Wagner the Wehr-wolf/Chapter XXXII
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CHAPTER XXXII: THE MYSTERY OF THE CHAIR — THE CATASTROPHE.
The reader will recollect that when Flora Francatelli was released from the chair at the bottom of the pit or well, Sister Alba had led her along a narrow, dark passage communicating with the chamber of penitence.
In a small dome-like cavity, hollowed out of the roof of this passage, hung a large bell; and in a cell opening from the side of the passage immediately beneath the dome, dwelt an old nun, who, for some dreadful misdeed committed in her youth, had voluntarily consigned herself to the convent of the Carmelites, and, having passed through the ordeal of the chamber of penitence, had accepted the office of sextoness in that department of the establishment.
It was her duty to keep the chamber of penitence clean, maintain tapers constantly burning before the altar, supply also the cells of the penitents themselves with lights, and toll the bell whenever occasion required. She it was who had visited Flora's cell the first night of her arrival at the convent, to renew the taper that burnt before her crucifix, and to exchange the maiden's attire for the conventual garb.
This old nun it was, then, who suddenly tolled the bell, at the moment when Piero and Stephano were menacing the abbess and Sister Alba with their vengeance, and when the Marquis of Orsini was bearing away Flora to the robbers' hold, that she might have the companionship of Giulia.
The way in which the old nun rang the bell was such that the inmates of the convent would perceive it to be an alarm; and moreover, so sudden was its startling clang, that Stephano and Piero abandoned their hold upon the abbess and Sister Alba, and retreated a few paces, uncertain how to act; hence the exclamation of the superior of the convent, "We are saved! we are saved!"
But little did that stern, imperious woman know of the desperate characters of those with whom she had now to deal. Ashamed of their momentary hesitation, Stephano and Piero rushed on the abbess and Sister Alba, and dragged them, in spite of their deafening screams, into that fatal cell, where they threw them headlong over the lifeless corpse of their victim.
Scarcely, however, had they closed the door on the wretched woman, when the Marquis of Orsini returned; and, too well divining what had passed, he exclaimed, "In the name of Heaven, captain!—by all that is holy, Piero! I implore you not to consummate this dreadful crime!"
"My lord," said Stephano, "ere we entered on this expedition to-night, you bound yourself by an oath to obey me as the leader. I command you then not to interfere with our proceedings; but, on the contrary, go and ascertain whence comes the clanging of that infernal bell."
The marquis turned aside, sick at heart at the deed of vengeance which was in progress, but unable to remonstrate further, in consequence of the oath which he had taken. It was, however, a relief for him to move away from the vicinity of the living tomb, whence emanated the shrieks of the abbess and the nun; and guided by the sound of the bell, he rushed, with whirling brain and desperate resolution, into the passage leading from the chamber of penitence.
In a few moments the clanging of the bell ceased, for the marquis had discovered the old sextoness in her cell, and compelled her to desist.
All the events yet recorded in the preceding and the present chapter had occurred with a rapidity which the reader can scarcely comprehend, because their complicated nature and variety have forced us to enter into minute details requiring a considerable time to peruse. Those events which we are now about to describe also succeeded each other with marvelous speed, and occupied an incredibly short space of time, although our narrative must necessarily appear prolix in comparison.
Extraordinary was the excitement that now prevailed in all the subterranean department of the convent. The victims of a stern but just vengeance were sending forth appalling screams from the fatal dungeon; and some of the penitents in their cells, which were still guarded by the sentinels, were also giving vent to their affright by means of piercing shrieks, though others remained tranquil in hope of the promised release.
Stephano had entirely recovered his presence of mind, and now issued his orders with wondrous rapidity.
Pointing to the door by which the abbess and Sister Alba had entered the chamber of penitence, he said, "Lomellino, that is the way to the upper part of the convent—there can be no doubt of it! Take Piero and half a dozen of the men, and hasten up that staircase. Secure the front gate of the building, and possess yourself of the plate and treasure. But no violence, remember—no violence to the nuns."
Lomellino, Piero, and six of the banditti hastened to obey these commands, while Stephano remained below to act as circumstances might require. He went the round of the five cells belonging to the penitents, and enjoined those who were yielding to their terrors to hold their peace, as they had nothing to fear, but much to gain—at least, he observed, if they valued their freedom; and to those who were tranquil he repeated the assurances of speedy liberation already given by his men.
For thirty years the old woman had not seen a being of the male sex; and she was terrified by the appearance of an armed man in that place which she had so long deemed sacred against the possibility of such an intrusion.
"Fear nothing," said the marquis, "no one will harm you. But what will be the effect of that alarm which you have rung?"
"Merely to warn those above that something unusual is taking place below," answered the old woman.
"And by what means can access be obtained to this subterrane?" demanded the marquis.
"There is a staircase leading from the chamber of penitence up into the hall of the convent——"
"Of the existence of that staircase I am aware," interrupted the marquis, who had seen the abbess and Sister Alba enter the chamber of penitence a few minutes previously, as stated in the preceding chapter; "but are there no means of ingress or egress?"
"Yes; follow me," said the sextoness.
Taking up a lamp from the table in her cell, she led the way to the further end of the passage, threw open a door, and thrusting forth the light beyond the opening, exclaimed in a tone denoting a reminiscence the bitterness of which long years had scarcely mitigated—"That is the road whereby I came hither; and many, many others have traveled the same downward path!"
The marquis seized the lamp, and beheld, a few paces from from him, a wicker chair, to which two ropes, hanging perpendicularly down, were fastened. He raised his eyes, following the direction of the ropes, but as there was now no other light in the pit than the feeble, flickering one shed by the lamp which he held, his glances could not penetrate the dense obscurity that prevailed above.
"What means this chair, with its two ropes? and for what purpose is this narrow, square compartment, the mouth of which is shrouded in darkness?" inquired Manuel.
"This is the method of descent to this region, for all those who come to this convent either as willing penitents, or who are sent hither against their inclination," returned the sextoness. "And though I came a willing penitent, yet never, never while the breath shall animate this poor, weak form, and reason shall remain, can I forget the mental agony, the intense anguish, of that fearful descent. Ah! it is a cruel engine of torture, although it tears not the flesh, nor racks the limbs, nor dislocates the joints. And even though thirty long years have passed since I made that dread journey," she continued, glancing upwards—"thirty years since I last saw the light of day—and though I have since learned and seen how much of the horror of that descent is produced by the delusion of mechanical ingenuity—yet still I shudder, and my blood runs cold within me."
"To me, old woman," said the marquis, "your words are an enigma. But you have excited my curiosity: speak quickly, and explain yourself, for I may not linger here."
"Behold this basket," returned the nun, without further preface—"these ropes connect it with complicated machinery in some chamber adjoining the well itself. In that basket those who are doomed to pass the ordeal of penitence are lowered from an apartment above. This apartment is really but a short distance overhead: but the art of the mechanist has so contrived the four wooden walls of the well, that when the descent of the basket ceases, those walls rise slowly upward, and thus descent appears to be continued. Then, when the affrighted female stretches forth her hands wildly, she encounters the ascending walls, and she believes that she is still going down—down—down! Oh! signor, it is most horrible, but a fitting prelude to the terrors of that place!"
And she pointed back toward the chamber of penitence. The marquis was about to make some observation in reply to the strange disclosures of the old sextoness, when suddenly the din of a tumult, occurring, as it seemed, in that department of the convent far overhead, reached his ears, commencing with the rushing of many feet—the ejaculations of hostile bands—and then continuing with the clash of arms, and the shrieks of affrighted women—until, in a few moments, those ominous sounds were broken in upon and dominated by the wild, terrific cry of "Fire! fire!"
"Oh! wherefore have I tarried here so long?" exclaimed the marquis; and he was about to return to the chamber of penitence, when a sudden blaze of light appeared at the mouth of the pit, thirty yards above. Looking hastily up, he beheld the flames rolling over the entrance of that well at the bottom of which he stood; and, in another minute, the forked fire burst from the sides, forcing for itself a way through the wooden walls; and the old dry timber and planks yielded to the devouring element as if they had been steeped in oil.
But while the marquis was still standing at the bottom looking up the pit, the clash of weapons, the tread of many steps, and the vociferations of combatants appeared to grow nearer; then in another moment he became aware that the hostile sounds came down the well, and proceeded from the room far above, where the fire as well as the war was raging.
Manuel had again turned around to hurry back to the chamber of penitence, when a loud cry of despair came vibrating down, and in another instant the heavy form of a man was precipitated into the well. The wicker chair fortunately broke his fall, and he rose with a dreadful imprecation.
"Piero!" cried the marquis.
"Ah! my lord, is it you?" said the bandit faintly, as he staggered back and fell heavily on the floor. "This is a bad business—the sbirri were alarmed, and broke in—Lomellino has got away, but the rest who were with me are slain——"
"And you are wounded, Piero," ejaculated the marquis, rushing forward to assist the bandit, from whose breast he now perceived the blood to be flowing.
"Never mind me, my lord!" said Piero faintly. "Haste and tell Verrina that—our men fought well—it was not their fault—nor mine—the nuns must have given—the—alarm——"
His voice had grown fainter as he spoke: and, while the marquis was endeavoring to raise him, he fell back again, and expired with the name of Carlotta upon his tongue.
The combat had ceased above, but the flames had increased in the well to such an extent that the marquis was compelled to beat a rapid retreat toward the chamber of penitence, whither the old sextoness had already fled. At the entrance of that apartment he met Stephano, who, alarmed by the clashing of arms and the cries of "fire" that had reached his ears, and which seemed to come from the direction of the passage, was hurrying thither to learn the cause. In a few words the marquis informed him of all that had occurred.
"Back to the cavern, my friends!" cried Stephano, in a loud tone. "If the sbirri discover us there, we will resist them to the death."
And followed by the marquis and two or three of his men, the captain passed through the aperture made from the cell recently occupied by Flora and the countess, into the treasure-chamber.
But scarcely had those few individuals effected their retreat in this manner, when a tremendous crash was heard, cries and shrieks of horror and dismay burst from those who had not as yet passed through the opening, and then the roof of the chamber of penitence and all the adjacent cells gave way with a din as of a thousand cannon, burying beneath their weight the sextoness, the five penitents, the inmates of Carlotta's cell, and seven of the banditti.
Those who were in the treasure chamber felt the ground shake beneath their feet; the sides—although hollowed from the solid rock—appeared to vibrate and groan, and the aperture leading into the subterrane of the convent was closed up by the massive masonry that had fallen in.
Flora and Giulia threw themselves into each other's arms, weeping bitterly; for they saw how dearly their freedom had been purchased, and they trembled for the result.
But the Marquis of Orsini, although greatly shocked at the terrible sacrifice of human life which had occurred, exerted himself to console and reassure the two terrified ladies.