Wagner the Wehr-wolf/Chapter XL
The reader may perhaps be surprised that Fernand Wagner should have been venturous enough to trust himself to the possibilities of a protracted voyage, since every month his form must undergo a frightful change—a destiny which he naturally endeavored to shroud in the profoundest secrecy.
But it must be recollected that the Mediterranean is dotted with numerous islands; and he knew that, however changeable or adverse the winds might be, it would always prove an easy matter to make such arrangements as to enable him to gain some port a few days previously to the close of the month. Moreover, so strong, so intense was his love for Nisida, that, even without the prospect afforded by this calculation, he would have dared all perils, incurred all risks, exposed himself to all hostile chances, rather than have remained inactive while he believed her to be in the power of a desperate, ruthless bandit. For, oh! ever present to his mind was the image of the lost fair one; by day, when the sun lighted up with smiles the dancing waves over which his vessel bounded merrily, merrily; and by night, when the moon shone like a silver lamp amidst the curtains of heaven's pavilion.
His was not the love which knows only passionate impulse: it was a constant, unvarying tender sentiment—far, far more pure, and therefore more permanent, than the ardent and burning love which Nisida felt for him. His was not the love which possession would satiate and enjoyment cool down: it was a feeling that had gained a soft yet irresistible empire over his heart.
And that love of his was nurtured and sustained by the most generous thoughts. He pictured to himself the happiness he should experience in becoming the constant companion of one whose loss of hearing and of speech cut her off as it were from that communion with the world which is so grateful to her sex: he imagined to himself, with all the fond idolatry of sincere affection, how melodiously soft, how tremulously clear would be her voice, were it restored to her, and were it first used to articulate the delicious language of love. And then he thought how enchanting, how fascinating, how fraught with witching charms, would be the conversation of a being endowed with so glorious an intellect, were she able to enjoy the faculty of speech. Thus did her very imperfections constitute a ravishing theme for his meditation; and the more he indulged in dreams like these, the more resolute did he become never to rest until he had discovered and rescued her.
Seven days had elapsed since the ship sailed from Leghorn; and Sicily had already been passed by, when the heavens grew overclouded, and everything portended a storm. The captain, whom Wagner had placed in charge of his vessel, adopted all the precautions necessary to encounter the approaching tempest; and soon after the sun went down on the seventh night a hurricane suddenly swept the surface of the Mediterranean. The ship bent to the fury of the gust—her very yards were deep in the water. But when the rage of that dreadful squall subsided, the gallant bark righted again, and bounded triumphantly over the foaming waves.
A night profoundly dark set in; but the white crests of the billows were visible through that dense obscurity: while the tempest rapidly increased in violence, and all the dread voices of the storm, the thunder in the heavens, the roaring of the sea, and the gushing sounds of the gale, proclaimed the fierceness of the elemental war. The wind blew not with that steadiness which the skill of the sailor and the capacity of the noble ship were competent to meet, but in long and frequent gusts of intermittent fury. Now rose the gallant bark on the waves, as if towering toward the starless sky, in the utter blackness of which the masts were lost; then it sank down into the abyss, the foam of the boiling billows glistening far above, on all sides, amidst the obscurity. What strange and appalling noises are heard on board a ship laboring in a storm—the cracking of timber, the creaking of elastic planks, the rattling of the cordage, the flapping of fragments of sails, the failing of spars, the rolling of casks got loose, and at times a tremendous crash throughout the vessel, as if the whole framework were giving way and the very sides collapsing!
And amidst those various noises and the dread sounds of the storm, the voices of the sailors were heard—not in prayer nor subdued by terror—but echoing the orders issued by the captain, who did not despair of guiding—nay, fighting, as it were, the ship through the tumultuous billows and against the terrific blast.
Again a tremendous hurricane swept over the deep: it passed, but not a spar remained to the dismantled bark. The tapering masts, the long graceful yards were gone, the cordage having snapped at every point where its support was needed—snapped by the fury of the tempest, as if wantonly cut by a sharp knife. The boats—the crew's last alternative of hope—had likewise disappeared. The ship was now completely at the mercy of the wild raging of the winds and the fury of the troubled waters; it no longer obeyed its helm, and there were twenty men separated, all save one, from death only by a few planks and a few nails! The sea now broke so frequently over the vessel that the pumps could scarcely keep her afloat; and at length, while it was yet dark, though verging toward the dawn, the sailors abandoned their task of working at those pumps. Vainly did the captain endeavor to exercise his authority—vainly did Wagner hold out menaces and promises by turns; death seemed imminent, and yet those men, who felt that they were hovering on the verge of destruction, flew madly to the wine-stores.
Then commenced a scene of the wildest disorder amidst those desperate men; and even the captain himself, perceiving that they could laugh, and shout, and sing, in the delirium of intoxication, rushed from the side of Wagner and joined the rest. It was dreadful to hear the obscene jest, the ribald song, and the reckless execration, sent forth from the cabin, as if in answer to the awful voices in which Nature was then speaking to the world. But scarcely had a faint gleam appeared in the orient sky—not quite a gleam, but a mitigation of the intenseness of the night—when a tremendous wave—a colossus amongst giants—broke over the ill-fated ship, while a terrible crash of timber was for a moment heard in unison with the appalling din of the whelming billows. Wagner was the only soul on deck at that instant: but the fury of the waters tore him away from the bulwark to which he had been clinging, and he became insensible.
When he awoke from the stupor into which he had been plunged, it was still dusk, and the roar of the ocean sounded in his ears with deafening din.
But he was on land, though where he knew not. Rising from the sand on which he had been cast, he beheld the billows breaking on the shore at the distance of only a few paces; and he retreated further from their reach. Then he sat down, with his face toward the east, anxiously awaiting the appearance of the morn that he might ascertain the nature and the aspect of the land on which he had been cast. By degrees the glimmering which had already subdued the blackness of night into the less profound obscurity of duskiness, grew stronger; and a yellow luster, as of a far-distant conflagration, seemed to struggle against a thick fog. Then a faint roseate streak tinged the eastern horizon, growing gradually deeper in hue, and spreading higher and wider—the harbinger of sunrise; while, simultaneously, the features of the land on which Wagner was thrown began to develop themselves like specters stealing out of complete security; till at length the orient luster was caught successively by a thousand lofty pinnacles of rock; and finally the majestic orb itself appeared, lighting up a series of verdant plains, delicious groves, glittering lakes, pellucid streams, as well as the still turbulent ocean and the far-off mountains which had first peeped from amidst the darkness.
Fair and delightful was the scene that thus developed itself to the eyes of Wagner; but as his glance swept the country which rose amphitheatrically from the shore not a vestige of the presence of man could be beheld. No smoke curled from amidst the groves, no church spire peeped from amongst the trees; nor had the wilderness of nature been disturbed by artificial culture.
He turned toward the ocean; there was not a trace of his vessel to be seen. But further along the sand lay a dark object, which he approached, with a shudder, for he divined what it was.
Nor was he mistaken; it was the swollen and livid corpse of one of the sailors of his lost ship.
Wagner's first impulse was to turn away in disgust, but a better feeling almost immediately animated him: and, hastening to the nearest grove, he broke off a large bough, with which he hollowed a grave in the sand. He deposited the corpse in the hole, throwing back the sand which he had displaced, and thus completed his Christian task.
During his visit to the grove, he had observed with delight that the trees were laden with fruit; and he now returned thither to refresh himself by means of the banquet thus bountifully supplied by nature. Having terminated his repast, he walked further inland. The verdant slope stretched up before him, variegated with flowers, and glittering with morning dew. As he advanced, the development of all the features of that land—lakes and woods; hills undulating like the sea in sunset, after hours of tempest: rivulets and crystal streams, each with its own peculiar murmurs, but all of melody; groves teeming with the most luxurious fruit of the tropics, and valleys carpeted with the brightest green, varied with nature's own embroidery of flowers—the development of this scene was inexpressibly beautiful, far surpassing the finest efforts of creative fancy.
Wagner seated himself on a sunny bank, and fell into a profound meditation. At length, glancing rapidly around, he exclaimed aloud, as if in continuation of the chain of thoughts which had already occupied his mind, "Oh, if Nisida were here—here, in this delicious clime, to be my companion! What happiness—what joy! Never should I regret the world from which this isle—for an isle it must be—is separated! Never should I long to return to that communion with men from which we should be cut off! Here would the eyes of my Nisida cast forth rays of joy and gladness upon everything around; here would the sweetest transitions of sentiment and feeling take place!
Nisida would be the island queen; she should deck herself with these flowers, which her fair hands might weave into wildly fantastic arabesques! Oh! all would be happiness—a happiness so serene, that never would the love of mortals he more truly blessed! But, alas!" he added, as a dreadful thought broke rudely upon this delightful vision, "I should be compelled to reveal to her my secret—the appalling secret of my destiny: that when the period for transformation came round, she might place herself in safety——"
Wagner stopped abruptly, and rose hastily from his seat on the sunny bank. The remembrance of this dreadful fate had spoiled one of the most delicious waking dreams in which he had ever indulged; and, dashing his hands against his forehead, he rushed wildly toward the chain of mountains which intersected the island.
But suddenly he stopped short, for on the ground before him lay the doublet of a man—a doublet of the fashion then prevalent in Italy. He lifted it up, examined it, but found nothing in the pockets; then, throwing it on the ground, he stood contemplating it for some minutes.
Could it be possible that he was in some part of Italy? that the ship had been carried back to the European Continent during the tempest of the night? No; it was impossible that so lovely a tract of land would remain uninhabited, if known to men. The longer he reflected the more he became convinced that he was on some island hitherto unknown to navigators, and on which some other shipwrecked individual had probably been cast. Why the doublet should have been discarded he could well understand, as it was thick and heavy, and the heat of the sun was already intense, although it was not yet near the meridian.
Raising his eyes from the doublet which had occasioned these reflections, he happened to glance toward a knot of fruit trees at a little distance; and his attention was drawn to a large bough which hung down as if almost broken away from the main stem. He approached the little grove; and several circumstances now confirmed his suspicion that he was not the only tenant of the island at that moment. The bough had been forcibly torn down, and very recently, too; several of the fruits had been plucked off, the little sprigs to which they had originally hung still remaining and bearing evidence to the fact. But if additional proof were wanting of human presence there, it was afforded by the half-eaten fruits that were strewed about.
Wagner now searched for the traces of footsteps; but such marks were not likely to remain in the thick rich grass, which if trampled down, would rise fresh and elastic again with the invigorating dew of a single night. The grove, where Wagner observed the broken bough and the scattered fruits, was further from the shore than the spot where he had found the doublet; and he reasoned that the man, whoever he might be, had thrown away his garment, when overpowered by the intensity of the heat, and had then sought the shade and refreshment afforded by the grove. He therefore concluded that he had gone inland, most probably toward the mountains, whose rocky pinnacles, of every form, now shone with every hue in the glorious sunlight.
Overjoyed at the idea of finding a human being in a spot which he had at first deemed totally uninhabited, and filled with the hope that the stranger might be able to give him some information relative to the geographical position of the isle, and even perhaps aid him in forming a raft by which they might together escape from the oasis of the Mediterranean, Wagner proceeded toward the mountains. By degrees the wondrous beauty of the scene became wilder, more imposing, but less bewitching, and when he reached the acclivities of the hill, the groves of fruits and copses of myrtles and citrons, of vines and almond shrubs, were succeeded by woods of mighty trees.
Further on still the forests ceased and Fernand entered on a wild region of almost universal desolation, yet forming one of the sublimest spectacles that nature can afford. The sounds of torrents, as yet concealed from his view, and resembling the murmur of ocean's waves, inspired feelings of awe; and it was now for the first time since he entered on that his attention was drawn to the nature of the soil, which was hard and bituminous in appearance.
The truth almost immediately struck him: there was a volcano amongst those mountains up which he was ascending; and it was the lava which had produced that desolation, and which, cold and hardened, formed the soil whereon he walked. It was now past midday; and he seated himself once more to repose his limbs, wearied with the fatigues of the ascent and overcome by the heat that was there intolerable. At the distance of about two hundred yards on his right was a solitary tree, standing like a sign to mark the tomb of nature's vegetation. Upon this tree his eyes were fixed listlessly, and he was marveling within himself how that single scion of the forest could have been spared, when the burning lava, whenever the eruption might have taken place, had hurled down and reduced to cinders its verdant brethren.
Suddenly his attention was more earnestly riveted upon the dense and wide-spreading foliage of that tree; for the boughs were shaken in an extraordinary manner, and something appeared to be moving about amongst the canopy of leaves. In another minute a long, unmistakable, appalling object darted forth—a monstrous snake—suspending itself by the tail to one of the lower boughs, and disporting playfully with its hideous head toward the ground. Then, with a sudden coil, it drew itself back into the tree, the entire foliage of which was shaken with the horrible gambolings of the reptile.
Wagner remembered the frightful spectacle which he had beholden in Ceylon, and an awful shudder crept through his frame; for, although he knew that he bore a charmed life, yet he shrank with a loathing from the idea of having to battle with such a horrible serpent. Starting from the ground, he rushed—flew, rather than ran, higher up the acclivity, and speedily entered on a wild scene of rugged and barren rocks: but he cared not whither the windings of the natural path which he now pursued might lead him, since he had escaped from the view of the hideous boa-constrictor gamboling in the solitary tree.
Wearied with his wanderings, and sinking beneath the oppressive heat of the sun, Wagner was rejoiced to find a cavern in the side of a rock, where he might shelter and repose himself. He entered, and lay down upon the hard soil; the sounds of the torrents, which rolled still unseen amidst the chasms toward which he had approached full near, produced a lulling influence upon him, and in a few minutes his eyes were sealed in slumber. When he awoke he found himself in total darkness. He started up, collected his scattered ideas, and advanced to the mouth of the cavern.
The sun had set: but outside the cave an azure twilight prevailed, and the adjacent peaks of the mountains stood darkly out from the partially though faintly illuminated sky.
While Wagner was gazing long and intently upon the sublime grandeur of the scene, a strange phenomenon took place. First a small cloud appeared on the summit of an adjacent hill; then gradually this cloud became more dense and assumed a human shape. Oh! with what interest—what deep, enthusiastic interest, did Fernand contemplate the spectacle; for his well-stored mind at once suggested to him that he was now the witness of that wonderous optical delusion, called the mirage.
Some human being in the plain on the other side of that range of mountains was the subject of that sublime scene; might it not be the individual of whom he was in search, the owner of the doublet? But, ah! wherefore does Wagner start with surprise?
The shadow of that human being, as it gradually assumed greater density and a more defined shape—in a word, as it was now properly developed by the reflection of twilight—wore the form of a female! Were there, then, many inhabitants on the opposite side of the mountains? or was there only one female, she whose reflected image he now beheld? He knew not; but at all events the pleasure of human companionship seemed within his reach; the presence of the doublet had convinced him that there was another man upon the island, and now the mirage showed him the semblance of a woman!
Vast—colossal—like a dense, dark, shapely cloud, stood that reflected being in the sky; for several minutes it remained thus, and though Wagner could trace no particular outline of features, yet it seemed to him as if the female were standing in a pensive attitude. But as the twilight gradually subsided, or rather yielded to the increasing obscurity, the image was absorbed likewise in the growing gloom; until the dusky veil of night made the entire vault above of one deep, uniform, purple hue. Then Wagner once more returned to the cavern, with the resolution of crossing the range of hills on the ensuing morn.