Wagner the Wehr-wolf/Chapter XXII

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Wagner the Wehr-wolf by George W. M. Reynolds
CHAPTER XXII: THE COUNTESS OF ARESTINO.

WE must now introduce our readers to a splendid apartment in the Arestino Palace.

This room was tastefully decorated and elegantly furnished. The tapestry was of pale blue; and the ottomans, ranged round the walls in Oriental style, were of rich crimson satin embroidered with gold. In the middle stood a table covered with ornaments and rich trinkets lately arrived from Paris—for France already began to exercise the influence of its superior civilization and refinement over the south of Europe.

The ceiling of that room was a master-piece of the united arts of sculpture and painting. First, the hand of the sculptor had carved it into numerous medallions, on which the pencil of the painter had then delineated the most remarkable scenes in early Florentine history. Round the sides, or cornices, were beautifully sculptured in marble the heads of the principal ancestors of the Count of Arestino.

It was within half an hour of midnight, and the beautiful Giulia Arestino was sitting restlessly upon an ottoman, now holding her breath to listen if a step were approaching the private door behind the tapestry—then glancing anxiously toward a clepsydra on the mantel.

"What can detain him thus? will he deceive me?" she murmured to herself. "Oh! how foolish—worse than foolish—mad—to confide in the promise of a professed bandit! The jewels are worth a thousand times the reward I have pledged myself to give him! wretched being that I am!"

And with her fair hand she drew back the dark masses of her hair that had fallen too much over her polished brow: and on this polished brow she pressed that fair hand, for her head ached with the intensity of mingled suspense and alarm.

Her position was indeed a dangerous one as the reader is already aware. In the infatuation of her strong, unconquerable, but not less guilty love for the handsome spendthrift Orsini, she had pledged her diamonds to Isaachar ben Solomon for an enormous sum of money, every ducat of which had passed without an hour's delay into the possession of the young marquis.

Those diamonds were the bridal gift of her fond and attached, but, alas! deceived husband, who, being many years older than herself, studied constantly how to afford pleasure to the wife of whom he was so proud. He was himself an extraordinary judge of the nature, purity and value of precious stones; and, being immensely rich, he had collected a perfect museum of curiosities in that particular department. In fact, it was his amateur study, or, as we should say in these times, his peculiar hobby; and hence the impossibility of imposing on him by the substitution of a hired or a false set of diamonds for those which he had presented to his wife.

It was, therefore, absolutely necessary to get these diamonds back from Isaachar, by fair means or foul. The fair means were to redeem them by the payment of the loan advanced upon them; but the sum was so large that the countess dared not make such a demand upon her husband's purse, because the extravagances of her lover had lately compelled her to apply so very, very frequently to the count for a replenishment of her funds. The foul means were therefore resorted to—an old woman, who had been the nurse of the countess in her infancy, and to whom in her distress she applied for advice, having procured for the patrician lady the services of Stephano Verrina, the bandit-captain.

It is not to be wondered at, then, if the Countess of Arestino were a prey to the most poignant anxiety, as each successive quarter of an hour passed without bringing either Stephano or any tidings from him. Even if she feigned illness, so as to escape the ceremony of the following day, relief would only be temporary, for the moment she should recover, or affect to recover, her husband would again require her to accompany him to the receptions of the prince.

Giulia's anguish had risen to that point at which such feelings become intolerable, and suggest the most desperate remedies—suicide,—when a low knock behind the pale-blue arras suddenly imparted hope to her soul.

Hastily raising the tapestry on that side whence the sound had emanated, she drew back the bolt of a little door communicating with a private staircase (usually found in all Italian mansions at that period), and the robber chief entered the room.

"Have you succeeded?" was Giulia's rapid question.

"Your ladyship's commission has been executed," replied Stephano, who, we should observe, had laid aside his black mask ere he appeared in the presence of the countess.

"Ah! now I seem to live—breathe again!" cried Giulia, a tremendous weight suddenly removed from her mind.

Stephano produced the jewel-case from beneath his cloak; and as the countess hastily took it—nay, almost snatched it from him, he endeavored to imprint a kiss upon her fair hand.

Deep was the crimson glow which suffused her countenance—her neck—even all that was revealed of her bosom, as she drew haughtily back, and with a sublime patrician air of offended pride.

"I thank you—thank you from the bottom of my soul, Signor Verrina," she said in another moment; for she felt how completely circumstances had placed her in the power of the bandit-chief, and how useless it was to offend him. "Here is your reward," and she presented him a heavy purse of gold.

"Nay, keep the jingling metal, lady," said Stephano; "I stand in no need of it—at least for the present. The reward I crave is of a different nature, and will even cost you less than you proffer me."

"What other recompense can I give you?" demanded Giulia, painfully alarmed.

"A few lines written by thy fair hand to my dictation," answered Stephano.

Giulia cast upon him a look of profound surprise.

"Here, lady, take my tablets, for I see that your own are not at hand," cried the chief. "Delay not—it grows late, and we may be interrupted."

"We may indeed," murmured Giulia, darting a rapid look at the water-clock. "It is within a few minutes of midnight."

She might have added—"And at midnight I expect a brief visit from Manuel d'Orsini, ere the return of my husband from a banquet at a friend's villa." But of course this was her secret; and anxious to rid herself of the company of Stephano, she took the tablets with trembling hands and prepared to write.

"I, Giulia, Countess of Arestino," began the brigand, dictating to her, "confess myself to owe Stephano Verrina a deep debt of gratitude for his kindness in recovering my diamonds from the possession of the Jew Isaachar, to whom they were pledged for a sum which I could not pay."

"But wherefore this document?" exclaimed the countess, looking up in a searching manner at the robber-chief; for she had seated herself at the table to write, and he was leaning over the back of her chair.

"'Tis my way at times," he answered, carelessly, "when I perform some service for a noble lord or a great lady, to solicit an acknowledgment of this kind in preference to gold." Then, sinking his voice to a low whisper, he added with an air of deep meaning, "Who knows but that this document may some day save my head?"

Giulia uttered a faint shriek, for she comprehended in a moment how cruelly she might sooner or later be compromised through that document, and how entirely she was placing herself in the bandit's power.

But Stephano's hand clutched the tablets whereon the countess had, almost mechanically, written to his subtle dictation; and he said, coolly: " Fear not, lady—I must be reduced to a desperate strait indeed when my safety shall depend on the use I can make of this fair handwriting."

Giulia felt partially relieved by this assurance: and it was with ill-concealed delight that she acknowledged the ceremonial bow with which the bandit-chief intimated his readiness to depart.

But at that moment three low and distinct knocks were heard at the little door behind the arras.

Giulia's countenance became suffused with blushes: then, instantly recovering her presence of mind, she said in a rapid, earnest tone, "He who is coming knows nothing concerning the jewels, and will be surprised to find a stranger with me.

Perhaps he may even recognize you—perhaps he knows you by sight——"

"What would you have me do, lady?" demanded Stephano. "Speak, and I obey you."

"Conceal yourself—here—and I will soon release you."

She raised the tapestry on the side opposite to that by which Stephano had entered the room; and the robber-chief hid himself in the wide interval between the hangings in the wall.

All this had scarcely occupied a minute; and Giulia now hastened to open the private door, which instantly gave admittance to the young, handsome, and dissipated Marquis of Orsini.