, he said: "Then it is not true that you have in Syracuse an individual who has reached the wondrous age of a century three-score and two?"
"Holy Virgin have mercy upon you, signor!" ejaculated the barber, "if you really put faith in the absurd stories that people tell about the Rosicrucians!"
"Ah! then the people of Syracuse do talk on such matters?" said Wagner, conceiving that he had obtained a clew to the aim and object of his inquiry.
"Have you never heard, signor, of the Order of the Rosy Cross?" demanded the barber, who was naturally of a garrulous disposition, and who now appeared to have entered on a favorite subject.
"I have heard, in my travels, vague mention made of such an order," answered Fernand; "but I never experienced any curiosity to seek to learn more—and, indeed, I may say, that I know nothing of the Rosicrucians save their mere name."
"Well, signor," continued the barber, "for common pass-talk, it is as good a subject as any other; but no one shall ever persuade me either that there is really such an order as the Brothers of the Rosy Cross, or that it is possible for human beings to attain the powers attributed to that fraternity."
"You interest me much by your remarks, good leech," exclaimed Fernand; "I pray you to give me further explanation."
"With infinite pleasure, signor, since you appear to desire it," returned the barber, still pursuing his tonsorial duties. "You must know that there are many wild legends and stories abroad concerning these invisible beings denominated Rosicrucians. But the one which gains most general credence is that the brotherhood was founded by a certain Christianus Rosencrux, a German philosopher, who fancied that the arts and sciences might be developed in such a manner as to confer the greatest possible blessings on the human race."
"Then the aims of Rosencrux are entirely good and philanthropic?" said Wagner, interrogatively.
"As a matter of course, signor," said the barber; " and therefore, if such a man ever did live, he must have been an insane visionary—for who would believe that knowledge could possibly make us richer, happier, or better? All the philosophy in the universe could never convert this shop into a palace."
"But you are wandering from your subject, my good friend," gently remonstrated Fernand.
"I crave your pardon, signor. Let me see. Oh, I recollect; we were talking of Christianus Rosencrux. Well, signor, the fabled philosopher was a monk, and a very wise as well as a very good man. I am only telling you the most generally received legend, mind, and would not have you think that I believe it myself. So this Rosencrux, finding that his cloistral existence was inconvenient for the prosecution of his studies, traveled into the East, and spent many years in acquiring the knowledge handed down to the wise men of those climes by the ancient Magi and Chaldeans. He visited Egypt, and learnt many wonderful secrets by studying the hieroglyphics on the Egyptian pyramids. I forget how long he remained in the East; but it is said that he visited every place of interest in the Holy Land, and received heavenly inspirations on the spot where our Saviour was crucified. On his return to Europe, he saw full well that if he revealed all his knowledge at once, he would be put to death by the inquisition as a wizard, and the world would lose the benefit of all the learning he had acquired. So says the legend; and it goes on to recite that Christianus Rosencrux then founded the order of the Rosy Cross, which was nothing more or less than a brotherhood of wise men whom he initiated in all his secrets, with the intention that they should reveal from time to time small portions thereof, and thus give to the world by very slow degrees that immense amount of knowledge which he supposed would have stupefied and astounded everybody if made public all at once."
"Strange—most strange," thought Wagner within himself, "that I should never have gleaned all these details before, eager as my inquiries and researches in the pursuit of knowledge have been. But Heaven has willed everything for the best; and it is doubtless intended that my salvation shall proceed from the very quarter which was least known to me, and concerning which I have manifested the most contemptuous indifference, in the sphere of knowledge!"
"You appear to be much interested, signor," said the barber, "in this same tale of Christianus Rosencrux. But there is too much intelligence depicted on your countenance to allow me to suppose that you will place any reliance on the absurd story. How is it possible, signor, that an order could have existed for so many years without any one member ever having betrayed the secrets which bind them all together? Moreover, their place of abode and study is totally unknown to the world; and if they inhabited the deepest caverns under the earth accident must, sooner or later, have led to its discovery. Believe me, signor, 'tis naught save a ridiculous legend; though a poor, ignorant man myself, I hope I have too much good sense and too much respect for my father-confessor, to suppose for a minute that there is on earth any set of men more learned than the holy ministers of the church."
"How long ago is Christianus Rosencrux reported to have lived?" demanded Wagner, suddenly interrupting the garrulous and narrow-minded Sicilian.
"There we are again!" he ejaculated. "The credulous declare that Rosencrux discovered in the East the means of prolonging existence, and though he was born as far back as the year 1359, he is still alive."
Had not the barber turned aside at that precise instant to fill an ewer and place a towel for his customer's use, he would have been surprised by the sudden start and the expression of ineffable joy which denoted Fernand's emotions, as by a rapid calculation mentally made, our hero perceived that if Rosencrux were born in 1359, and alive at that moment—namely, in 1521—his age would be exactly one hundred and sixty-two!
"It is Christianus Rosencrux, then," he said to himself, "whom I have inquired for—whom I am to see—and who will dissolve the spell that has been placed upon me. But where shall I seek him? whither shall I go to find his secret abode?"
The duties of the barber were completed; and Wagner threw down a piece of gold, saying, "Keep that coin, friend, for your discourse has greatly interested me, and has indeed well deserved it."
The poor old man had never possessed in all his life so much money at one time; and so vast was his joy that he could only mutter a few broken sentences to express his gratitude.
"I require not thanks, my good friend," said Wagner. "But one word ere I depart. Knowest thou the spot which rumor indicates as the abode of that sect of whom we have been speaking?"
"Nay, excellent signor," replied the barber; "there your question masters me; for in this case rumor goes not to such a length as to afford hints for an investigation which would prove its utter fallacy. All that I have heard, signor, concerning the Rosicrucians, you have learnt from my lips; and I know no more."
Wagner, finding that further inquiry in that quarter was useless, took leave of the old man, and traversing the suburb, entered the town of Syracuse.