Wagner the Wehr-wolf/Chapter XXIV
In fury of heart and agony of mind, rushed the old lord into that apartment. Oh! how had he even been able to restrain himself so long, while listening at the door? It was that the conversation between his wife and the marquis had, as the reader is aware, been carried on in so low a tone—especially on the side of the countess, that he had not been able to gather sufficient to place beyond all doubt the guilt of that fair creature; and even in the midst of his Italian ire, he had clung to the hope that she might have been imprudent—but not culpable, as yet!
Oh! in this case, how gladly would that old lord have forgiven the past, on condition of complete reformation for the future! He would have removed his young wife afar from the scene of temptation—to a distant estate which he possessed; and there by gentle remonstrances and redoubled attention, he would have sought to bind her to him by the links of gratitude and respect, if not by those of love.
But this dream—so honorable to that old man's heart—was not to be realized; for scarcely was it conceived, when the discourse of the youthful pair turned upon the diamonds—those diamonds which he had given her on the bridal day!
Giulia spoke clearly and plainly enough then—in spite of the presence of the bandit in that chamber; for she was about to explain to her lover how willingly she would comply with his suggestion to raise upon the jewels the sum he again required—a readiness on her part which might be corroborated by the fact that she had already once had recourse to this expedient, and for him—but she dared not adopt the same course again, as her husband might detect the absence of the valuables ere she could obtain funds to redeem them.
When she acknowledged to her lover that "these diamonds were pledged to the Jew Isaachar ben Solomon, to raise the sum with which his last debt was paid," it flashed to the old nobleman's mind that his wife had exhibited some little confusion when he had spoken to her a day or two previously concerning her jewels: and now it was clear that they had been used as the means to supply the extravagances of an unprincipled spendthrift. How could he any longer cling to the hope that Giulia was imprudent only, and not guilty? Must she not be guilty, to have made so large a sacrifice and run so great a risk for the sake of the Marquis of Orsini?
It was under the influence of these excited feelings that the Count of Arestino burst into the room.
Fortunately—so far as outward appearance went—there was nothing more to confirm the old nobleman's suspicions; the youthful pair were not locked in each other's arms; their hands were not even joined. Manuel was seated on the sofa, and Giulia was standing at a short distance from him.
But conscious guilt elicited a faint scream from her lips; and the boiling blood, after rushing to her countenance, seemed to ebb away as rapidly again—leaving her beauteous face as pale as marble; while she clung to the mantel-piece for support.
"I am glad that your lordship is returned," said the marquis, rising from his seat and advancing toward the count in a manner so insolently cool and apparently self-possessed, that Giulia was not only astonished but felt her courage suddenly revive: "I was determined—however uncourteous the intrusion and unseemly the hour—to await your lordship's coming; and as her ladyship assured me that you would not tarry late——"
"My lord marquis," interrupted the old nobleman, who was himself so taken by surprise at this unembarrassed mode of address, that he began to fancy his ears must have deceived him and his suspicions beguiled him; "on what business could you possibly have needed my services at this late hour?"
"I will explain myself," returned Orsini, who was a perfect adept in the art of dissimulation, and who, never losing his presence of mind, embraced at a glance the whole danger of Giulia's position and his own, and the probability that their conversation might have been overheard; "I was explaining to her ladyship the temporary embarrassment under which I lay, and from which I hoped that your friendship might probably release me——"
"And her ladyship spoke of her diamonds—did she not?" demanded the count, addressing himself to the marquis, but fixing a keen and penetrating glance on Giulia.
"Her ladyship was remonstrating with me on my extravagancies," hastily replied the marquis, "and was repeating to me—I must say in a manner too impressive to be agreeable—the words which my own sister had used to me a few days ago, when explaining, as her motive for refusing me the succor which I needed, that she actually had been compelled to pledge her diamonds——"
"Ah! they were your sister's diamonds that were pledged to Isaachar the Jew?" said the count, half ironically and half in doubt; for he was fairly bewildered by the matchless impudence of the young marquis.
"Yes, my lord—my dear sister, who, alas! is ruining herself to supply me with the means of maintaining my rank. And as my sister and her ladyship, the countess, are on the most friendly terms, as you are well aware, it is not surprising if she should have communicated the secret of the diamonds to her ladyship, and also beg her ladyship to remonstrate with me——"
"Well, my lord," interrupted the count impatiently, "your own private affairs have no particular interest for me—at this moment; and as for any business on which you may wish to speak to me, I shall be pleased if you postpone it till to-morrow."
"Your lordship's wishes are commands with me," said Manuel, with a polite salutation. And having made a low bow to Giulia, he quitted the room—not by the private door, be it well understood, but by that which had ere now admitted the Count of Arestino.
The moment the door had closed behind the Marquis of Orsini, the count approached his wife, and said in a cold, severe manner: "Your ladyship receives visitors at a late hour."
He glanced as he spoke toward the dial of the clepsydra, and Giulia followed his look in the same direction; it was half an hour after midnight.
"The marquis explained to your lordship, or partially so, the motive of his importunate visit," said Giulia, endeavoring to appear calm and collected.
"The marquis is an unworthy—reckless—unprincipled young man," exclaimed the count, fixing a stern, searching gaze upon Giulia's countenance, as if with the iron of his words he would probe the depths of her soul. "He is a confirmed gamester—overwhelmed with debts—and has tarnished, by his profligacy, the proud name that he bears. Even the friendship which existed for many, many years between his deceased father and myself, shall no longer induce me to receive at this house a young man whose reputation is all but tainted, even in a city of dissipation and debauchery, such as, alas! the once glorious Florence has become! For his immorality is not confined to gaming and wanton extravagance," continued the count, his glance becoming more keen, as his words fell like drops of molten lead upon the heart of Giulia; "but his numerous intrigues amongst women—his perfidy to those confiding and deceived fair ones——"
"Surely, my lord," said the countess, vainly endeavoring to subdue the writhings of torture which this language excited,—"surely the Marquis d'Orsini is wronged by the breath of scandal?"
"No, Giulia, he is an unprincipled spendthrift," returned the count, who never once took his eyes off his wife's countenance while he was speaking:—"an unprincipled spendthrift," he added emphatically,—"a man lost to all sense of honor—a ruined gamester—a heartless seducer—a shame, a blot, a stigma upon the aristocracy of Florence;—and now that you are acquainted with his real character, you will recognize the prudence of the step which I shall take to-morrow—that is, to inform him that henceforth the Count and Countess of Arestino must decline to receive him again at their villa. What think you, Giulia?"
"Your lordship is the master to command, and it is my duty to obey," answered the countess; but her voice was hoarse and thick, the acutest anguish was rending her soul, and its intensity almost choked her utterance.
"She is guilty!" thought the count within himself; and to subdue an abrupt explosion of his rage, until he had put the last and most certain test to his lady's faith, he walked twice up and down the room; then, feeling that he had recovered his powers of self-control, he said, "To-morrow, Giulia, is the reception day of his highness the duke, and I hope thou hast made suitable preparations to accompany me in the manner becoming the wife of the Count of Arestino."
"Can your lordship suppose for an instant that I should appear in the ducal presence otherwise than is meet and fitting for her who has the honor to bear your name?" said Giulia, partially recovering her presence of mind, as the conversation appeared to have taken a turn no longer painful to her feelings—for, oh! cannot the reader conceive the anguish, the mortal anguish, she had ere now endured when her husband was heaping ashes on the reputation of her lover!
"I do not suppose that your ladyship will neglect the preparations due to your rank and to that name which you esteem it an honor to bear, and which no living being should dishonor with impunity!"
Giulia quailed—writhed beneath the searching glance which now literally glared upon her.
"Nevertheless," continued the count, "I was fearful you might have forgotten that to-morrow is the reception day. And while I think of it, permit me to examine your diamonds for a few minutes—to convince myself that the settings are in good order, as you know," he added, with a strange, unearthly kind of laugh, "that I am skilled in the jewelers' craft."
The old man paused; but he thought within himself, "Now what subterfuge can she invent if my suspicions be really true, and if my ears did not ere now deceive me?"
How profound then was his astonishment, when Giulia, with the calm and tranquil demeanor which innocence usually wears, but with the least, least curl of the upper lip, as if in haughty triumph, leisurely and deliberately drew the jewel-case from beneath the cushion of the ottoman whereon she was seated, and, handing it to him, said, "Your lordship perceives that I had not forgotten the reception which his highness holds to-morrow, since I ere now brought my diamonds hither to select those which it is my intention to wear."
The count could have pressed her hand as he took the case in his own—he could have fallen at her feet and demanded pardon for the suspicions which he had entertained, for it now seemed certain beyond all possibility of doubt, that the explanation volunteered by the marquis was a true one—yes, he could have humbled himself in her presence—but his Italian pride intervened, and he proceeded to examine the diamonds with no other view than to gain time to reflect how he should account for the abrupt manner in which he had entered the room ere now, and for the chilling behavior he had maintained toward his wife.
On her side Giulia, relieved of a fearful weight of apprehension, was only anxious for this scene to have a speedy termination, that she might release the robber-captain from his imprisonment behind the tapestry.
Three or four minutes of profound silence now ensued.
But suddenly the count started, and uttered an ejaculation of mingled rage and surprise.
Giulia's blood ran cold to her very heart's core, she scarcely knew why.
The suspense was not, however, long—though most painful; for, dashing the jewel-case with its contents upon the table, the old nobleman approached her with quivering lips and a countenance ghastly white, exclaiming, "Vile woman! thinkest thou to impose upon me thus? The diamonds I gave thee are gone—the stones set in their place are counterfeit!"
Giulia gazed up toward her husband's countenance for a few moments in a manner expressive of blank despair; then falling on her knees before him, clasping her hands together, she screamed frantically, "Pardon! pardon!"
"Ah! then it is all indeed too true!" murmured the unhappy nobleman, staggering as if with a blow: but, recovering his balance, he stamped his foot resolutely upon the floor, and drawing himself up to his full height, while he half averted his eyes from his kneeling wife, he exclaimed: "Lost—guilty—abandoned woman, how canst thou implore pardon at my hands? For pardon is mercy, and what mercy hast thou shown to me? Giulia, I am descended from an old and mighty race, and tradition affords no room to believe that any one who has borne the name of Arestino has dishonored it—until now! Oh! fool—dotard—idiot that I was to think that a young girl could love an aged man like me! For old age is a weed, which, when twined round the plant of love, becomes like the deadly nightshade, and robs the rose-bush of its health! Alas! alas! I thought that in my declining years, I should have one to cheer me, one who might respect me, if she could not love me—one who would manifest some gratitude for the proud position I have given her—and the boundless wealth that it would have been my joy to leave her. And now that hope is gone—withered—crushed—blighted, woman, by thy perfidy! Oh! wherefore did you accompany the old man to the altar, if only to deceive him? Wherefore did you consent to become his bride, if but to plunge him into the depth of misery? You weep! Ah! weep on; and all those tears, be they even so scalding as to make seams on that too fair face, cannot wipe away the stain which is now affixed to the haughty name of Arestino! Weep on, Giulia; but thy tears cannot move me now!"
And the old lord's tone changed suddenly from the deep, touching pathos of tremulousness to a stern, fixed, cold severity, which stifled the germs of hope that had taken birth in the heart of his guilty wife.
"Mercy! mercy!" she shrieked, endeavoring to grasp his hand.
"No!" thundered the Count of Arestino; and he rang violently a silver bell which stood upon the table.
"Holy Virgin, what will become of me? For what fate am I destined?" implored Giulia, frantically.
The old nobleman approached her, gazed on her sternly for nearly a minute, then bending down said, in a hollow, sepulchral tone:
"Thou art doomed to eternal seclusion in the convent of the Carmelites!"
He then turned hastily round and advanced to the door, to which steps were already distinctly heard drawing near in the corridor.
For an instant Giulia seemed paralyzed by the dreadful announcement that had been made to her; but suddenly a ray of hope flashed on her mind, and darting toward that part of the tapestry behind which the robber was concealed, she said, in a low and rapid tone:
"Thou hast heard the fate that awaits me. I charge thee to seek Manuel d'Orsini, and let him know all."
"Fear not, lady; you shall be saved!" answered Stephano, in a scarcely audible but yet profoundly emphatic whisper.
She had only just time to turn away when the count's faithful valet, accompanied by three nuns, wearing their black veils over their faces, entered the room.
Half an hour afterward the Carmelite Convent received another inmate.