Wagner the Wehr-wolf/Chapter XXIX
It was Monday night, and within an hour of the time appointed by Stephano for the meditated invasion of the Riverola Palace.
Francisco had already retired to rest, for he was wearied with vain and ineffectual wandering about the city and its environs in search of some trace that might lead him to discover his lost Flora.
Indeed, the few days which had now elapsed since her mysterious disappearance had been passed by the young count in making every possible inquiry and adopting every means which imagination could suggest to obtain a clew to her fate. But all in vain. And never for a moment did he suspect that she might be an inmate of the Carmelite Convent, for, although he was aware of the terrible power wielded by that institution, yet feeling convinced that Flora herself was incapable of any indiscretion, it never struck him that the wicked machinations of another might place her in the custody of the dreaded Carmelite abbess.
We said that Francisco had retired to rest somewhat early on the above-mentioned night, and the domestics, yielding to the influence of a soporific which Antonio, the faithless valet, had infused into the wine which it was his province to deal out to them under the superintendence of the head butler, had also withdrawn to their respective chambers.
Nisida had dismissed her maids shortly before eleven, but she did not seek her couch. There was an expression of wild determination, of firm resolve, in her dark black eyes and her compressed lips which denoted the courage of her dauntless but impetuous mind. For of that mind the large piercing eyes seemed an exact transcript.
Terrible was she in the decision of her masculine—oh! even more than masculine—character, for beneath that glorious beauty with which she was arrayed beat a heart that scarcely knew compunction, or that, at all events, would hesitate at nothing calculated to advance her interests or her projects.
Though devoured with ardent passions, and of a temperament naturally voluptuous and sensual even to an extreme, she had hitherto remained chaste, as much for want of opportunity to assuage the cravings of her mad desires, as through a sentiment of pride—but since she had loved Wagner—the first and only man whom she had ever loved—her warm imagination had excited those desires to such a degree, that she felt capable of making any sacrifice, save one—to secure him to herself.
And that one sacrifice which she could not make was not her honor: no, of that she now thought but little in the whirlwind of her impetuous, ardent, heated imagination. But, madly as she loved Fernand Wagner—that is, loved him after the fashion of her own strange and sensual heart—she loved her brother still more; and this attachment was at least a pure, a holy sentiment, and a gloriously redeeming trait in the character of this wondrous woman, of a mind so darkly terrible.
And for her brother's sake it was that there was one sacrifice—a sacrifice of a tremendous, but painfully persevered-in project—which she would not make even to her love for Fernand Wagner! No, rather would she renounce him forever—rather would she perish, consumed by the raging fires of her own ungratified passions, than sacrifice one tittle of what she deemed to be her brother's welfare to any selfish feeling of her own!
Wherefore do we dwell on this subject now?
Because such was the resolution which Nisida vowed within her own heart, as she stood alone in her chamber, and fixed her eyes upon a document, bearing the ducal seal that lay upon the table.
That document contained the decision of his highness in respect to the memorial which she had privately forwarded to him in accordance with the advice given her a few days previously by Dr. Duras. The duke lost no time in vouchsafing a reply; and this reply was unfavorable to the hopes of Nisida. His highness refused to interfere with the provisions of the late count's will; and this decision was represented to be final.
Therefore it was that Nisida solemnly vowed within herself to persevere in a course so long ago adopted, and ever faithfully, steadily, sternly adhered to since the day of its commencement; and, as if to confirm herself in the strength of this resolution, she turned her eyes with adoring, worshiping look toward the portrait of her maternal parent, those eloquent, speaking orbs seeming almost to proclaim the words which her lips could not utter, "Yes, mother—sainted mother! thou shalt be obeyed!"
Then she hastily secured the ducal missive in an iron box where she was in the habit of keeping her own private papers, and which opened with a secret spring.
But did she, then, mean to renounce her love for Wagner? Did she contemplate the terrible alternative of abandoning him in his misfortune, in his dungeon?
No—far from that! She would save him if she could; she would secure him to herself, if such were possible; but she would not sacrifice to these objects the one grand scheme of her life, that scheme which had formed her character as we now find it, and which made her stand alone, as it were, among the millions of her own sex!
And it was to put into execution the plan which she had devised to effect Wagner's freedom, that she was now arming herself with all the resolution, all the magnanimity, all the firmness with which her masculine soul was capable.
The dial on the mantel in the chamber marked the hour of eleven; and Nisida commenced her preparations.
Having divested herself of her upper garment, she put on a thin, but strong, and admirably formed corselet, made so as to fit the precise contour of her ample bust, and completely to cover her bosom. Then she assumed a black velvet robe, which reached up to her throat, and entirely concealed the armor beneath. Her long flexible dagger was next thrust carefully into a sheath formed by the wide border of her stomacher; and her preparations for defense in case of peril were completed.
She now took from a cupboard six small bags, which were nevertheless heavy, for they were filled with gold; and these she placed on a table. Then seating herself at that table, she wrote a few lines on several slips of paper, and these she thrust into her bosom.
Having accomplished her arrangements thus far, the Lady Nisida took a lamp in her hand, and quitted her apartments.
Ascending a staircase leading to the upper story, she paused at one of several doors in a long corridor, and slowly and noiselessly drew the bolt, by which that door might be fastened outside.
This was Antonio's room; and thus, by Nisida's precaution, was he made a prisoner.
She then retraced her way to the floor below, and proceeded to the apartment in which her father breathed his last, and where the mysterious closet was situated.
No one until now had entered that room since the day of the late count's funeral; and its appearance was gloomy and mournful in the extreme; not only on account of the dark, heavy hangings of the bed, and the drawn curtains of the windows, but also from the effect of the ideas associated with that chamber.
And as Nisida glanced toward the closet-door, even she trembled, and her countenance became ashy pale; for not only did she shudder at the thought of the horrors which that closet contained, but through her brain also flashed the dreadful history revealed to her by the manuscript—of which, however, only a few lines have as yet been communicated to the reader. But she knew all—she had read the whole; and well—oh! well might she shudder and turn pale.
For terrible indeed must have been the revelations of a manuscript whereof the few lines above alluded to gave promise of such appalling interest,—those lines which ran thus: "Merciless scalpel hacked and hewed away at the still almost palpitating flesh of the murdered man, in whose breast the dagger remained deeply buried,—a ferocious joy—a savage, hyena-like triumph now——"
But we are to some extent digressing from the thread of our narrative.
Nisida placed the lamp in the chimney, in such a way that its light was concealed so as to leave all the immediate vicinity of the door in a state of complete darkness; and she seated herself in a chair close by, to await the expected events of midnight.
Slowly, slowly passed the intervening twenty minutes; and the lady had ample leisure to reflect upon all the incidents of her life—ay, and to shudder too at one which had dyed her hand with blood—the blood of Agnes!
Yet, though she shuddered thus, she did not look upon it with that unbounded, tremendous horror that would be experienced by a lady similarly placed in these times; for jealousy was a feeling that, by the tacit convention of a vitiated society, was an excuse for even murder; and, moreover, she possessed the true Italian heart, which deemed the death of a rival in love a justifiable act of vengeance.
But she felt some compunction, because she had learnt, when it was too late, that Agnes was not the mistress of Fernand Wagner; and she was convinced that in affirming this much he had uttered the strictest truth.
Thus was she rather grieved at the fatal mistake than appalled by the deed itself; and she shuddered because she knew that her fearful impetuosity of disposition had led to the unnecessary deed which had entailed so dark a suspicion and so much peril upon her lover.
She was in the midst of these and other reflections connected with the various salient features of her life, when the door of the room was slowly and cautiously opened, and a man entered, bearing a lantern in his hand.
Two others followed close behind him.
"Shut the door, Lomellino," said the foremost.
"But are you sure that this is the room?" asked the man thus addressed.
"Certain," was the reply. "Antonio described its situation so clearly——"
"Then why did he not join us?"
"How do I know? But that need not prevent us——"
Nisida at this moment raised the lamp from the fire-place, and the light flashing at that end of the room, produced a sudden start and ejaculation on the part of the banditti.
"Perdition!" cried Stephano, "what can this mean?"
Nisida advanced toward the robbers in a manner so calm, so dignified, so imperious, and so totally undaunted by their presence, that they were for a moment paralyzed and rooted to the spot as if they were confronted by a specter.
But at the next instant Stephano uttered an exclamation of mingled surprise and joy, adding, "By my patron saint! Lomellino, this is the very lady of whom I spoke to you the other evening!"
"What, the one who did the business so well in——"
"Yes, yes," cried Stephano hastily; "you know what I mean—in Wagner's garden! But——"
Nisida had in the meantime drawn from her bosom one of the slips of paper before alluded to; and, handing it to the bandit-chief, she made a hasty and imperious motion for him to read it.
He obeyed her with the mechanical submission produced by astonishment and curiosity, mingled with admiration for that bold and daring woman, whom he already loved and resolved to win: but his surprise was increased a hundred-fold, when he perused these lines:—"I am the Lady Nisida of Riverola. Your design is known to me; it matters not how. Rumor has doubtless told you that I am deaf and dumb; hence this mode of communicating with you. You have been deluded by an idle knave—for there is no treasure in the closet yonder. Even if there had been, I should have removed it the moment your intended predatory visit was made known to me. But you can serve me; and I will reward you well for your present disappointment."
"What does the paper say?" demanded Lomellino and Piero, the captain's two companions, almost in the same breath.
"It says just this much," returned Stephano—and he read the writing aloud.
"The Lady Nisida!" ejaculated Lomellino. "Then it is she who used her dagger so well in Wagner's garden."
"Peace, silly fool!" cried Stephano. "You have now let out the secret to Piero. True, 'tis no matter, as he is as stanch to me as you are; and therefore he may as well know that this lady here was the murderess of the young female in Wagner's garden: for I saw her do the deed when I was concealed among the evergreens there. She is as much in our power as we are in hers, and we will let her know it if she means any treachery."
"But how could she have discovered that we meant to come here to-night, and what our object was?" asked Piero.
"Antonio must have peached, that's clear!" returned Stephano; "and therefore he did not join us, as agreed, in the hall down-stairs. But no matter. It seems there's gold to be earned in this lady's service: and even if there wasn't I have such an affection for her I would cut the throat of the duke or the cardinal archbishop himself merely to give her pleasure."
Then turning toward Nisida, whose courage seemed partially to have abandoned her, for her countenance was ghastly pale, and her hand trembled so that it could scarcely hold the lamp, Stephano made a low bow, as much as to imply that he was entirely at her service.
Nisida made a powerful effort to subdue the emotions that were agitating her: and, advancing toward the door, she made a sign for the banditti to follow her.
She led them to her own suit of apartments, and to the innermost room—her own bed-chamber—having carefully secured the several doors through which they passed.
The banditti stood round the table, their eyes wandering from the six tempting-looking money-bags to the countenance of Nisida, and then back to the little sacks; but Stephano studied more the countenance than the other objects of attraction; for Nisida's face once more expressed firm resolution and her haughty, imperious, determined aspect, combined with her extraordinary beauty, fired the robber-chieftain's heart.
Taking from her bosom another slip of paper, she passed it to Stephano, who read its contents aloud for the benefit of his companions—"The trial of Fernand Wagner will take place this day week. If he be acquitted, your services will not be required. If he be condemned, are ye valiant and daring enough (sufficiently numerous ye are, being upward of fifty in all) to rescue him on his way back from the judgment-hall to the prison of the ducal palace? The six bags of gold now upon the table are yours, as an earnest of reward, if ye assent. Double that amount shall be yours if ye succeed."
"It is a generous proposition," observed Lomellino.
"But a dangerous one," said Piero.
"Nevertheless, it shall be accepted, if only for her fair self's sake," exclaimed Stephano, completely dazzled by Nisida's surpassing majesty of loveliness; then, with a low bow, he intimated his readiness to undertake the enterprise.
Nisida handed him a third paper, on which the following lines were written:—"Take the gold with you, as a proof of the confidence I place in you. See that you deceive me not; for I have the power to avenge as well as to reward. On Sunday evening next let one of you meet me, at ten o'clock, near the principal entrance of the Cathedral of St. Mary, and I will deliver the written instructions of the mode of proceeding which circumstances may render necessary."
"I shall keep the appointment myself," said Stephano to his companions; and another obsequious but somewhat coarse bow denoted full compliance with all that Nisida had required through the medium of the slips of paper.
She made a sign for the banditti to take the bags of gold from the table, an intimation which Piero and Lomellino did not hesitate to obey.
The private staircase leading into the garden then afforded them the means of an unobserved departure; and Nisida felt rejoiced at the success of her midnight interview with the chiefs of the Florentine banditti.