Wagner the Wehr-wolf/Chapter XXXV
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CHAPTER XXXV: WAGNER AND THE TEMPTER—PHANTASMAGORIA.
While Stephano was bearing away the Lady Nisida in the manner described in the preceding chapter, Fernand Wagner was pacing his solitary cell, conjecturing what would be the result of the morrow's trial.
Nisida had visited him a second time on the preceding evening—disguised, as on the former occasion, in male attire; and she had implored him, in the language of the deaf and dumb, but far more eloquently with her speaking eyes and the expression of her beauteous countenance, to allow measures to be that night adopted to effect his immediate escape. But he had resolutely persisted in his original determination to undergo his trial: for by pursuing this course, he stood the chance of an acquittal; and he knew on the other hand that if he were sentenced to die, the decree of the human tribunal could not be carried into execution. How his escape from that fate (should death be indeed ordained) was beyond his power of comprehension; but that he possessed a superhuman protector he knew full well.
Without revealing to Nisida his motives for meeting the criminal judges, he refused to yield to her silently but eloquently pleaded prayer that he would escape should gold induce the jailers to throw open the door of his cell: but he conveyed to her the assurance that the deep interest she manifested in his behalf only bound him the more sincerely and devotedly to her.
During eight or nine days of his imprisonment, he had reflected deeply upon the murder of Agnes. He naturally associated that black deed with the mystery of the strange lady who had so alarmed Agnes on several occasions; and he had of course been struck by the likeness of his much loved Nisida to her whom his dead granddaughter had so minutely described to him. But, if ever suspicion pointed toward Nisida as the murderess of Agnes, he closed his eyes upon the bare idea—he hurled it from him; and he rather fell back upon the unsatisfactory belief that the entire case was wrapped in a profound mystery than entertain a thought so injurious to her whom he loved so tenderly.
We said that Nisida had visited him on Saturday night. She had determined to essay her powers of mute persuasion once more ere she finally arranged with the bandit for his rescue. But that arrangement was not to take place; for on the Sabbath evening she was carried away, in the manner already described. And it was now, also, on that Sabbath evening that Wagner was pacing his dungeon—pondering on the probable result of his trial, and yet never ceasing to think of Nisida. His memory re-traveled all the windings, and wanderings, and ways which his feet had trodden during a long, long life, and paused to dwell upon that far back hour when he loved the maiden who became the wife of his first period of youth—for he was now in a second period of youth; and he felt that he did not love her so devotedly—so tenderly—so passionately as he loved Nisida now. Suddenly, as he paced his dungeon and pondered on the past as well as on the present, the lamp flickered; and, before he could replenish it with oil, the wick died in its socket. He had the means of procuring another light; but he cared not to avail himself thereof, and he was about to lay aside his vesture, preparatory to seeking his humble pallet, when he was struck by the appearance of a dim and misty luster which seemed to emanate from the wall facing the door. He was not alarmed; he had seen and passed through too much in this world to be readily terrified:—but he stood gazing, with intense curiosity and profound astonishment, upon that phenomenon for which his imagination suggested no natural cause.
Gradually the luster became more powerful; but in the midst of it there appeared a dark cloud, which by degrees assumed the appearance of a human form; and in a few minutes Wagner beheld a tall, strange-looking figure standing before him.
But assuredly that was no mortal being; for, apart from the mysterious mode in which he had introduced himself into the dungeon, there was on his countenance so withering—bitter—scornful—sardonic a smile, that never did human face wear so sinister an expression. And yet this being wore a human shape, and was attired in the habiliments of that age;—the long doublet, the tight hose, the trunk breeches, the short cloak, and the laced collar: but his slouched hat, instead of having a large and gracefully waving plume, was decorated with but a single feather.
Fernand stood with fascinated gaze fixed upon the being whose eyes seemed to glare with subdued lightnings, like those of the basilisk. There was something awful in that form—something wildly and menacingly sinister in the sardonic smile that curled his lips as if with ineffable contempt, and with the consciousness of his own power!
"Wagner!" he said, at length breaking silence, and speaking in a deep sonorous voice, which reverberated even in that narrow dungeon like the solemn tone of the organ echoing amidst cloistral roofs: "Wagner, knowest thou who the being is that now addresseth thee?"
"I can conjecture," answered Fernand, boldly. "Thou art the Power of Darkness."
"So men call me," returned the demon, with a scornful laugh, "Yes—I am he whose delight it is to spread desolation over a fertile and beautiful earth—he, whose eternal enmity against man is the fruitful source of so much evil! But of all the disciples who have ever yet aided me in my hostile designs on the human race, none was so serviceable as Faust—that Count of Aurana, whose portrait thou hast so well delineated, and which now graces the wall of thy late dwelling."
"Would that I had never known him!" ejaculated Wagner fervently.
"On the contrary," resumed the demon; "thou shouldst be thankful that in the wild wanderings of his latter years he stopped at thy humble cottage in the Black Forest of Germany. Important to thee were the results of that visit—and still more important may they become!"
"Explain thyself, fiend!" said Wagner, nothing dismayed.
"Thou wast tottering with age—hovering on the brink of the tomb—suspended to a thread which the finger of a child might have snapped," continued the demon; "and in one short hour thou wast restored to youth, vigor, and beauty."
"And by how dreadful a penalty was that renovated existence purchased!" exclaimed Wagner.
"Hast thou not been taught by experience that no human happiness can be complete?—that worldly felicity must ever contain within itself some element of misery and distress?" demanded the fiend. "Reflect—and be just! Thou art once more young—and thy tenure of life will last until that age at which thou wouldst have perished, had no superhuman power intervened to grant thee a new lease of existence! Nor is a long life the only boon conferred upon thee hitherto. Boundless wealth is ever at thy command; the floor of this dungeon would be strewed with gold, and jewels, and precious stones, at thy bidding—as thou well knowest! Moreover, thou wast ignorant—illiterate—uninformed: now all the sources of knowledge—all the springs of learning—all the fountains of science and art, are at thy disposal, and with whose waters thou canst slake the thirst of thine intellect. Endowed with a youthfulness and a vigor of form that will yield not to the weight of years—that will defy the pressure of time—and that no malady can impair,—possessed of wealth having no limit,—and enriched with a mind so stored with knowledge that the greatest sage is as a child in comparison with thee,—how darest thou complain or repent of the compact which has given to thee all these, though associated with the destiny of a Wehr-Wolf?"
"It is of this fatal—this terrible destiny that I complain and that I repent," answered Wagner. "Still do I admit that the advantages which I have obtained by embracing that destiny are great."
"And may be far greater!" added the demon, impressively. "Handsome, intelligent, and rich—all that thou dost require is power!"
"Yes," exclaimed Wagner, eagerly—and now manifesting, for the first time since the appearance of the fiend in his cell, any particular emotion: "I have need of power!—power to avert those evils into which my sad destiny may plunge me,—power to dominate instead of being subject to the opinions of mankind,—power to prove my complete innocence of the dreadful crime now imputed to me,—power to maintain an untarnished reputation, to which I cling most lovingly,—power, too," he added in a slower and also a more subdued tone—"power to restore the lost faculties of hearing and speech to her whom I love."
Strange was the smile that curled the demon's lips as Wagner breathed these last words.
"You require power—power almost without limit," said the fiend, after a few moments' pause; "and that aim is within thy reach. Handsome, intelligent, and rich," he continued, dwelling on each word with marked emphasis, "how happy mayst thou be when possessed of the power to render available, in all their glorious extent, the gifts—the qualities wherewith thou art already endowed! When in the service of Faust—during those eighteen months which expired at the hour of sunset on the thirtieth of July, 1517——"
"Alas!" cried Wagner, his countenance expressing emotions of indescribable horror; "remind me not of that man's fate! Oh! never—never can I forget the mental agony—the profound and soul-felt anguish which he experienced, and which he strove not to conceal, when at the gate of Vienna on that evening he bade me farewell—forever."
"But thou wast happy—supremely happy in his service," said the demon; "and thou didst enjoy a fair opportunity of appreciating the value of the power which he possessed. By his super-human aid wast thou transported from clime to clime—as rapidly as thought is transfused by the interchange of lovers' glances; and in that varied, bustling, busied life wast thou supremely happy. The people of Europe spoke of that western world, the discovery of which recently rewarded the daring venture of great navigators; and you were desirous to behold that new continent. Your master repeated the wish; and by my invisible agency, ye stood in a few moments in the presence of the red men of North America. Again—you accompanied your master to the eternal ice of the northern pole, and from the doorway of the Esquimaux hut he beheld the wondrous play of the boreal lights. On a third occasion, and in obedience to your wish, you stood with your master in the Island of Ceylon, where the first scene that presented itself to your view was an occurrence which, though terrible, is not uncommon in that reptile-infested clime. Afterward, my power—although its active agency was but partially known to you—transported you and the count your master—now my victim—to the fantastic and interesting scenes of China—then to the court of the wife-slaying tyrant of England, and subsequently to the most sacred privacy of the imperial palace at Constantinople. How varied have been thy travels!—how rapid thy movements. And that the scenes which thine eyes did thus contemplate made a profound impression upon thy mind is proved by the pictures now hanging to the walls of thy late dwelling."
"But wherefore this recapitulation of everything I know so well already?" asked Wagner.
"To remind thee of the advantages of that power which Faust, thy master, possessed, and which ceased to be available to thee when the term of his compact with myself arrived. Yes," continued the demon emphatically, "the powers which he possessed may be possessed by thee—and thou mayst, with a single word, at once and forever shake off the trammels of thy present doom—the doom of a Wehr-Wolf!"
"Oh! to shake off those trammels, were indeed a boon to be desired!" exclaimed Wagner.
"And to possess the power to gratify thy slightest whim," resumed the demon, "to possess the power to transport thyself at will to any clime, however distant—to be able to defy the machinations of men and the combination of adverse circumstances, such as have plunged thee into this dungeon—to be able, likewise, to say to thy beloved Nisida, 'Receive back the faculties which thou hast lost——'"
And again was the smile sinister and strange that played upon the lips of the demon. But Wagner noticed it not. His imagination was excited by the subtle discourse to which he had lent so ready an ear.
"And hast thou the power," he cried impatiently, "to render me thus powerful?"
"I have," answered the demon.
"But the terms—the conditions—the compact!" exclaimed Wagner, in feverish haste, though with foreboding apprehension.
"<sc>Thine immortal soul</sc>!" responded the fiend, in a low but sonorous and horrifying whisper.
"No—no!" shrieked Wagner, covering his face with his hands. "Avaunt, Satan, I defy thee! Ten thousand, thousand times preferable is the doom of the Wehr-Wolf, appalling even though that be!" With folded arms and scornful countenance, did the demon stand gazing upon Wagner, by the light of the supernatural luster which filled the cell.
"Dost thou doubt my power?" he demanded, in a slow and imperious tone. "If so, put it to the test, unbelieving mortal that thou art! But remember—shouldst thou require evidence of that power which I propose to make available to thee, it must not be to give thee liberty, nor aught that may enhance thy interest."
"And any other evidence thou wilt give me?" asked Wagner, a sudden idea striking him.
"Yes," answered the demon, who doubtless divined his thoughts, for again did a scornful smile play upon his lips. "I will convince thee, by any manifestation thou mayst demand, subject to the condition ere now named, I will convince thee that I am he whose power was placed at the disposal of thy late master, Faust, and by means of which thou wast transported, along with him, to every climate on the earth."
"I will name my wish," said Wagner.
"Speak!" cried the fiend.
"Show me the Lady Nisida as she now is." exclaimed Fernand, his heart beating with the hope of beholding her whom he loved so devotedly; for, with all the jealousy of a lover, was he anxious to convince himself that she was thinking of him.
"Ah! 'tis the same as with Faust and his Theresa," murmured the demon to himself; then aloud he said, "Rather ask me to show you the Lady Nisida as she will appear four days hence."
"Be it so!" cried Wagner, moved by the mysterious warning those words appeared to convey.
The demon extended his arm, and chanted in deep, sonorous tones, the following incantation:
"Ye powers of darkness who obey Eternally my potent sway, List to thy sovereign master's call! Transparent make this dungeon wall; And now annihilated be The space 'twixt Florence and the sea! Let the bright luster of the morn In golden glory steep Leghorn;
Show where the dancing wavelets sport Round the gay vessels in the port, Those ships whose gilded lanterns gleam In the warm sun's refulgent beam; And whose broad pennants kiss the gale, Woo'd also by the spreading sail!— Now let this mortal's vision mark Amidst that scene the corsair's bark, Clearing the port with swan-like pride; Transparent make the black hull's side, And show the curtain'd cabin, where Of earth's fair daughters the most fair— Sits like an image of despair, Mortal, behold! thy Nisida is there!"
The strange phantasmagorian spectacle rapidly developed it-self in obedience to the commands of the demon.
First, it appeared to Wagner that the supernatural luster which pervaded the dungeon, gathered like a curtain on one side and occupied the place of the wall. This wondrous light became transparent, like a thin golden mist; and then the distant city of Leghorn appeared—producing an effect similar to that of the dissolving views now familiar to every one. The morning sun shone brightly on the fair scene; and a forest of masts stood out in bold relief against the western sky. The gilded lanterns on the poops of the vessels—the flags and streamers of various hues—the white sails of those ships that were preparing for sea—and the richly painted pinnaces that were shooting along in the channel between the larger craft rendered the scene surpassingly gay and beautiful.
But amidst the shipping, Wagner's eyes were suddenly attracted by a large galley, with three masts—looking most rakish with its snow-white sail, its tapering spars, its large red streamer, and its low, long, and gracefully sweeping hull, which was painted jet black. On its deck were six pieces of brass ordnance; and stands of fire-arms were ranged round the lower parts of the masts.
Altogether, the appearance of that vessel was as suspicious and menacing as it was gallant and graceful; and from the incantation of the demon, Wagner gleaned its real nature.
And now—as that corsair-ship moved slowly out of the port of Leghorn—its black side suddenly seemed to open, or at least to become transparent; and the interior of a handsomely fitted up cabin was revealed.
Fernand's heart had already sunk within him through foreboding apprehension; but now an ejaculation of mingled rage and grief burst from his lips, when, on a sofa in that cabin, he beheld his loved—his dearly loved Nisida, seated "like an image of despair," motionless and still, as if all the energies of her haughty soul, all the powers of her strong mind had been suddenly paralyzed by the weight of misfortune!
Wagner stood gazing—unable to utter another word beyond that one ejaculation of mingled rage and grief—gazing—gazing, himself a kindred image of despair, upon this mysterious and unaccountable scene.
But gradually the interior of the cabin grew more and more indistinct, until it was again completely shut in by the black side of the harbor—her dark hull disappearing by degrees, and melting away in the distance. Wagner dashed his open palm against his forehead, exclaiming, "Oh! Nisida—Nisida! who hath torn thee from me!"
And he threw himself upon a seat, where he remained absorbed in a painful reverie, with his face buried in his hands—totally unmindful of the presence of the demon.
Two or three minutes passed—during which Fernand was deliberating within himself whether he were the sport of a wild and fanciful vision, or whether he had actually received a warning of the fate which hung over Nisida.
"Art thou satisfied with the proof of my power?" demanded a deep voice, sounding ominously upon his ear.
He raised his hand with a spasmodic start; before him stood the demon with folded arms and scornful expression of countenance—and though the phantasmagorian scene had disappeared, the supernatural luster still pervaded the dungeon.
"Fiend!" cried Wagner, impatiently; "thou hast mocked—thou hast deceived me!"
"Thus do mortals ever speak, even when I give them a glimpse of their own eventual fate, through the medium of painful dreams and hideous nightmares." said the demon, sternly.
"But who has dared—or rather, who will dare—for that vision is a prospective warning of a deed to happen four days hence—who, then. I ask, will dare to carry off the Lady Nisida—my own loved and loving Nisida?" demanded Wagner, with increased impatience.
"Stephano Verrina, the formidable captain of the Florentine banditti, has this night carried away thy lady-love, Wagner," replied the demon. "Thou hast yet time to save her; though the steed that bears her to Leghorn be fleet and strong, I can provide thee with a fleeter and a stronger. Nay, more—become mine, consent to serve me as Faust served me, and within an hour, within a minute if thou wilt, Nisida shall be restored to thee, she shall be released from the hands of her captors, thou shalt be free, and thy head shall be pillowed on her bosom, in whatever part of the earth it may suit thee thus to be united to her. Reflect, Wagner—I offer thee a great boon—nay, many great boons: the annihilation of those trammels which bind thee to the destiny of a wehr-wolf, power unlimited for the rest of thy days, and the immediate possession of that Nisida whom thou lovest so fondly, and who is so beautiful, so exceedingly beautiful."
Desperate was the struggle that took place in the breast of Wagner. On one side was all he coveted on earth; on the other was the loss of the immortal soul. Here the possession of Nisida—there her forced abduction by a brigand; here his earthly happiness might be secured at the expense of his eternal welfare—there his eternal welfare must be renounced if he decided in favor of his earthly happiness. What was he to do? Nisida was weighing in the balance against his immortal soul: to have Nisida he must renounce his God!
Oh! it was maddening—maddening, this bewilderment!
"An hour—an hour to reflect!" he cried, almost frantically.
"Not a quarter of an hour," returned the demon, "Nisida will be lost to you—haste—decide!"
"Leave me—leave me for five minutes only!"
"No—no, not for a minute. Decide—decide!"
Wagner threw up his arms in the writhings of his ineffable anguish:—his right hand came in contact with a crucifix that hung against the wall; and he mechanically clutched it—not with any motive prepense—but wildly, unwittingly.
Terrific was the expression of rage which suddenly distorted the countenance of the demon: the lightnings of ineffable fury seemed to flash from his eyes and play upon his contracting brow;—and yet a strong spasmodic shuddering at the same time convulsed his awful form; for as Wagner clung to the crucifix to prevent himself from falling at the feet of the malignant fiend, the symbol of Christianity was dragged by his weight from the wall—and, as Wagner reeled sideways, the cross which he retained with instinctive tenacity in his grasp, waved across the demon's face.
Then, with a terrific howl of mingled rage and fear, the fiend fell back and disappeared through the earth—as if a second time hurled down in headlong flight before the thunderbolts of heaven. Wagner fell upon his knees and prayed fervently.