Wagner the Wehr-wolf/Chapter LXIII
In accordance with the plans detailed in the preceding chapter, Francisco and Flora, accompanied by the good dame Francatelli, and preceded by a suitable guard, now departed from the gorgeous pavilion of the grand vizier, on their way to the mansion of Wagner.
On arriving at the walls of the city, the Ottoman guard left them, and retraced their steps to the Turkish encampment, while our little party proceeded on its way through the now crowded streets, and soon arrived at the residence of Wagner.
With many congratulations did Fernand receive them;his chaplain of the duties that were required of him; and before the sun was an hour higher in the heavens, Francisco, Count of Riverola, and Flora Francatelli were joined together in the indissoluble bonds of wedlock.
It was now, for the first time since his recovery, that the recollection of the solemn oath Francisco had made to his dying father came across his mind—that on that day and that hour in which he was married, he and his bride should visit the secret chamber: and he hurriedly told Wagner that it was of the utmost importance that he should be at the Riverola palace within the hour; and at the same time he requested his kind friend to accompany him.
On arriving at the Riverola palace, the party were instantly admitted, notwithstanding that the Turkish soldiers placed there by the grand vizier still guarded the gates: and Francisco proceeded alone to his sister's apartment, where he found her sitting, busied in conjecturing the cause of her recent detention—for Ibrahim, on the completion of the marriage ceremony, of which he had been an unseen observer, had given orders to free her from all restraint on her person.
On perceiving Francisco, Nisida tenderly embraced him; and by signs he informed her that a person wished to be admitted to her presence. Having signified her acquiescence, Francisco retired, and in a few moments returned, leading by the hand his blushing bride, while Wagner followed, a few paces in the rear.
No sooner had Nisida's eyes fallen on the form of Flora, than she started from her seat, her eyes flashing with concentrated hate, and her haughty lip curled in withering contempt, for well she guessed the purport of her visit: but the next moment her eyes fell on the advancing form of her adored Wagner—and those eyes, lit up as with the fires of hell, lost their demoniac glare in the beams of love which gleamed in their dark depths; and her lip of scorn was changed into an enchanting smile of the sweetest welcome—a transition from hate to love, a change of feelings as well as features of which woman, loving woman, alone is capable—and the next moment, regardless of the presence of Francisco and Flora, she rushed into the arms of her long-lost, her adored Wagner.
Nisida was now acquainted with the marriage of her brother, the secret chamber had been visited, the manuscript brought forth to be read; but one of the party that but a few moments before occupied that room was no more—Fernand Wagner was dead! True to the letter were the words of the founder of the order of the Rosy Cross, that "the spell which the Evil One hath cast upon thee, Fernand Wagner, shall be broken only on that day and that hour when thine eyes shall behold the bleached skeletons of two innocent victims suspended to the same beam."
Flora and Francisco had visited the secret chamber alone, but the scream of horror which came from the bride on seeing the spectacle which there presented itself to her, brought Wagner and Nisida to their side. Instantly on seeing the skeletons, the prophecy of Rosencrux rushed on the mind of Wagner; a complete revolution came over his whole frame, beautiful visions floated before his eyes, as of angels waiting to receive him and herald him to eternal glory; then stretching forth his arms, as if to embrace something immaterial, he fell heavily to the earth, and in a few moments he had breathed his last in the arms of Nisida.
We will now proceed to the reading of the manuscript, and pass over a detail of the indescribable agony that rent the heart of Nisida on seeing her beloved Wagner a corpse, and the revulsion of her feelings on beholding the loathsome change that came over the face and form of the once god-like Fernand, a repetition of which would grate too harshly on the feelings of the reader.
"In order that you, Francisco—and she who as your bride, shall accompany you on your visit to the secret cabinet wherein you are destined to find this manuscript—in order, I say, that you may both fully comprehend the meaning of the strange and frightful spectacle there prepared to meet your eyes, it is necessary that I should enter into a full and perfect detail of certain circumstances, the study of which will, I hope, prove beneficial to the lady whom you may honor with the proud name of Riverola.
"In the year 1494 I visited Naples on certain pecuniary business, an intimation of which I found amongst the private papers of my father, who had died about ten months previously. I was then just one-and-twenty, and had not as yet experienced the influence of the tender passion. I had found the ladies of Florence so inveterately given to intrigue, and had seen so many instances in which the best and most affectionate of husbands were grossly deceived by their wives, that I had not only conceived an abhorrence at the idea of linking my fortunes with one of my own countrywomen, but even made a solemn vow that if ever I married, my choice should not fall upon a Tuscan. It was with such impressions as these that I quitted Florence on the business to which I have alluded: and I cared not if I never returned thither—so shallow, heartless, and superficial did its gay society appear to me.
"On my arrival at Naples I assumed the name of Cornari, and, representing myself as a young man of humble birth and moderate fortune, mixed in the best society that would receive a stranger of such poor pretensions. I had already learned at Florence that the fair sex are invariably dazzled by titles and riches; and I had a curiosity to try whether I should be at all sought after when apparently unpossessed of such qualifications. Not that I had any serious thoughts of matrimony; for I was far from being so romantic as to suppose that any beautiful lady of high birth would fall in love with me so long as I passed for plain Signor Cornari. No; it was merely a whim of mine—would that I had never undertaken to gratify it.
"I was altogether unattended by any retinue, having quitted Florence with only a single valet, who died of sudden illness on the road. Thus did I enter Naples alone, with my package of necessaries fastened to the saddle of the steed that bore me. I put up at a small, but respectable hostel; and the first few days of my residence at the Neapolitan capital were passed in making inquiries concerning the individual whose large debt to my deceased father had been the principal cause of my journey thither.
"I found him, at length, but perceiving that he was totally unable to liquidate the claim upon him, I did not discover my real name, and took my leave, resolving to think no more of the matter.
"Returning to the inn, I happened to pass through one of the most squalid and miserable parts of the city, when my attention was suddenly fixed upon the most charming female figure I had ever seen in my life. The object of my interest was respectably but plainly clad; indeed, she appeared to belong to the class of petty tradespeople. Her form was most perfect in its symmetry; her gait was peculiarly graceful, and her manners were evidently modest and reserved: for she looked neither to the right nor to the left, but pursued her way with all the unobtrusiveness of strict propriety. I longed to behold her face; and, quickening my steps, presently passed her. I then had an opportunity of beholding the most beautiful countenance that ever adorned a woman. Heaven seemed to smile through the mirror of her mild black eyes; and there was such an indescribable sweetness in the general expression of her face, that it might have served a limner to copy for the countenance of an angel! She saw that I gazed intently upon her, and instantly turned aside into another street; for I should observe that females of the lower orders in Naples are not permitted to wear veils.
"I stood looking after her until she was lost to my view; and then I went slowly back to the inn, my mind full of the image of the beautiful unknown.
"Day after day did I rove through that same quarter of the city in the hope of meeting her again; and every evening did I return to my lonely chamber, chagrined and disappointed. My spirits sank, my appetite fled, and I grew restless and melancholy. At length I one morning beheld her in the flower-market, and I stood gazing on her with such enthusiastic, and yet such respectful admiration, that though she turned away, still methought it was not with a feeling of resentment.
"I was transfixed to the spot for some minutes, and it was not until she had disappeared amidst the crowd gathered in that quarter, that I could so collect my scattered thoughts as to curse my folly for having omitted such an opportunity of accosting her. I however inquired of an old woman of whom she had purchased some flowers, who she was; but all the information I could glean was, that she had recently been in the habit of buying a few flowers every Wednesday of that same old woman. I went away more contented than I had felt for many days, because I now felt certain that I knew where to meet the lovely creature again. Nevertheless, during the six succeeding days I rambled about the flower market and the squalid quarter of the city where I had first seen her, but my search was unsuccessful; and the greater the disappointment I experienced, the more powerful grew my love. Yes, it was indeed love which I now felt, for the first time, and for a being to whom I had never spoken—whom I had only seen twice, and on these occasions only for a few minutes, and whom I knew, by her garb, to belong to the poorer class. But on the following Wednesday I saw her for the third time; and when she beheld me standing near the old woman's flower stall, she appeared vexed and surprised, and was about to turn away. I however approached her, besought her to accept of the choicest nosegay which I had been able to find, and continued to speak to her in so ardent, yet respectful a manner, that she no longer viewed me with resentment, but with something approaching to interest. And if I had been charmed by her beauty when as yet I had seen her at a comparative distance, how enraptured was I now by a nearer contemplation of that heavenly countenance.
"I assured her that her image had never been absent from my heart since first I saw her, that I should never know peace or happiness again until she would give me some hope, and that I would sooner die than have her construe my words into an insult. She was touched by the earnestness and evident sincerity of my manner; and, encouraged by her silence, I proceeded hastily to inform her that my name was Cornari, that I was a young man of humble birth, but that I possessed a modest competency, and was my own master. I then pressed her to accept my nosegay; but, suddenly bursting into tears, she exclaimed—
"'O, signor, you know not whom you have thus honored with your notice,' and hurried away, leaving me absolutely stupefied with astonishment and grief. It immediately struck me that she was a lost and degraded creature, who dared not respond to a virtuous love. But a few moments' reflection told me that such innocence, such artlessness, such candor never could be assumed—never feigned; no, they were most natural! And this conviction, added to the intense curiosity which now inspired me to fathom the mystery of her singular remark, rendered me more anxious than ever to meet with her again. Several weeks passed without seeing the gratification of my wish; and I was becoming seriously ill with disappointment and defeated hope, when accident led me to encounter her once more. She would have avoided me, but I absolutely compelled her to stop. Seizing her hand, I said,—
"'Look at me—behold to what I am reduced—mark these pale and sunken cheeks, and have pity on me!'
"'And I, too,' she murmured, 'have been very miserable since we last met.'
"'Then you have thought of me?' I exclaimed, retaining her hand still in mine, and reading love in the depths of her large dark eyes.
"'I have,' she answered bitterly, withdrawing her hand at the same time; then in a tone of deep anguish she added, 'I implore you to let me proceed on my way; and if you value your own happiness you will never seek to see me more.'
"'But my happiness depends on seeing you often,' I exclaimed; 'and if the offer of an honest heart be acceptable, I have that to give.'
"She shuddered dreadfully from head to foot.
"'Surely you are not married already?' I said, rendered desperate by her strange and incomprehensible manner.
"'I married!' she absolutely shrieked forth. Then perceiving that I was perfectly amazed and horrified by the wild vehemence of her ejaculations, she said in a subdued, melancholy tone, 'I adjure you to think of me no more.'
"'Listen, beauteous stranger,' I exclaimed; 'I love and adore you. My happiness is at stake. Repeat that cruel adjuration, and you inflict a death-blow. If I be loathsome to your sight, tell me so; but leave me not a prey to the most horrible suspense. If you have a father, I will accompany you to him and make honorable proposals.'
"'My father!' she murmured, while her countenance was suddenly swept by a passing expression of anguish so intense that I began to tremble for her reason.
"I implored her to speak candidly and openly, and not in brief sentences of such ominous mystery. She scarcely appeared to listen to my words, but seemed totally absorbed in the mental contemplation of a deeply seated woe. At length she suddenly turned her large dark eyes upon me, and said in a low, plaintive, profoundly touching tone:
"'Signor Cornari, again I adjure you to think of me no more. But for my own sake I would not have you believe that unmaidenly conduct on my part is the cause of the solemn prayer I thus make to you. No, no; I have naught wherewith I can reproach myself; but there are reasons of terrible import that compel me to address you in this manner. Nevertheless,' she added, more slowly and hesitatingly, 'if you really should continue to entertain so deep an interest in me as to render you desirous to hear the last explanation from my lips, then may you rely upon meeting me on this spot, and at the same hour, fifteen days hence.'
"She then hurried away. How that fortnight passed I can scarcely tell. To me it appeared an age. I was deeply, madly enamored of that strange, beautiful, and apparently conscientious being; and the mystery which involved her threw around her a halo of interest that fanned the flame of my passion. I was prepared to make any sacrifice rather than abandon all hope of calling her my own. The proud title of Riverola was as nothing in my estimation when weighed in the balance against her charms—her bewitching manner—her soft, retiring modesty. I moreover flattered myself that I was not indifferent to her; and I loved her all the more sincerely because I reflected that if she gave her heart to me, it would be to the poor and humble Cornari, and not to the rich and mighty Lord of Riverola.
"At length the day—the memorable day—came; and she failed not to keep her appointment. She was pale—very pale—but exquisitely beautiful; and she smiled in spite of herself when she beheld me. She endeavored to conceal her emotions, but she could not altogether subdue the evidence of that gratification which my presence caused her.
"'You have disregarded my most earnest prayer,' she said, in a low and agitated tone.
"'My happiness depends upon you,' I answered; 'in the name of Heaven keep me not in suspense; but tell me, can you and will you be mine?'
"'I could be thine, but I dare not,' she replied, in a voice scarcely audible.
"'Reveal to me the meaning of this strange contradiction, I implore you!' said I, again a prey to the most torturing suspense. 'Do you love another?'
"'Did I love another,' she exclaimed, withdrawing the hand which I had taken, 'I should not be here this day.'
"'Pardon me,' I cried; 'I would not offend you for worlds! If you do not love another, can you love me?'
"Again she allowed me to take her hand; and this concession, together with the rapid but eloquent glance she threw upon me, was the answer to my question.
"'Then, if you can love me,' I urged, 'why cannot you be mine?'
"'Because,' she replied, in that tone of bitterness which did me harm to hear it, 'you are born of parents whose name and whose calling you dare mention; whereas you would loathe me as much as you now declare that you love me, were you to learn who my father is! For mother, alas! I have none; she has been dead many years!' And tears streamed down her cheeks. I also wept, so deeply did I sympathize with her.
"'Beloved girl,' I exclaimed, 'you wrong me! What is it to me if your father be the veriest wretch, the greatest criminal that crawls upon the face of the earth, so long as you are pure and innocent?'"
"'No, no,' she cried hastily, 'you misunderstand me. There breathes not a more upright man than my father.'
"'Then wherefore should I be ashamed to own my marriage with his daughter?' I asked in an impassioned manner.
"'Because,' she said, in a tone of such intense anguish that it rent my heart as she began to speak; 'because,' she repeated slowly and emphatically, 'he is viewed with abhorrence by that world which is so unjust; for that which constitutes the stigma is hereditary office in his family—an office that he dares not vacate under pain of death; and now you can too well comprehend that my sire is the PUBLIC EXECUTIONER OF NAPLES!'
"This announcement came upon me like a thunderbolt. I turned sick at heart—my eyes grew dim—my brain whirled—I staggered and should have fallen had I not come in contact with a wall. It appeared to me afterward that sobs of ineffable agony fell upon my ears, while I was yet in a state of semi-stupefaction—and methought likewise that a delicate, soft hand pressed mine convulsively for a moment. Certain it was, that when I recovered my presence of mind, when I was enabled to collect my scattered thoughts, the executioner's daughter was no longer near me. I was in despair at the revelation which had been made—overwhelmed with grief, too, at having suffered her thus to depart—for I feared that I should never see her more. Before me was my hopeless love, behind me, like an evil dream, was the astounding announcement which still rang in my ears, though breathed in such soft and plaintive tones! Three or four minutes were wasted in the struggles of conflicting thoughts, ere I was sufficiently master of myself to remember that I might still overtake the maiden who had fled from me. It struck me that her father's dwelling must be near the criminal prison; and this was in the squalid quarter of the town where I had first encountered her. Thither I sped—into the dark streets, so perilous after dusk, I plunged; and at length I overtook the object of my affection, just as she was skirting the very wall of the prison. I seized her by the hand and implored her to forgive me for the manner in which I had received the last explanation to which I had urged her.
"'It was natural that you should shrink in loathing from the bare idea,' she said, in a tone which rent my heart. 'And now leave me, signor; for further conversation between us is useless.'
"'No,' I exclaimed; 'I will not leave you until I shall have exacted from you a promise that you will be mine, and only mine! For I could not live without you; and most unjust should I be, most unworthy of the name of a man, if I were to allow a contemptible prejudice to stand in the way of my happiness.'
"She returned no answer, but the rapidity of her breathing and the ill subdued sobs which interrupted her respiration at short intervals, convinced me that a fierce struggle was taking place within her bosom. For it was now quite dark and I could not see her face; the hand, however, which I held clasped in my own, trembled violently.
"'Beautiful maiden,' I said after a long pause, 'wherefore do you not reply to me? Were I the proudest peer in Christendom, I would sacrifice every consideration of rank and family for your sake. What more can man say? What more can he do?'
"'Signor Cornari,' she answered at length, 'prudence tells me to fly from you; but my heart prompts me to remain. Alas! I feel that the latter feeling is dominant within me!'
"'And you will be mine?' I demanded eagerly.
"'Thine forever!' she murmured, her head sinking upon my breast.
"But I shall not dwell unnecessarily on this portion of my narrative. Suffice it to say we parted, having arranged another meeting for the next evening. It was on this occasion that I said to her:
"'Vitangela, I have thought profoundly on all that passed between us yesterday; and I am more than ever determined to make you my wife. Let us away to your father, and demand his consent to our union.'
"'Stay,' she said, in an emphatic tone, 'and hear me patiently ere you either renew the promise to wed me, or reiterate your desire to seek my father. You must know,' she continued, while I listened with painful suspense, 'that my father will not oppose a step in which his daughter's happiness is involved. But the very moment that sees our hands joined, will behold the registry of the marriage in the book kept by the lieutenant of police; and thereby will be constituted a record of the name of one who, if need be, must assume the functions of that office which my sire now fills.'
"'What mean you, Vitangela?' I demanded, horrified by the dim yet ominous significance of these horrible words.
"'I mean,' she continued, 'that the terrible post of public executioner must remain in our family while it exists; and those who form marriages with us, are considered to enter into our family. When my father dies, my brother will succeed him, but should my brother die without leaving issue, or having a son to take his place, you, signor, if you become my husband, will be forced to assume the terrible office.'
"'But I am not a Neapolitan,' I exclaimed; 'and I should hope that when we are united, you will not insist upon dwelling in Naples.'
"'I would give worlds to leave this odious city,' she said, emphatically.
"'Nothing detains me here another day, nor another hour,' I cried; 'let the priest unite our hands, and we forthwith set off for Florence. But why should not our marriage take place privately, unknown even to your father? and in that case no entry could be made in the books of the lieutenant of police.'
"'You have expressed that desire which I myself feared to utter, lest you should think it unmaidenly,' she murmured. 'For your sake I will quit home and kindred without further hesitation.'
"I was rejoiced at this proof of affection and confidence on her part; and it was arranged between us that we should be married on the ensuing evening, and in the most private way possible.
"Before we parted, however, I drew from her a solemn pledge that, when once she had become my wife, she would never even allude to her family—that she would not communicate to them the name of her husband nor the place of our abode, under any circumstance—in a word, that she would consider her father and brother as dead to her,—and she to them.
"With streaming eyes and sobbing heart she gave the sacred promise I required, ratifying it with an oath which I made her repeat to my dictation.
"On the ensuing evening Vitangela met me according to appointment, and it was then I revealed to her my real name and rank.
"'Dearest girl,' I said, 'you gave me your heart, believing me to be a poor and humble individual; and you have consented to become my wife and abandon home and kindred for my sake. Profoundly then do I rejoice that it is in my power to elevate you to a position of which your beauty, your amiability and your virtue render you so eminently worthy; and in my own native Florence, no lady will be more courted, nor treated with greater distinction than the Countess of Riverola.'
"She uttered an exclamation of sorrow and would have fallen to the ground if I had not supported her.
"'Oh!' she murmured, 'I would have been happier were you indeed the humble Signor Cornari!'
"'No; think not thus,' I urged, 'wealth and rank are two powerful aids to happiness in this life. But at all events; my beloved Vitangela, you now recognize more than ever the paramount necessity which induces you to maintain inviolate your solemn vow of yesterday.'
"'I require no such inducement to compel me to keep that pledge,' she answered. 'Think you that I would bring disgrace on the name, whether humble or lofty, with which you have proposed to honor me? Oh! no—never, never!"
"I embraced her fondly; and we proceeded to the dwelling of a priest, by whom our hands were united in the oratory attached to his abode. At daybreak we quitted Naples, and in due time we reached Florence, where my bride was received with enthusiastic welcome by all the friends of the Riverola family. My happiness appeared to have been established on a solid foundation by this alliance; and the birth of Nisida in 1495—just one year after the marriage—was a bond which seemed to unite our hearts the more closely if possible. Indeed, I can safely assert that not a harsh word ever passed between us, nor did aught occur to mar our complete felicity for years after our union. In 1500, however, a circumstance took place which proved to be the first link in the chain of incidents destined to wield a dire influence over my happiness. It was in the month of April of that year—oh! how indelibly is the detested date fixed on my memory—the Duke Piero de Medici gave a grand entertainment to all the aristocracy of Florence. The banquet was of the most excellent description; and the gardens of the palace were brilliantly illuminated. The days of Lorenzo the Magnificent seemed to have been revived for a short period by his degenerate descendant. All the beauty and rank of the republic were assembled at this festival; but no lady was more admired for the chaste elegance of her attire, the modest dignity of her deportment, and the loveliness of her person, than Vitangela, Countess of Riverola. After the banquet the company proceeded to the gardens, where bands of music were stationed, and while some indulged in the exhilarating dance, others sauntered through the brilliantly lighted avenues. I need not inform you that no husband, unless he were anxious to draw down upon himself the ridicule which attaches itself to extreme uxoriousness, would remain linked to his wife's side all the evening at such an entertainment as the one of which I am speaking. I was therefore separated from the countess, whom I left in an arbor with some other ladies, and I joined the group which had assembled around the prince. I know not exactly how it was I happened to quit my companions, after a lively conversation which had probably lasted about an hour; certain, however, it is that before midnight I was proceeding alone down a long avenue in which utter darkness reigned, but outside of which the illuminations shone brilliantly.
"Suddenly I heard voices near me; and one of them appeared to be that of the Countess of Riverola—but they were speaking in so subdued a tone that I was by no means confident in my suspicion. The voices approached; and a sentiment of curiosity, unaccountable at the time, as I believed Vitangela to be purity itself, impelled me to listen more attentively. To conceal myself was not necessary; I had to remain perfectly still for my presence to be unknown, utter darkness prevailing in the avenue. The persons who were conversing advanced.
"'You know,' said the soft and whispering voice which I believed to be that of my wife, 'you know how sincerely, how tenderly I love you, and what a frightful risk I run in according you thus a few moments' private discourse!'
"The voice of a man made some reply, the words of which did not reach my ears; then the pair stopped and I heard the billing sound of kisses. O! how my blood boiled in my veins! I grasped the handle of my sword—but I was nailed to the spot—my state of mind was such that though I longed—I thirsted for vengeance—yet was I powerless—motionless—paralyzed. To the sound of kisses succeeded those of sobbing and of grief on the part of the lady whose voice had produced such a terrible effect upon me.
"'Holy Virgin!' I thought, 'she deplores the fate that chains her to her husband! she weeps because she has not courage to fly with her lover!' and now I experienced just the same sensations as those which stunned and stupefied me on that evening at Naples when I first heard that Vitangela was the child of the public executioner. Several minutes must have passed while I was in this condition of comparative insensibility; or rather while I was a prey to the stunning conviction that I was deceived by her whom I had loved so well and deemed so pure. When I awoke from that dread stupor all was still in the dark avenue; not a footstep, not a whispering voice was heard. I hurried along amidst the trees, my soul racked with the cruelest suspicions. And yet I was not confident that it was positively my wife's voice that I had heard; and the more I pondered on the circumstance, the more anxious was I to arrive at the conviction that I had indeed been deceived by some voice closely resembling hers. I accordingly hurried back to the arbor where I had last seen her in the company of several Florentine ladies. Joy animated my soul when I beheld Vitangela seated in that arbor, and in the very spot, too, where I had beheld her upward of an hour previously. But she was now alone.
"Where are your friends?" I asked, in a kind tone, as I approached and gently took her hand.
"Indeed I know not," she replied, casting a hurried glance around, and now appearing surprised to find that there was not another lady near her. She seemed confused; and I also observed that she had been weeping very recently. The joy which had for a moment animated me, was now succeeded by a sudden chill that went to my heart death-like—icy. But, subduing my emotion, I said:
"'Your ladyship has not surely remained here ever since I last saw you, more than an hour ago?'
"'Yes,' she responded, without daring to raise her eyes to meet mine. I knew that she lied, most foully lied: her confusion, her whole manner betrayed her. But I exercised a powerful mastery over my mind; the suspicion which I had all along entertained was strengthened greatly, but not altogether confirmed; and I resolved to wait for confirmation ere I allowed my vengeance to burst forth. Moreover, it was necessary to discover who the gallant might be—the favored one who had superseded me in the affections of Vitangela! I, however, promised myself that when once my information was complete, my revenge should be terrible; and this resolution served as a solace for the moment, and as an inducement for me to conceal alike the suspicions I had imbibed and the dreadful pain they had caused me.
"Presenting my hand, therefore, to Vitangela, I escorted her to that part of the ground where the company were now assembled, and where I hoped that some accident might make known to me the person of the gallant with whom, as I supposed, she had walked in the avenue. Anxiously, but unsuspected, did I watch the manner of the countess every time she returned the salutation of the various nobles and cavaliers whom we encountered in our walk; but not a blush, not a sign of confusion on her part, not one rapidly dealt, but significant glance, afforded me the clew I so ardently sought. And yet it struck me that she often cast furtive and uneasy, or rather searching looks hither and thither, as if to seek and single out some one individual in the multitudes moving about the illuminated gardens. She was certainly pre-occupied, and even mournful, but I affected not to observe that a cloud hung over her spirits, and in order to throw her completely off her guard, I talked and laughed quite as gayly as was my wont. To be brief, the festivities terminated a little before sunrise, and I conducted the countess back to our mansion. From that night forth I maintained the strictest watch upon her conduct and proceedings. I appointed Margaretha, the mother of my page Antonio, to act the spy upon her; but weeks and months passed, and nothing occurred to confirm the terrible suspicion that haunted me night and day. I strove to banish that suspicion from my mind—Heaven knows how hard I tried to crush it. But it was immortal—and it beset me as if it were the ghost of some victim I had ruthlessly murdered. Vitangela saw that my manner had somewhat changed toward her, and she frequently questioned me on the subject. I, however, gave her evasive answers, for I should have been ashamed to acknowledge my suspicion if it were false, and it was only by keeping her off her guard I should receive confirmation if it were true. Thus nearly nine months passed away from the date of the ducal banquet, and then you, Francisco, were born. The presence of an heir to my name and wealth was a subject of much congratulation on the part of my friends; but to me it was a source of torturing doubts and racking fears. You never bore the least—no, not the least resemblance, either physical or mental, to me; whereas the very reverse was the case with Nisida, even in her infancy. From the moment of your birth—from the first instant that I beheld you in the nurse's arms—the most agonizing feelings took possession of my soul. Were you indeed my son?—or were you the pledge of adulterous love? Merciful heavens! in remembering all I suffered when the terrible thoughts oppressed me, I wonder that you, Francisco, should now be alive—that I did not strangle you as you lay in your cradle. And, oh God! how dearly I could have loved you, Francisco, had I felt the same confidence in your paternity as in that of your sister Nisida! But no—all was at least doubt and uncertainty in that respect—and, as your cast of features and physical characteristics developed themselves, that hideous doubt and that racking uncertainty increased until there were times when I was nearly goaded to do some desperate deed. Those mild blue eyes—that rich brown hair—that feminine softness of expression which marked your face belonged not to the family of Riverola!
"Time wore on, and my unhappiness increased. I suspected my wife, yet dared not proclaim the suspicion. I sought to give her back my love, but was utterly unable to subdue the dark thoughts and crush the maddening uncertainties that agitated my soul. At last I was sinking into a state of morbid melancholy, when an incident occurred which revived all the energies of my mind. It was in 1505—Nisida being then ten years old, and you, Francisco, four—when Margaretha informed me one evening that the countess had received a letter which had thrown her into a state of considerable agitation, and which she had immediately burned. By questioning the porter at the gate of the mansion, I learnt that the person who delivered the letter was a tall, handsome man of about thirty-two, with brown hair, blue eyes, and a somewhat feminine expression of countenance. Holy Virgin! this must be the gallant—the paramour of my wife—the father of the boy on whom the law compelled me to bestow my own name. Such were the ideas that immediately struck me; and I now prepared for vengeance. Margaretha watched my wife narrowly, and on the evening following the one on which the letter had been delivered, Vitangela was seen to secure a heavy bag of gold about her person, and quit the mansion by the secret staircase of her apartment—that apartment which is now the sleeping-place of your sister Nisida.
"Margaretha followed the countess to an obscure street, at the corner of which the guilty woman encountered a tall person, enveloped in a cloak, and who was evidently waiting for her. To him she gave the bag of gold, and they embraced each other tenderly. Then they separated—the countess returning home, unconscious that a spy watched her movements. Margaretha reported all that had occurred to me; and I bade her redouble her attention in watching her mistress. Now that the lover is once more in this city, I thought, and well provided with my gold to pursue his extravagance, there will soon be another meeting—and then for vengeance such as an Italian must have. But weeks and months again passed without affording the opportunity which I craved; yet I knew that the day must come—and I could tutor myself to await its arrival, if not with patience, at least with so much outward composure as to lull the countess into belief of perfect security.
"Yes, weeks and months passed away, ay, and years, too, and still I nursed my hopes and projects of vengeance, the craving for which increased with the lapse of time.
"And now I come to the grand, the terrible, the main incident in this narrative. It was late one night, in the month of January, 1510, Nisida being then fifteen and thou, Francisco, nine, that Margaretha came to me in my own apartment and informed me that she had seen the tall gallant traverse the garden hastily and obtain admission into the countess' chamber by means of the secret staircase. The hour for vengeance had at length come. Margaretha was instantly dispatched to advise two bravoes whose services I had long secured for the occasion, that the moment had arrived when they were to do the work for which they had been so well paid in advance, and by the faithful performance of which they would still further enrich themselves. Within half an hour all the arrangements were completed. Margaretha had retired to her own chamber and the bravoes were concealed with me in the garden. Nor had we long to wait. The private door opened shortly, and two persons appeared on the threshold. The night was clear and beautiful, and from my hiding-place I could discern the fondness of the embrace that marked their parting. And they parted, too, never to meet again in this life!
"Vitangela closed the door—and her lover was passing rapidly along amidst the trees in the garden, when a dagger suddenly drank his heart's blood. That dagger was mine, and wielded by my hand! He fell without a groan—dead, stone-dead at my feet. Half of my vengeance was now accomplished; the other half was yet to be consummated. Without a moment's unnecessary delay the corpse was conveyed to a cellar beneath the northern wing of the mansion: and the two bravoes then hastened, to Vitangela's chamber, into which they obtained admission by forcing the door of the private staircase. In pursuance of the orders which they had received from me, they bound and gagged her, and conveyed her through the garden to the very cellar where, by the light of a gloomy lamp, she beheld her husband standing close by a corpse!
"'Bring her near!' I exclaimed, unmoved by the looks of indescribable horror which she threw around.
"When her eyes caught sight of the countenance of that lifeless being, they remained fixed with frenzied wildness in their sockets, and even if there had been no gag between her teeth, I do not believe that she could have uttered a syllable. And now commenced the second act in this appalling tragedy! While one of the bravoes held the countess in his iron grasp, in such a manner that she could not avert her head, the other, who had once been a surgeon, tore away the garments from the corpse, and commenced the task which I had before assigned to him. And as the merciless scalpel hacked and hewed away at the still almost palpitating flesh of the murdered man, in whose breast the dagger remained deeply buried,—a ferocious joy—a savage, hyena-like triumph filled my soul; and I experienced no remorse for the deed I had done! Far—very far from that—for as the work progressed, I exclaimed—
"'Behold, Vitangela, how the scalpel hews that form so loved by thee! Now hack away at the countenance—deface that beauty—pick out those mild blue eyes!'—and I laughed madly!
"The countess fainted, and I ordered her to be carried back to her apartment, where Margaretha awaited her. Indeed I had naturally foreseen that insensibility would result from the appalling spectacle which I compelled my wife to witness: and Margaretha was prepared to breathe dreadful menaces in her ears the moment she should recover—menaces of death to herself and both her children if she should reveal, even to her father confessor, one tittle of the scene which that night had been enacted! The surgeon-bravo did his work bravely; and the man who had dishonored me was reduced to naught save a skeleton! The flesh and the garments were buried deep in the cellar; the skeleton was conveyed to my own chamber, and suspended to a beam in the closet where you, Francisco, and your bride, are destined to behold it—ALONG WITH ANOTHER!
"My vengeance was thus far gratified—the bravos were dismissed, and I locked myself up in my chamber for several days, to brood upon all I had done, and occasionally to feast my eyes with the grim remains of him who had dared to love my wife. During those days of seclusion I would see no one save the servant who brought me my meals. From him I learnt that the countess was dangerously ill—that she was indeed dying, and that she besought me to visit her if only for a moment. But I refused—implacably refused. I was convinced that she craved my forgiveness; and that I could not give.
"Dr. Duras, who attended upon her, came to the door of my chamber and implored me to grant him an interview:—then Nisida sought a similar boon; but I was deaf to each and all.
"Yes—for there was still a being on whom I yet longed to wreak my vengeance;—and that being was yourself, Francisco? I looked upon you as the living evidence of my dishonor—the memorial of your mother's boundless guilt. But I recoiled in horror from the idea of staining my hands with the blood of a little child—yet I feared if I came near you—if I saw your clinging affectionately to Vitangela—if I heard you innocently and unconsciously mock me by calling me 'father!'—I felt I should be unable to restrain the fury of my wrath!
"I know not how long I should have remained in the seclusion of my own chamber—perhaps weeks and months, but one morning shortly after daybreak, I was informed by the only servant whom I would admit near me, that the countess had breathed her last during the night, and that Nisida was so deeply affected by her mother's death, that she, poor girl, was dangerously ill. Then I became frantic on account of my daughter; and I quitted my apartment, not only to see that proper aid was administered to her, but to complete the scheme of vengeance which I had originally formed. Thus, in the first place, Dr. Duras was enjoined to take up his abode altogether in the Riverola Palace, so long as Nisida should require his services; and, on the other hand, a splendid funeral was ordered for the Countess Riverola. But Vitangela's remains went not in the velvet-covered coffin to the family vault;—no—her flesh was buried in the same soil where rotted the flesh of her paramour—and her skeleton was suspended from the same beam to which his bones had been already hung. For I thought within myself: 'This is the first time that the wife of a Count of Riverola has ever brought dishonor and disgrace upon her husband; and I will take care that it shall be the last. To Nisida will I leave all my estates—all my wealth, save a miserable pittance as an inheritance for the bastard Francisco. She shall inherit the title, and the man on whom she may confer her hand shall be the next Count of Riverola. The wedding-day will be marked by a revelation of the mystery of this cabinet; and the awful spectacle will teach him, whoever he may be, to watch his wife narrowly—and will teach, her what it is to prove unfaithful to a fond husband! To both, the lesson will be as useful as the manner of conveying it will be frightful, and they will hand down the tradition to future scions of the Riverola family. Francisco, too, shall learn the secrets of the cabinet; he shall be taught why he is disinherited—why I have hated him: and thus even from the other world shall the spirits of the vile paramour and the adulterous wife behold the consequences of their crime perpetuated in this.'
"Such were my thoughts—such were my intentions. But an appalling calamity forced me to change my views. Nisida, after a long and painful illness, became deaf and dumb; and Dr. Duras gave me no hope of the restoration of her lost faculties.
"Terrible visitation! Then was it that I reasoned with myself—that I deliberated long and earnestly upon the course which I should pursue. It was improbable that, afflicted as Nisida was, she would ever marry; and I felt grieved, deeply grieved, to think that you, Francisco, being disinherited, and Nisida remaining single, the proud title of Riverola would become extinct; I therefore resolved on the less painful alternative of disinheriting you altogether; and I accordingly made a will by which I left you the estates, with the contingent title Count of Riverola, under certain conditions which might yet alienate both property and rank from you, and endow therewith your sister Nisida. For should she recover the faculties of speech and hearing by the time she shall have attained the age of thirty-six, she will yet be marriageable and may have issue; but should that era in her life pass, and she still be deaf and dumb, all hope of her recovery will be dead!
"Thus if she still be so deeply afflicted at that age, you, Francisco, will inherit the vast estates and the lordly title which, through the circumstances of your birth, it grieves me to believe will ever devolve upon you.
"Such were my motives for making that will which you are destined to hear read, doubtless before the time comes for you to peruse this manuscript. And having made that will, and experiencing the sad certainty that my unfortunate daughter will never become qualified to inherit my title and fortune, but that the name of Riverola must be perpetuated through your marriage, I have determined that to you and to your bride alone shall the dread secrets of the cabinet be revealed."
Powerful in meaning and strong in expression as the English language may be rendered by one who has the least experience in the proper combination of words, yet it becomes totally inadequate to the task of conveying an idea of those feelings—those harrowing emotions—those horrifying sentiments, which were excited in the breasts of Francisco di Riverola and the beautiful Flora by the revolution of the manuscript. At first the document begat a deep and mournful interest, as it related the interviews of the late count with Vitangela in the streets of Naples; then amazement was engendered by the announcement of that lovely and unhappy being's ignominious parentage—but a calmness was diffused through the minds of Flora and Francisco, as if they had found a resting place amidst the exciting incidents of the narrative when they reached that part which mentioned the marriage.
Their feelings were, however, destined to be speedily and most painfully wrung once more; and Francisco could scarcely restrain his indignation—yes, his indignation even against the memory of his deceased father—when he perused those injurious suspicions which were recorded in reference to the honor of his mother. Though unable to explain the mystery in which all that part of the narrative was involved, yet he felt firmly convinced that his mother was innocent; and he frequently interrupted himself in the perusal of the manuscript to give utterance to passionate ejaculations expressive of that opinion. But it was when the hideous tragedy rapidly developed itself, and the history of the presence of two skeletons in the closet was detailed, it was then that language became powerless to describe the mingled wrath and disgust which Francisco felt, or to delineate the emotions of boundless horror and wild amazement that were excited in the bosom of Flora. In spasmodic shuddering did the young countess cling to her husband when she had learned how fearfully accurate was the manner in which the few lines of the manuscript which she had read many months previously in Nisida's boudoir, fitted in the text, and how appalling was the tale which the entire made. She was cruelly shocked, and her heart bled for that fine young man whom she was so proud to call her husband, but whom his late father had loathed to recognize as a son. And Nisida—what were her feelings as she lay stretched upon a couch, listening to the contents of the manuscript which she had read before? At first one hope—one idea was dominant in her soul, the hope that Flora would be crushed even to death by revelations which were indeed almost sufficient to overwhelm a gentle disposition and freeze the vital current in the tender and compassionate heart.
But as Francisco read on, and when he came to those passages which described the sufferings and the cruel fate of her mother, then Nisida became a prey to the most torturing feelings—dreadful emotions were expressed by her convulsed countenance and wildly-glaring eyes—and she muttered deep and bitter anathemas against the memory of her own father. For well does the reader know that she had loved her mother to distraction; and thus the horrifying detail of the injuries heaped upon the head and on the name of that revered parent aroused all her fiercest passions of rage and hate as completely as if that history had been new to her, and as if she were now becoming acquainted with it for the first time. Indeed, so powerful, so terrible, was the effect produced by the revival of all those dread reminiscences and heart-rending emotions on the part of Nisida that, forgetting her malignant spite and her infernal hope with regard to Flora, she threw her whole soul into the subject of the manuscript: and the torrent of feelings to which she thus gave way was crushing and overwhelming to a woman of such fierce passions, and who had received so awful a shock as that which had stretched her on the couch where she now lay. For the fate of him whom she had loved with such ardor, and the revulsion that her affection experienced on account of the ghastly spectacle which Wagner presented to her view in his dying moments—the disgust and loathing which had been inspired in her mind by the thought that she had ever fondled that being in her arms and absolutely doted on the superhuman beauty that had changed to such revolting ugliness, it was all this that had struck her down—paralyzed her—inflicted a mortal, though not an instantaneous blow upon that woman so lately full of energy, so strong in moral courage, and so full of vigorous health. Thus impressed with the conviction that her end was approaching, the moment the perusal of the manuscript was concluded the Lady Nisida said, in a faint and dying tone of voice:
"Francisco, draw near—as near as possible—and listen to what I have now to communicate, for it is in my power to clear up all doubt, all mystery relative to the honor of our sainted mother, and convince thee that no stigma, no disgrace attaches itself to thy birth!"
"Alas! my beloved sister," exclaimed the young count, "you speak in a faint voice, you are very ill! In the name of the Holy Virgin! I conjure you to allow me to send for Dr. Duras!"
"No, Francisco," said Nisida, her voice recovering somewhat of its power as she continued to address him: "I implore you to let me have my own way, to follow my own inclinations! Do not thwart me, Francisco; already I feel as if molten lead were pouring through my brain, and a tremendous weight lies upon my heart! Forbear, then, from irritating me, my well-beloved Francisco——"
"Oh! Nisida," cried the young count, throwing his arms around his sister's neck and embracing her fondly; "if you love me now, if you ever loved me, grant me one boon! By the memory of our sainted mother I implore you, by your affection for her I adjure you, Nisida——"
"Speak, speak, Francisco," interrupted his sister, hastily: "I can almost divine the nature of the boon you crave—and—my God!" she added, tears starting from her eyes, as a painful thought flashed across her brain,—"perhaps I have been too harsh—too severe! At all events, it is not now—on my death-bed—that I can nurse resentment——"
"Your death-bed!" echoed Francisco, in a tone or acute anguish, while the sobs which convulsed the bosom of the young countess were heard alike by him and his sister.
"Yes, dearest brother, I am dying," said Nisida, in a voice of profound and mournful conviction; "and therefore let me not delay those duties and those explanations which can alone unburden my heart of the weight that lies upon it! And first, Francisco, be thy boon granted—for I know that thou wouldst speak to me of her who is now thy bride. Come to my arms, then. Flora, embrace me as a sister, and forgive me if thou canst, for I have been a fierce and unrelenting enemy to thee!"
"Oh, let the past be forgotten, my friend, my sister!" exclaimed the weeping Flora, as she threw herself into Nisida's outstretched arms.
And the young wife and the young woman embraced each other tenderly—for deep regrets and pungent remorse at last attuned the mind of Nisida to sweet and holy sympathy.
"And now," said Nisida, "sit down by my side, and listen to the explanations which I have promised. Give me your hand. Flora, dear Flora, let me retain it in mine; for at the last hour, and when I am about to leave this fair and beauteous earth, I feel an ardent longing to love those who walk upon its face, and to be loved by them in return. But, alas, alas!" she added, somewhat bitterly, "reflections and yearnings of this nature come too late! O Flora! the picture of life is spread before you—while from me it is rapidly receding, and dissolving into the past. Like our own fair city of palaces and flowers, when seen from a distance beneath the glorious lights of the morning, may that glorious picture continue to appear to thee; and mayst thou never draw near enough to recognize the false splendors in which gorgeous hues may deck the things of this world; mayst thou never be brought so close to the sad realities of existence as to be forced to contemplate the breaking hearts that dwell in palaces, or to view in disgust the slime upon flowers."
"Nisida," said Francisco, bending over his sister, and speaking in a voice indicative of deep emotion, "the kind words you utter to my beloved Flora shall ever—ever remain engraven upon my heart."
"And on mine also," murmured the young countess, pressing Nisida's hand with grateful ardor, while her eyes, radiant with very softness, threw a glance of passionate tenderness upon her generous-hearted and handsome husband.
"Listen to me," resumed Nisida, after a short pause, during which she gave way to all the luxury of those sweet and holy reflections which the present scene engendered: and these were the happiest moments of the lady's stormy life. "Listen to me," she repeated; "and let me enter upon and make an end of my explanations as speedily as possible. And first, Francisco, relative to our sainted—our innocent—our deeply-wronged and much-injured mother. You have already learned that she was the daughter of the public executioner of Naples; and you have heard that ere she became our father's wife she swore a solemn oath—she pledged herself in the most solemn manner that she would never even allude to her family—that she would not communicate to them the name of her husband nor the place of his abode, under any circumstances—in a word, that she would consider her father and brother as dead to her! And yet she had a tender heart; and after she became the Countess of Riverola she very often thought of the parent who had reared her tenderly and loved her affectionately; she thought also of her brother Eugenio, who had ever been so devoted to his sister. But she kept her promise faithfully for five years; until that fatal day of April, 1500, which our father has so emphatically mentioned in his narrative. It was in the garden belonging to the ducal palace that she suddenly encountered her brother Eugenio——"
"Her brother!" ejaculated Francisco, joyfully. "Oh! I knew, I felt certain that she was innocent."
"Yes, she was indeed innocent," repeated Nisida, "But let me pursue my explanations as succinctly as possible. It appeared that the old man—the executioner of Naples—was no more; and Eugenio, possessing himself of the hoardings of his deceased father, had fled from his native city to avoid the dread necessity of assuming the abhorrent office. Accident led the young adventurer to Florence in search of a more agreeable employment as a means whereby to earn his livelihood, and having formed the acquaintance of one of the duke's valets, he obtained admittance to the gardens on that memorable evening when the grand entertainment was given. In spite of the strict injunctions he had received not to approach the places occupied by the distinguished guests, he drew near the arbor in which our mother had been conversing with other ladies, but where she was at that moment alone. The recognition was immediate, and they flew into each other's arms. It would have been useless, as well as unnatural, for our mother to have refused to reveal her rank and name; her brilliant attire was sufficient to convince her brother that the former was high, and inquiry would speedily have made him acquainted with the latter. She accordingly drew him apart into a secluded walk and told him all; but she implored him to quit Florence without delay, and she gave him her purse and one of her rich bracelets, thereby placing ample resources at his disposal. Five years passed away, and during that period she heard no more of her brother Eugenio. But at the expiration of that interval she received a note stating that he was again in Florence—that necessity had alone brought him hither, and that he would be at a particular place at a certain hour to meet either herself or some confidential person whom she might instruct to see him. Our mother filled a bag with gold, and put into it some of her choicest jewels, and thus provided, she repaired in person to the place of appointment. It grieved her generous heart thus to be compelled to meet her brother secretly, as if he were a common robber or a midnight bravo; but for her husband's peace, and in obedience to the spirit of the oath which imperious circumstances had alone led her in some degree to violate, she was forced to adopt that sad and humiliating alternative."
"Alas! poor mother!" sobbed Francisco, deeply affected by this narrative.
"Again did five years elapse without bringing tidings to our mother of Eugenio," continued Nisida, "and then he once more set foot in Florence. The world bad not used him well—Fortune had frowned upon him—and, though a young man of fine spirit and noble disposition, he failed in all his endeavors to carve out a successful career for himself. Our mother determined to accord him an interview in her own apartment. She longed to converse with him at her ease—to hear his tale from his own lips—to sympathize with and console him. Oh! who could blame her if in so doing she departed from the strict and literal meaning of that vow which had bound her to consider her relations as dead to her? But the fault—if fault it were—was so venial, that to justify it is to invest it with an importance which it would not have possessed save for the frightful results to which it led. You have already heard how foully he was waylaid, how ruthlessly he was murdered! Holy Virgin! my brain whirls when I reflect upon that hideous cruelty which made our mother the spectator of his dissection; for, even had he been a lover—even were she guilty—even if the suspicions of our father had all been well-founded——"
"Dwell not upon this frightful topic, my beloved Nisida!" exclaimed Francisco, perceiving that she was again becoming greatly excited, for her eyes dilated and glared wildly, her bosom heaved in awful convulsions, and she tossed her arms frantically about.
"No, I will not—I dare not pause to ponder thereon," she said, falling back upon the pillow, and pressing her hands to that proud and haughty brow behind which the active, racking brain appeared to be on fire.
"Tranquilize yourself, dearest sister," murmured Flora, bending over the couch and pressing her lips on Nisida's burning cheek.
"I will, I will, Flora, whom I now love as much as I once hated!" exclaimed the dying lady. "But let me make an end of my explanations. You already know that our dear mother was gagged when she was compelled to witness the horrible deeds enacted in the subterranean charnel-house by the dim light of a sickly lamp; but even if she had not been, no word would have issued from her lips, as the manuscript justly observes. During her illness, however, she sought an interview with her husband for the purpose of proving to him her complete innocence, by revealing the fact that his victim was her own brother! But he refused all the entreaties proffered with that object, and our unfortunate mother was forced to contemplate the approach of death with the sad conviction that she should pass away without the satisfaction of establishing her guiltlessness in the eyes of our father. Then was it that she revealed everything to me—to me alone—to me, a young girl of only fifteen when those astounding facts were breathed into my ears. I listened with horror, and I began to hate my father, for I adored my mother. She implored me not to give way to any intemperate language or burst of passion which might induce the inmates of the mansion to suspect that I was the depositary of some terrible secret.
"'For,' said our mother, when on her death-bed, 'if I have ventured to shock your young mind by so appalling a revelation, it is only that you may understand wherefore I am about to bind you by a solemn vow to love, protect, and watch over Francisco, as if he were your own child, rather than your brother. His father, alas! hates him. This I have observed ever since the birth of that dear boy, but it is only by means of the dread occurrence of the other night that I have been able to divine the origin of that dislike and unnatural loathing. Your father, Nisida,' continued my mother, 'believes that I have been unfaithful, and suspects that Francisco is the offspring of a guilty amour. With this terrible impression upon his mind, he may persecute my poor boy; he may disinherit him; he may even seek to rid him of life. Kneel, then, by my bedside, Nisida, and swear by all you deem sacred—by the love you bear for me—and by your hopes of salvation, that you will watch unweariedly and unceasingly over the welfare and the interests of Francisco—that you will make any sacrifice, incur any danger, or undergo any privation, to save him from the effects of his father's hate—that you will exert all possible means to cause the title and fortune of his father to descend to him, and that you will in no case consent to supplant him in those respects—and lastly, that you will keep secret the dread history of my brother's fate and your knowledge of your father's crime.' To all these conditions of the vow I solemnly and sacredly pledged myself, calling Heaven to witness the oath. But I said to our mother, 'My father will not forever remain locked up in his own apartment; he will come forth sooner or later, and I must have an opportunity of speaking to him. May I not justify you, my dear mother, in his eyes? May I not assure him that Eugenio was your brother? He will then cease to hate Francisco, and may even love him as he loves me; and you may then have no fears on his account."
"'Alas! the plan which you suggest may not be put into execution,' replied our dying mother; 'for were your father to be aware that I had revealed the occurrences of that dread night to you, Nisida, he would feel that he must be ever looked upon as a murderer by his own child! Moreover, such appears to be the sad and benighted state of his mind, that he might peradventure deem the tale relative to Eugenio a mere excuse and vile subterfuge. No; I must perish disgraced in his eyes, unless he should accord ere I die, the interview which yourself and the good Dr. Duras have so vainly implored him to grant me.'
"Our dear mother then proceeded to give me other instructions, Francisco, relative to yourself; but these," added Nisida, glancing toward Flora, "would now be painful to unfold. And yet," she continued, hastily, as a second thought struck her, "it is impossible, my sweet Flora, that you can be weak-minded—for you have this day seen and heard enough to test your mental powers to the extreme possibility of their endurance. Moreover, I feel that my conduct toward you requires a complete justification; and that justification will be found in the last instructions which I received from the lips of my mother."
"Dearest Nisida," said the young countess, "no justification is needed—no apology is required in reference to that subject; for your kind words, your altered manner toward me now, your recognition of me as a sister, made so by union with your brother—oh! this would efface from my mind wrongs ten thousand times more terrible than any injury which I have sustained at your hands. But," continued Flora, in a slow and gentle tone, "if you wish to explain the nature of these instructions which you received from the lips of your dying parent, let not my presence embarrass you."
"Yes, I do wish to render my explanation as complete as possible, dearest Flora," replied Nisida; "for if I have acted severely toward you, it was not to gratify any natural love of cruelty, nor any mean jealousy or spite; on the contrary, the motives were engendered by that imperious necessity which has swayed my conduct, modeled my disposition, and regulated my mind ever since that fatal day when I knelt beside my mother's death-bed, and swore to obey her last words. For thus did she speak, Flora—'Nisida, there is one more subject relative to which I must advise you, and in respect to which you must swear to obey me. My own life furnished a sad and terrible lesson of the impropriety of contracting an unequal marriage. All my woes—all my sorrows—all the dreadful events which have occurred—may be traced to the one great fact that the Count of Riverola espoused a person of whose family he was ashamed. Nisida,' she continued, her voice becoming fainter and fainter, 'watch you narrowly and closely over the welfare of Francisco in this respect. Let him not marry beneath him; let him not unite himself to one whose family contains a single member deserving obloquy or reproach. Above all, see that he marries not till he shall have reached an age when he will be capable of examining his own heart through the medium of experience and matured judgment. If you see him form a boyish attachment of which you have good and sufficient reason to disapprove, exert yourself to wean him from it: hesitate not to thwart him; be not moved by the sorrows he may manifest at the moment; you will be acting for his welfare; and the time will speedily come when he will rejoice that you have rescued him from the danger of contracting a hasty, rash, and ill-assorted marriage.' These were the last instructions of our mother, Francisco; and I swore to obey them. Hence my sorrow, my fears, my anger when I became aware of the attachment subsisting between yourself, dear brother, and you, my sweet Flora: and that sorrow was enhanced—those fears were augmented—that danger was increased, Flora, when I learnt that your brother Alessandro had renounced the creed of the true God, and that your family thereby contained a member deserving of obloquy and reproach. But that sorrow, those fears, and that anger have now departed from my soul. I recognize the finger of Heaven—the will of the Almighty in the accomplishment of your union, despite of all my projects, all my intrigues to prevent it. I am satisfied, moreover, that there is in this alliance a fitness and a propriety which will insure your happiness: and may the spirit of my sainted mother look down from the empyrean palace where she dwells, and bless you both, even as I now implore the divine mercy to shed its beauties and diffuse its protecting influence around you."
Nisida had raised herself up to a sitting posture as she uttered this invocation so sublimely interesting and solemnly sincere; and the youthful pair, simultaneously yielding to the same impulse, sank upon their knees to receive the blessing of one who had never bestowed a blessing on mortal being until then! She extended her hands above those two beautiful, bending heads: and her voice, as she adjured Heaven to protect them, was plaintively earnest and tremulously clear, and its musical sound seemed to touch the finest chord of sympathy, devotion, and love that vibrated in the hearts of that youthful noble and his virgin bride. When this solemn ceremony was accomplished, an immense weight appeared to have been removed from the soul of the Lady Nisida of Riverola; and her countenance wore a calm and sweet expression, which formed a happy contrast with the sovereign hauteur and grand contempt that were wont to mark it.
"I have now but little more to say in explanation of my past conduct," she resumed, after a long pause. "You can readily divine wherefore I affected the loss of those most glorious faculties which God has given me. I became enthusiastic in my resolves to carry out the injunctions of my dear and much-loved mother; and while I lay upon a bed of sickness—a severe illness produced by anguish and horror at all I had heard from her lips, and by her death, so premature and sad—I pondered a thousand schemes, the object of which was to accomplish the great aims I had in view. I foresaw that I—a weak woman—then, indeed, a mere girl of fifteen—should have to constitute myself the protectress of a brother who was hated by his own father; and I feared lest that hatred should drive him to the adoption of some dreadful plot to rid himself of your presence, Francisco—perhaps even to deprive you of your life. I knew that I must watch all his movements and listen to all his conversations with those unprincipled wretches who are ever ready to do the bidding of the powerful and the wealthy. But how was all this to be accomplished?—how was I to become a watcher and a listener—a spy ever active, and an eavesdropper ever awake—without exciting suspicions which would lead to the frustration of my designs, and perhaps involve both myself and my brother in ruin? Then was it that an idea struck me like a flash of lightning; and like a flash of lightning was it terrible and appalling, when breaking on the dark chaos of my thoughts. At first I shrank from it—recoiled from it in horror and dismay;—but the more I considered it—the longer I looked that idea in the face—the more I contemplated it, the less formidable did it seem. I have already said that I was enthusiastic and devoted in my resolves to carry out the dying injunctions of my mother:—and thus by degrees I learnt to reflect upon the awful sacrifice which had suggested itself to my imagination as a species of holy and necessary self-martyrdom. I foresaw that if I affected the loss of hearing and speech, I should obtain all the advantages I sought and all the means I required to enable me to act as the protectress of my brother against the hatred of my father. I believed also that I should not only be considered as unfit to be made the heiress of the title and fortune of the Riverola family, but that our father, Francisco, would see the absolute necessity of treating you in all respects as his lawful and legitimate son, in spite of any suspicions which he might entertain relative to your birth. There were many other motives which influenced me, and which arose out of the injunctions of our mother,—motives which you can well understand, and which I need not detail. Thus it was that, subduing the grief which the idea of making so tremendous a sacrifice excited, on the one hand—and arming myself with the exultation of a martyr, on the other,—thus it was that I resolved to simulate the character of the deaf and dumb. It was, however, necessary to obtain the collusion of Dr. Duras; and this aim I carried after many hours of argument and persuasion. He was then ignorant—and still is ignorant—of the real motives which had prompted me to this self-martyrdom;—but I led him to believe that the gravest and most important family interests required that moral immolation of my own happiness;—and I vowed that unless he would consent to aid me, it was my firm resolve to shut myself up in a convent and take the veil. This threat, which I had not the least design of carrying into effect, induced him to yield a reluctant acquiescence with my project: for he loved me as if I had been his child. He was moreover consoled somewhat by the assurance which I gave him, and in which I myself felt implicit confidence at the time, that the necessity for the simulation of deafness and dumbness on my part would cease the moment my father should be no more. In a word, the kind Dr. Duras promised to act entirely in accordance with my wishes; and I accordingly became Nisida the deaf and dumb!"
"Merciful heavens! that immeasurable sacrifice was made for me!" cried Francisco, throwing himself into the arms of his sister and imprinting a thousand kisses on her cheeks.
"Yes—for your sake and in order to carry out the dying commands of our mother, the sainted Vitangela?" responded Nisida. "I shall not weary you with a description of the feelings and emotions with which I commenced that long career of duplicity; by the very success that attended the part which I had undertaken to perform you may estimate the magnitude and the extent of the exertions which it cost me thus to maintain myself a living—a constant—and yet undetected lie! Ten years passed away—ten years, marked by many incidents which made me rejoice, for your sake, Francisco, that I had accepted the self-martyrdom which circumstances had suggested to me. At length our father lay upon his death bed: and then—oh! then I rejoiced—yes, rejoiced, though he was dying; for I thought that the end of my career of duplicity was at hand. Judge, then, of my astonishment—my grief—my despair, when I heard the last injunctions which our father addressed to you, Francisco, on that bed of death. What could the mystery of the closet mean? Of that I then knew nothing. Wherefore was I to remain in complete ignorance of the instructions thus given to you? And what was signified by the words relative to the disposal of our father's property? For you may remember that he spoke thus, addressing himself of course to you:—'You will find 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.' These ominous and mysterious words seemed to proclaim defeat and overthrow to all the hopes that I had formed relative to the certainty of your being left the sole and unconditional heir alike to title and estate. I therefore resolved to maintain the character of the deaf and dumb until I should have fathomed the secrets of the closet, and have become acquainted with the conditions of the will. Oh! well do I remember the glance which the generous-hearted Duras cast toward me, when, returning to the chamber, he inquired by means of that significant look whether the last words of our dying father were prognostic of hope for me—whether, indeed, the necessity of sustaining the dreadful duplicity would cease when he should be no more. And I remember, also, that the look and the sign, by which I conveyed a negative answer were expressive of the deep melancholy that filled his soul."
"Alas! my dear self-sacrificed sister," murmured Francisco, tears trickling down his cheeks.
"Yes—my disappointment was cruel indeed," continued Nisida. "But the excitement of the scenes and incidents which followed rapidly the death of our father, restored my mind to its wonted tone of fortitude, vigor, and proud determination. That very night, Francisco, I took the key of the cabinet from your garments, while you slept—I sped to the chamber of death—I visited the depository of horrible mysteries—and for the first time I became aware that two skeletons were contained in that closet! And whose fleshless relics those skeletons were, the dreadful manuscript speedily revealed to me. Then was it also for the first time that I learnt how Margaretha was the detestable spy whose agency had led to such a frightful catastrophe in respect to Eugenio and Vitangela; then I became aware that our mother's corpse slept not in the vault to which a coffin had been consigned:—in a word, the full measure of our sire's atrocity—O God! that I should be compelled thus to speak—was revealed to me! But on Margaretha have I been avenged," added Nisida, in a low tone, and with a convulsive shudder produced by the recollection of that terrible night when she immolated the miserable woman above the grave where lay a portion of the remains of her mother and of Eugenio.
"You have been avenged on Margaretha, sister," ejaculated Francisco, surveying Nisida with apprehension.
"Yes," she replied, her large black eyes flashing with a scintillation of the former fires: "that woman—I have slain her! But start not, Flora—look not reproachfully upon me, Francisco: 'twas a deed fully justified, a vengeance righteously exercised, a penalty well deserved! And now let me hasten to bring my long and tedious explanations to a conclusion—for they have occupied a longer space than I had at first anticipated, and I am weak and faint. Little, however, remains to be told. The nature of our father's will compelled me to persist in my self-martyrdom: for I had sworn to my dying mother not to accept any conditions or advantages which should have the effect of disinheriting you, Francisco."
"Oh! what a debt of gratitude do I owe thee, my beloved sister!" exclaimed the young count, deeply affected by the generous sacrifices made by Nisida on his behalf.
"And think you I have experienced no reward?" asked the lady in a sweet tone, and with a placid smile: "do you imagine that the consciousness of having devoted myself to the fulfillment of my adored mother's wishes has been no recompense? Yes—I have had my consolations and my hours of happiness, as well as my sufferings and periods of profound affliction. But I feel a soft and heavenly repose stealing over me—'tis a sweet sleep, and yet it is not the slumber of death! No, no; 'tis a delicious trance into which I am falling—'tis as if a celestial vision——"
She said no more. Her eyes closed, she fell back and slept soundly.
"Merciful Heavens! my sister is no more!" exclaimed Francisco, in terror and despair.
"Fear not, my beloved husband," said Flora; "Nisida sleeps, and 'tis a healthy slumber. The pulsations of her heart are regular; her breath comes freely. Joy, joy, Francisco," she will recover!"
"The Holy Virgin grant that your hope may be fulfilled!" returned the young count. "But let us not disturb her. We will sit down by the bedside, Flora, and watch till she shall awake."
But scarcely had he uttered these words when the door of the chamber opened, and an old man of venerable appearance, and with a long beard as white as snow, advanced toward the newly married pair.
Francisco and Flora beheld him with feelings of reverence and awe, for something appeared to tell them that he was a mortal of no common order.
"My dear children," he said, addressing them in a paternal manner, and his voice firm, but mild, "ye need not watch here for the present. Retire, and seek not this chamber again until the morning of to-morrow. Fear nothing, excellent young man, for thou hast borne arms in the cause of the cross. Fear nothing, amiable young lady, for thou art attended by guardian angels."
And as the venerable man thus addressed them severally, he extended his hands to bless them; and they received that blessing with holy meekness, and yet with a joyous feeling which appeared to be of glorious augury for their future happiness. Then, obedient to the command of the stranger, they slowly quitted the apartment—urged to yield to his will by a secret influence which they could not resist, but which nevertheless animated them with a pious confidence in the integrity of his purpose. The door closed behind them, and Christian Rosencrux remained in the room with the dead Wagner and the dying Nisida.