Wagner the Wehr-wolf/Chapter VII
"You remember, Agnes, how happily the times passed when you were the darling of the old man in his poor cottage. All the other members of his once numerous family had been swept away by pestilence, malady, accident, or violence; and you only were left to him. When the trees of this great Black Forest were full of life and vegetable blood, in the genial warmth of summer, you gathered flowers which you arranged tastefully in the little hut; and those gifts of nature, so culled and so dispensed by your hands, gave the dwelling a more cheerful air than if it had been hung with tapestry richly fringed. Of an evening, with the setting sun, glowing gold, you were wont to kneel by the side of that old shepherd; and together ye chanted a hymn giving thanks for the mercies of the day, and imploring the renewal of them for the morrow. Then did the music of your sweet voice, as it flowed upon the old man's ears in its melting, silvery tones, possess a charm for his senses which taught him to rejoice and be grateful that, though the rest of his race was swept away, thou, Agnes, was left!
"When the winter came, and the trees were stripped of their verdure, the poor cottage had still its enjoyments; for though the cold was intense without, yet there were warm hearts within; and the cheerful fire of an evening, when the labors of the day were passed, seemed to make gay and joyous companionship.
"But suddenly you disappeared; and the old man found himself deserted. You left him, too, in the midst of winter—at a time when his age and infirmities demanded additional attentions. For two or three days he sped wearily about, seeking you everywhere in the neighboring district of the Black Forest. His aching limbs were dragged up rude heights, that he might plunge his glances down into the hollow chasms; but still not a trace of Agnes! He roved along the precipices overlooking the rustling streams, and searched—diligently searched the mazes of the dark wood; but still not a trace of Agnes! At length the painful conviction broke upon him that he was deserted—abandoned; and he would sooner have found thee a mangled and disfigured corpse in the forest than have adopted that belief. Nay—weep not now; it is all past; and if I recapitulate these incidents, it is but to convince thee how wretched the old man was, and how great is the extenuation for the course which he was so soon persuaded to adopt."
"Then, who art thou that knowest all this?" exclaimed Agnes, casting looks of alarm upon her companion.
"Thou shalt soon learn who I am," was the reply.
Agnes still gazed upon him in mingled terror and wonder; for his words had gone to her heart, and she remembered how he had embraced her when she first encountered him in the church. His manners, too, were so mild, so kind, so paternal toward her; and yet he seemed but a few years older than herself.
"You have gazed upon the portrait of the old man," he continued, "as he appeared on that memorable evening which sealed his fate!"
Agnes started wildly.
"Yes, sealed his fate, but spared him his life!" said the unknown, emphatically. "As he is represented in that picture, so was he sitting mournfully over the sorry fire, for the morrow's renewal of which there was no wood! At that hour a man appeared—appeared in the midst of the dreadful storm which burst over the Black Forest. This man's countenance is now known to thee; it is perpetuated in the other portrait to which I directed thine attention."
"There is something of a wild and fearful interest in the aspect of that man," said Agnes, casting a shuddering glance behind her, and trembling lest the canvas had burst into life, and the countenance whose lineaments were depicted thereon was peering over her shoulder.
"Yes, and there was much of wild and fearful interest in his history," was the reply; "but of that I cannot speak—no, I dare not. Suffice it to say that he was a being possessed of superhuman powers, and that he proffered his services to the wretched—the abandoned—the deserted Wagner. He proposed to endow him with a new existence—to restore him to youth and manly beauty—to make him rich—to embellish his mind with wondrous attainments—to enable him to cast off the wrinkles of age——"
"Holy Virgin! now I comprehend it all!" shrieked Agnes, throwing herself at the feet of her companion: "and you—you——"
"I am Fernand Wagner!" he exclaimed, folding her in his embrace.
"And can you pardon me, can you forgive my deep—deep ingratitude?" cried Agnes.
"Let us forgive each other!" said Wagner. "You can now understand the meaning of the inscription beneath my portrait. 'His last day thus' signifies that it was the last day on which I wore that aged, decrepit, and sinking form."
"But wherefore do you say, 'Let us forgive each other?'" demanded Agnes, scarcely knowing whether to rejoice or weep at the marvelous transformation of her grandsire.
"Did I not ere now inform thee that thou wast forgotten until accident threw thee in my way to-night?" exclaimed Fernand. "I have wandered about the earth and beheld all the scenes which are represented in those pictures—ay, and many others equally remarkable. For eighteen months I was the servant—and slave of him who conferred upon me this fatal boon——"
"At what price, then, have you purchased it?" asked Agnes, with a cold shudder.
"Seek not to learn my secret, girl!" cried Wagner, almost sternly; then, in a milder tone, he added, "By all you deem holy and sacred, I conjure you, Agnes, never again to question me on that head! I have told thee as much as it is necessary for thee to know——"
"One word—only one word!" exclaimed Agnes in an imploring voice. "Hast thou bartered thine immortal soul——"
"No—no!" responded Wagner, emphatically. "My fate is terrible indeed—but I am not beyond the pale of salvation. See! Agnes—I kiss the crucifix—the symbol of faith and hope!"
And, as he uttered these words, he pressed to his lips an ivory crucifix of exquisite workmanship, which he took from the table.
"The Virgin be thanked that my fearful suspicion should prove unfounded!" ejaculated Agnes.
"Yes—I am not altogether lost," answered Wagner. "But he—the unhappy man who made me what I am——And yet I dare not say more," he added, suddenly checking himself. "For one year and a half did I follow him as his servitor—profiting by his knowledge—gaining varied information from his experience—passing with the rapidity of thought from clime to clime—surveying scenes of ineffable bliss, and studying all the varieties of misery that fall to the lot of human nature. When he—my master—passed away——"
"On the 1st of August, 1517," observed Agnes, quoting from the inscription beneath the portrait of the individual alluded to.
"Yes; when he passed away," continued Wagner, "I continued my wanderings alone until the commencement of last year, when I settled myself in Florence. The mansion to which I have brought you is mine. It is in a somewhat secluded spot on the banks of the Arno, and is surrounded by gardens. My household consists of but few retainers; and they are elderly persons—docile and obedient. The moment that I entered this abode, I set to work to paint those portraits to which I have directed your attention—likewise these pictures," he added, glancing around, "and in which I have represented scenes that my own eyes have witnessed. Here, henceforth, Agnes, shalt thou dwell; and let the past be forgotten. But there are three conditions which I must impose upon thee."
"Name them," said Agnes; "I promise obedience beforehand."
"The first," returned Fernand, "is that you henceforth look upon me as your brother, and call me such when we are alone together or in the presence of strangers. The second is that you never seek to remove the black cloth which covers yon place——"
Agnes glanced toward the object alluded to and shuddered—as if the veil concealed some new mystery.
"And the third condition is that you revive not on any future occasion the subject of our present conversation, nor even question me in respect to those secrets which it may suit me to retain within my own breast."
Agnes promised obedience, and, embracing Wagner, said, "Heaven has been merciful to me, in my present affliction, in that it has given me a brother!"
"Thou speakest of thine afflictions, Agnes!" exclaimed Wagner; "this is the night of revelations and mutual confidences—and this night once passed, we will never again allude to the present topics, unless events should render their revival necessary. It now remains for thee to narrate to me all that has befallen thee since the winter of 1516."
Agnes hastened to comply with Fernand's request, and commenced her history in the following manner: