George W. M. Reynolds

Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf

Published by Good Press, 2019
goodpress@okpublishing.info
EAN 4057664639516

Table of Contents


PART I.
PROLOGUE.
CHAPTER I. THE DEATH-BED—THE OATH—THE LAST INJUNCTIONS.
CHAPTER II. NISIDA—THE MYSTERIOUS CLOSET.
CHAPTER III. THE MANUSCRIPT—FLORA FRANCATELLI.
CHAPTER IV. THE FUNERAL—THE INTERRUPTION OF THE CEREMONY.
CHAPTER V. THE READING OF THE WILL.
CHAPTER VI. THE PICTURES—AGNES AND THE UNKNOWN—MYSTERY.
CHAPTER VII. REVELATIONS.
CHAPTER VIII. THE HISTORY OF AGNES.
CHAPTER IX. CONCLUSION OF THE HISTORY OF AGNES.
CHAPTER X. FRANCISCO, WAGNER AND NISIDA.
CHAPTER XI. NISIDA AND WAGNER—FRANCISCO AND FLORA—THE APPROACH OF SUNSET.
CHAPTER XII. THE WEHR-WOLF.
CHAPTER XIII. NISIDA’S EMOTIONS—THE DISGUISE—THE PLOT.
CHAPTER XIV. THE LAST MEETING OF AGNES AND THE STRANGER LADY.
CHAPTER XV. THE SBIRRI—THE ARREST.
CHAPTER XVI. NISIDA AND THE CARMELITE ABBESS.
CHAPTER XVII. WAGNER IN PRISON—A VISITOR.
CHAPTER XVIII. FLORA FRANCATELLI—THE THREE NUNS—THE CHAIR.
CHAPTER XIX. THE DESCENT—THE CHAMBER OF PENITENCE.
CHAPTER XX. FRANCISCO AND NISIDA—DR. DURAS AND THE LETTER.
CHAPTER XXI. THE SUBURB OF ALLA CROCE—THE JEW—THE ROBBER CHIEF’S LOVE.
CHAPTER XXII. THE COUNTESS OF ARESTINO.
CHAPTER XXIII. THE LOVE OF WOMAN—GIULIA AND HER LOVER.
CHAPTER XXIV. THE INJURED HUSBAND—THE GUILTY WIFE—AND THE INSOLENT LOVER.
CHAPTER XXV. THE MARQUIS OF ORSINI.
CHAPTER XXVI. A COMBAT—THE DESPISED AND PERSECUTED ISRAELITE.
CHAPTER XXVII. STEPHANO AND THE MARQUIS—THE STRONGHOLD OF THE BANDITTI.
CHAPTER XXVIII. A FEARFUL ACCUSATION.
CHAPTER XXIX. THE VISIT OF THE BANDITTI TO THE RIVEROLA PALACE.
CHAPTER XXX. FLORA’S CAPTIVITY—A COMPANION—THE LIVING TOMB.
CHAPTER XXXI. THE BANDITTI.
CHAPTER XXXII. THE MYSTERY OF THE CHAIR—THE CATASTROPHE.
CHAPTER XXXIII. LOMELLINO’S ESCAPE—STEPHANO’S INTENTIONS.
CHAPTER XXXIV. THE ABDUCTION.
CHAPTER XXXV. WAGNER AND THE TEMPTER—PHANTASMAGORIA.
CHAPTER XXXVI. THE TRIAL OF FERNAND WAGNER.
CHAPTER XXXVII. THE SHIPWRECK.
CHAPTER XXXVIII. THE ISLAND IN THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA.
CHAPTER XXXIX. THE WEHR-WOLF.
CHAPTER XL. WAGNER IN SEARCH OF NISIDA.
CHAPTER XLI. THE ISLAND QUEEN.
CHAPTER XLII. THE TEMPTATION—THE ANACONDA.
CHAPTER XLIII. NISIDA AND WAGNER.
CHAPTER XLIV. ALESSANDRO FRANCATELLI.
PART II.
CHAPTER XLV. THE LADY OF CONSTANTINOPLE.
CHAPTER XLVI. THE APOSTATE IBRAHIM.
CHAPTER XLVII. THE SIEGE OF RHODES.
CHAPTER XLVIII. THE PRISONER.
CHAPTER XLIX. THE NEW GRAND VIZIER.
CHAPTER L. THE COUNT OF ARESTINO—THE PLOT THICKENS.
CHAPTER LI. THE MEETING.
CHAPTER LII. THE GREEK PAGE—SONG OF THE GREEK PAGE—A REVELATION.
CHAPTER LIII. THE SULTANA VALIDA—THE THREE BLACK SLAVES.
CHAPTER LIV.
CHAPTER LV.
CHAPTER LVI.
CHAPTER LVII.
CHAPTER LVIII.
CHAPTER LIX.
CHAPTER LX.
CHAPTER LXI.
CHAPTER LXII. THE SICK-ROOM—FLORENCE IN DISMAY.
CHAPTER LXIII. THE MANUSCRIPT.
CHAPTER LXIV.

PART I.

Table of Contents

PROLOGUE.

Table of Contents

It was the month of January, 1516.

The night was dark and tempestuous; the thunder growled around; the lightning flashed at short intervals: and the wind swept furiously along in sudden and fitful gusts.

The streams of the great Black Forest of Germany babbled in playful melody no more, but rushed on with deafening din, mingling their torrent roar with the wild creaking of the huge oaks, the rustling of the firs, the howling of the affrighted wolves, and the hollow voices of the storm.

The dense black clouds were driving restlessly athwart the sky; and when the vivid lightning gleamed forth with rapid and eccentric glare, it seemed as if the dark jaws of some hideous monster, floating high above, opened to vomit flame.

And as the abrupt but furious gusts of wind swept through the forest, they raised strange echoes—as if the impervious mazes of that mighty wood were the abode of hideous fiends and evil spirits, who responded in shrieks, moans, and lamentations to the fearful din of the tempest.

It was, indeed, an appalling night!

An old—old man sat in his cottage on the verge of the Black Forest.

He had numbered ninety years; his head was completely bald—his mouth was toothless—his long beard was white as snow, and his limbs were feeble and trembling.

He was alone in the world; his wife, his children, his grandchildren, all his relations, in fine, save one, had preceded him on that long, last voyage, from which no traveler returns.

And that one was a grand-daughter, a beauteous girl of sixteen, who had hitherto been his solace and his comfort, but who had suddenly disappeared—he knew not how—a few days previously to the time when we discover him seated thus lonely in his poor cottage.

But perhaps she also was dead! An accident might have snatched her away from him, and sent her spirit to join those of her father and mother, her sisters and her brothers, whom a terrible pestilence—the Black Death—hurried to the tomb a few years before.

No: the old man could not believe that his darling granddaughter was no more—for he had sought her throughout the neighboring district of the Black Forest, and not a trace of her was to be seen. Had she fallen down a precipice, or perished by the ruthless murderer’s hand, he would have discovered her mangled corpse: had she become the prey of the ravenous wolves, certain signs of her fate would have doubtless somewhere appeared.

The sad—the chilling conviction therefore, went to the old man’s heart, that the only being left to solace him on earth, had deserted him; and his spirit was bowed down in despair.

Who now would prepare his food, while he tended his little flock? who was there to collect the dry branches in the forest, for the winter’s fuel, while the aged shepherd watched a few sheep that he possessed? who would now spin him warm clothing to protect his weak and trembling limbs?

“Oh! Agnes,” he murmured, in a tone indicative of a breaking heart, “why couldst thou have thus abandoned me? Didst thou quit the old man to follow some youthful lover, who will buoy thee up with bright hopes, and then deceive thee? O Agnes—my darling! hast thou left me to perish without a soul to close my eyes?”

It was painful how that ancient shepherd wept.

Suddenly a loud knock at the door of the cottage aroused him from his painful reverie; and he hastened, as fast as his trembling limbs would permit him, to answer the summons.

He opened the door; and a tall man, apparently about forty years of age, entered the humble dwelling. His light hair would have been magnificent indeed, were it not sorely neglected; his blue eyes were naturally fine and intelligent, but fearful now to meet, so wild and wandering were their glances: his form was tall and admirably symmetrical, but prematurely bowed by the weight of sorrow, and his attire was of costly material, but indicative of inattention even more than it was travel-soiled.

The old man closed the door, and courteously drew a stool near the fire for the stranger who had sought in his cottage a refuge against the fury of the storm.

He also placed food before him; but the stranger touched it not—horror and dismay appearing to have taken possession of his soul.

Suddenly the thunder which had hitherto growled at a distance, burst above the humble abode; and the wind swept by with so violent a gust, that it shook the little tenement to its foundation, and filled the neighboring forest with strange, unearthly noises.

Then the countenance of the stranger expressed such ineffable horror, amounting to a fearful agony, that the old man was alarmed, and stretched out his hand to grasp a crucifix that hung over the chimney-piece; but his mysterious guest made a forbidding sign of so much earnestness mingled with such proud authority, that the aged shepherd sank back into his seat without touching the sacred symbol.

The roar of the thunder past—the shrieking, whistling, gushing wind became temporarily lulled into low moans and subdued lamentations, amid the mazes of the Black Forest; and the stranger grew more composed.

“Dost thou tremble at the storm?” inquired the old man.

“I am unhappy,” was the evasive and somewhat impatient reply. “Seek not to know more of me—beware how you question me. But you, old man, are not happy! The traces of care seem to mingle with the wrinkles of age upon your brow!”

The shepherd narrated, in brief and touching terms, the unaccountable disappearance of his much-beloved granddaughter Agnes.

The stranger listened abstractedly at first; but afterward he appeared to reflect profoundly for several minutes.

“Your lot is wretched, old man,” said he at length: “if you live a few years longer, that period must be passed in solitude and cheerlessness:—if you suddenly fall ill you must die the lingering death of famine, without a soul to place a morsel of food, or the cooling cup to your lips; and when you shall be no more, who will follow you to the grave? There are no habitations nigh; the nearest village is half-a-day’s journey distant; and ere the peasants of that hamlet, or some passing traveler, might discover that the inmate of this hut had breathed his last, the wolves from the forest would have entered and mangled your corpse.”

“Talk not thus!” cried the old man, with a visible shudder; then darting a half-terrified, half-curious glance at his guest, he said, “but who are you that speak in this awful strain—this warning voice?”

Again the thunder rolled, with crashing sound, above the cottage; and once more the wind swept by, laden, as it seemed, with the shrieks and groans of human beings in the agonies of death.

The stranger maintained a certain degree of composure only by means of a desperate effort, but he could not altogether subdue a wild flashing of the eyes and a ghastly change of the countenance—signs of a profoundly felt terror.

“Again I say, ask me not who I am!” he exclaimed, when the thunder and the gust had passed. “My soul recoils from the bare idea of pronouncing my own accursed name! But—unhappy as you see me—crushed, overwhelmed with deep affliction as you behold me—anxious, but unable to repent for the past as I am, and filled with appalling dread for the future as I now proclaim myself to be, still is my power far, far beyond that limit which hems mortal energies within so small a sphere. Speak, old man—wouldst thou change thy condition? For to me—and to me alone of all human beings—belongs the means of giving thee new life—of bestowing upon thee the vigor of youth, of rendering that stooping form upright and strong, of restoring fire to those glazing eyes, and beauty to that wrinkled, sunken, withered countenance—of endowing thee, in a word, with a fresh tenure of existence and making that existence sweet by the aid of treasures so vast that no extravagance can dissipate them!”

A strong though indefinite dread assailed the old man as this astounding proffer was rapidly opened, in all its alluring details, to his mind;—and various images of terror presented themselves to his imagination;—but these feelings were almost immediately dominated by a wild and ardent hope, which became the more attractive and exciting in proportion as a rapid glance at his helpless, wretched, deserted condition led him to survey the contrast between what he then was, and what, if the stranger spoke truly, he might so soon become.

The stranger saw that he had made the desired impression; and he continued thus:

“Give but your assent, old man, and not only will I render thee young, handsome, and wealthy; but I will endow thy mind with an intelligence to match that proud position. Thou shalt go forth into the world to enjoy all those pleasures, those delights, and those luxuries, the names of which are even now scarcely known to thee!”

“And what is the price of this glorious boon?” asked the old man, trembling with mingled joy and terror through every limb.

“There are two conditions,” answered the stranger, in a low, mysterious tone. “The first is, that you become the companion of my wanderings for one year and a half from the present time, until the hour of sunset, on the 30th of July, 1517, when we must part forever, you to go whithersoever your inclinations may guide you, and I—— But of that, no matter!” he added, hastily, with a sudden motion as if of deep mental agony, and with wildly flashing eyes.

The old man shrank back in dismay from his mysterious guest: the thunder rolled again, the rude gust swept fiercely by, the dark forest rustled awfully, and the stranger’s torturing feelings were evidently prolonged by the voices of the storm.

A pause ensued; and the silence was at length broken by the old man, who said, in a hollow and tremulous tone, “To the first condition I would willingly accede. But the second?”

“That you prey upon the human race, whom I hate; because of all the world I alone am so deeply, so terribly accurst!” was the ominously fearful yet only dimly significant reply.

The old man shook his head, scarcely comprehending the words of his guest, and yet daring not to ask to be more enlightened.

“Listen!” said the stranger, in a hasty but impressive voice: “I require a companion, one who has no human ties, and who still ministers to my caprices—who will devote himself wholly and solely to watch me in my dark hours, and endeavor to recall me back to enjoyment and pleasure, who, when he shall be acquainted with my power, will devise new means in which to exercise it, for the purpose of conjuring up those scenes of enchantment and delight that may for a season win me away from thought. Such a companion do I need for a period of one year and a half; and you are, of all men, the best suited to my design. But the Spirit whom I must invoke to effect the promised change in thee, and by whose aid you can be given back to youth and comeliness, will demand some fearful sacrifice at your hands. And the nature of that sacrifice—the nature of the condition to be imposed—I can well divine!”

“Name the sacrifice—name the condition!” cried the old man, eagerly. “I am so miserable—so spirit-broken—so totally without hope in this world, that I greedily long to enter upon that new existence which you promised me! Say, then, what is the condition?”

“That you prey upon the human race, whom he hates as well as I,” answered the stranger.

“Again these awful words!” ejaculated the old man, casting trembling glances around him.

“Yes—again those words,” echoed the mysterious guest, looking with his fierce burning eyes into the glazed orbs of the aged shepherd. “And now learn their import!” he continued, in a solemn tone. “Knowest thou not that there is a belief in many parts of our native land that at particular seasons certain doomed men throw off the human shape and take that of ravenous wolves?”

“Oh, yes—yes—I have indeed heard of those strange legends in which the Wehr-Wolf is represented in such appalling colors!” exclaimed the old man, a terrible suspicion crossing his mind.

“ ’Tis said that at sunset on the last day of every month the mortal, to whom belongs the destiny of the Wehr-Wolf, must exchange his natural form for that of the savage animal; in which horrible shape he must remain until the moment when the morrow’s sun dawns upon the earth.”

“The legend that told thee this spoke truly,” said the stranger. “And now dost thou comprehend the condition which must be imposed upon thee?”

“I do—I do!” murmured the old man with a fearful shudder. “But he who accepts that condition makes a compact with the evil one, and thereby endangers his immortal soul!”

“Not so,” was the reply. “There is naught involved in this condition which—— But hesitate not,” added the stranger, hastily: “I have no time to waste in bandying words. Consider all I offer you: in another hour you shall be another man!”

“I accept the boon—and on the conditions stipulated!” exclaimed the shepherd.

“ ’Tis well, Wagner——”

“What! you know my name!” cried the old man. “And yet, meseems, I did not mention it to thee.”

“Canst thou not already perceive that I am no common mortal?” demanded the stranger, bitterly. “And who I am, and whence I derive my power, all shall be revealed to thee so soon as the bond is formed that must link us for eighteen months together! In the meantime, await me here!”

And the mysterious stranger quitted the cottage abruptly, and plunged into the depths of the Black Forest.

One hour elapsed ere he returned—one mortal hour, during which Wagner sat bowed over his miserably scanty fire, dreaming of pleasure, youth, riches, and enjoyment; converting, in imagination, the myriad sparks which shone upon the extinguishing embers into piles of gold, and allowing his now uncurbed fancy to change the one single room of the wretched hovel into a splendid saloon, surrounded by resplendent mirrors and costly hangings, while the untasted fare for the stranger on the rude fir-table, became transformed, in his idea, into a magnificent banquet laid out, on a board glittering with plate, lustrous with innumerable lamps, and surrounded by an atmosphere fragrant with the most exquisite perfumes.

The return of the stranger awoke the old man from his charming dream, during which he had never once thought of the conditions whereby he was to purchase the complete realization of the vision.

“Oh! what a glorious reverie you have dissipated!” exclaimed Wagner. “Fulfill but one tenth part of that delightful dream——”

“I will fulfill it all!” interrupted the stranger: then, producing a small vial from the bosom of his doublet, he said, “Drink!”

The old man seized the bottle, and speedily drained it to the dregs.

He immediately fell back upon the seat, in a state of complete lethargy.

But it lasted not for many minutes; and when he awoke again, he experienced new and extraordinary sensations. His limbs were vigorous, his form was upright as an arrow; his eyes, for many years dim and failing, seemed gifted with the sight of an eagle, his head was warm with a natural covering; not a wrinkle remained upon his brow nor on his cheeks; and, as he smiled with mingled wonderment and delight, the parting lips revealed a set of brilliant teeth. And it seemed, too, as if by one magic touch the long fading tree of his intellect had suddenly burst into full foliage, and every cell of his brain was instantaneously stored with an amount of knowledge, the accumulation of which stunned him for an instant, and in the next appeared as familiar to him as if he had never been without it.

“Oh! great and powerful being, whomsoever thou art,” exclaimed Wagner, in the full, melodious voice of a young man of twenty-one, “how can I manifest to thee my deep, my boundless gratitude for this boon which thou hast conferred upon me!”

“By thinking no more of thy lost grand-child Agnes, but by preparing to follow me whither I shall now lead thee,” replied the stranger.

“Command me: I am ready to obey in all things,” cried Wagner. “But one word ere we set forth—who art thou, wondrous man?”

“Henceforth I have no secrets from thee, Wagner,” was the answer, while the stranger’s eyes gleamed with unearthly luster; then, bending forward, he whispered a few words in the other’s ear.

Wagner started with a cold and fearful shudder as if at some appalling announcement; but he uttered not a word of reply—for his master beckoned him imperiously away from the humble cottage.

CHAPTER I.
THE DEATH-BED—THE OATH—THE LAST INJUNCTIONS.

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Our tale commences in the middle of the month of November, 1520, and at the hour of midnight.

In a magnificently furnished chamber, belonging to one of the largest mansions of Florence, a nobleman lay at the point of death.

The light of the lamp suspended to the ceiling played upon the ghastly countenance of the dying man, the stern expression of whose features was not even mitigated by the fears and uncertainties attendant on the hour of dissolution.

He was about forty-eight years of age, and had evidently been wondrously handsome in his youth: for though the frightful pallor of death was already upon his cheeks, and the fire of his large black eyes was dimmed with the ravages of a long-endured disease, still the faultless outlines of the aquiline profile remained unimpaired.

The most superficial observer might have read the aristocratic pride of his soul in the haughty curl of his short upper lip—the harshness of his domineering character in the lines that marked his forehead—and the cruel sternness of his disposition in the expression of his entire countenance.

Without absolutely scowling as he lay on that bed of death, his features were characterized by an inexorable severity which seemed to denote the predominant influence of some intense passion—some evil sentiment deeply rooted in his mind.

Two persons leant over the couch to which death was so rapidly approaching.

One was a lady of about twenty-five: the other was a youth of nineteen.

The former was eminently beautiful; but her countenance was marked with much of that severity—that determination—and even of that sternness, which characterized the dying nobleman. Indeed, a single glance was sufficient to show that they stood in the close relationship of father and daughter.

Her long, black, glossy hair now hung disheveled over the shoulders that were left partially bare by the hasty negligence with which she had thrown on a loose wrapper; and those shoulders were of the most dazzling whiteness.

The wrapper was confined by a broad band at the waist; and the slight drapery set off, rather than concealed, the rich contours of a form of mature but admirable symmetry.

Tall, graceful, and elegant, she united easy motion with fine proportion; thus possessing the lightness of the Sylph and the luxuriant fullness of the Hebe.

Her countenance was alike expressive of intellectuality and strong passions. Her large black eyes were full of fire, and their glances seemed to penetrate the soul. Her nose, of the finest aquiline development—her lips, narrow, but red and pouting, with the upper one short and slightly projecting over the lower—and her small, delicately rounded chin, indicated both decision and sensuality: but the insolent gaze of the libertine would have quailed beneath the look of sovereign hauteur which flashed from those brilliant eagle eyes.

In a word, she appeared to be a woman well adapted to command the admiration—receive the homage—excite the passions—and yet repel the insolence of the opposite sex.

But those appearances were to some degree deceitful; for never was homage offered to her—never was she courted nor flattered.

Ten years previously to the time of which we are writing—and when she was only fifteen—the death of her mother, under strange and mysterious circumstances, as it was generally reported, made such a terrible impression on her mind, that she hovered for months on the verge of dissolution; and when the physician who attended upon her communicated to her father the fact that her life was at length beyond danger, that assurance was followed by the sad and startling declaration, that she had forever lost the sense of hearing and the power of speech.

No wonder, then, that homage was never paid nor adulation offered to Nisida—the deaf and dumb daughter of the proud Count of Riverola!

Those who were intimate with this family ere the occurrence of that sad event—especially the physician, Dr. Duras, who had attended upon the mother in her last moments, and on the daughter during her illness—declared that, up to the period when the malady assailed her, Nisida was a sweet, amiable and retiring girl; but she had evidently been fearfully changed by the terrible affliction which that malady had left behind. For if she could no longer express herself in words, her eyes darted lightnings upon the unhappy menials who had the misfortune to incur her displeasure; and her lips would quiver with the violence of concentrated passion, at the most trifling neglect or error of which the female dependents immediately attached to her own person might happen to be guilty.

Toward her father she often manifested a strange ebullition of anger—bordering even on inveterate spite, when he offended her: and yet, singular though it were, the count was devotedly attached to his daughter. He frequently declared that, afflicted as she was, he was proud of her: for he was wont to behold in her flashing eyes—her curling lip—and her haughty air, the reflection of his own proud—his own inexorable spirit.

The youth of nineteen to whom we have alluded was Nisida’s brother; and much as the father appeared to dote upon the daughter, was the son proportionately disliked by that stern and despotic man.

Perhaps this want of affection—or rather this complete aversion—on the part of the Count of Riverola toward the young Francisco, owed its origin to the total discrepancy of character existing between the father and son. Francisco was as amiable, generous-hearted, frank and agreeable as his sire was austere, stern, reserved and tyrannical. The youth was also unlike his father in personal appearance, his hair being of a rich brown, his eyes of a soft blue, and the general expression of his countenance indicating the fairest and most endearing qualities which can possibly characterize human nature.

We must, however, observe, before we pursue our narrative, that Nisida imitated not her father in her conduct toward Francisco; for she loved him—she loved him with the most ardent affection—such an affection as a sister seldom manifests toward a brother. It was rather the attachment of a mother for her child; inasmuch as Nisida studied all his comforts—watched over him, as it were, with the tenderest solicitude—was happy when he was present, melancholy when he was absent, and seemed to be constantly racking her imagination to devise new means to afford him pleasure.

To treat Francisco with the least neglect was to arouse the wrath of a fury in the breast of Nisida; and every unkind look which the count inflicted upon his son was sure, if perceived by his daughter, to evoke the terrible lightnings of her brilliant eyes.

Such were the three persons whom we have thus minutely described to our readers.

The count had been ill for some weeks at the time when this chapter opens; but on the night which marks that commencement, Dr. Duras had deemed it his duty to warn the nobleman that he had not many hours to live.

The dying man had accordingly desired that his children might be summoned; and when they entered the apartment, the physician and the priest were requested to withdraw.

Francisco now stood on one side of the bed, and Nisida on the other; while the count collected his remaining strength to address his last injunctions to his son.

“Francisco,” he said, in a cold tone, “I have little inclination to speak at any great length; but the words I am about to utter are solemnly important. I believe you entertain the most sincere and earnest faith in that symbol which now lies beneath your hand.”

“The crucifix!” ejaculated the young man. “Oh, yes, my dear father!—it is the emblem of that faith which teaches us how to live and die!”

“Then take it up—press it to your lips—and swear to obey the instructions which I am about to give you,” said the count.

Francisco did as he was desired; and, although tears were streaming from his eyes, he exclaimed, in an emphatic manner, “I swear most solemnly to fulfill your commands, my dear father, so confident am I that you will enjoin nothing that involves aught dishonorable!”

“Spare your qualifications,” cried the count, sternly; “and swear without reserve—or expect my dying curse, rather than my blessing.”

“Oh! my dear father,” ejaculated the youth, with intense anguish of soul; “talk not of so dreadful a thing as bequeathing me your dying curse! I swear to fulfill your injunctions—without reserve.”

And he kissed the holy symbol.

“You act wisely,” said the count, fixing his glaring eyes upon the handsome countenance of the young man, who now awaited, in breathless suspense, a communication thus solemnly prefaced. “This key,” continued the nobleman, taking one from beneath his pillow as he spoke, “belongs to the door in yonder corner of the apartment.”

“That door which is never opened!” exclaimed Francisco, casting an anxious glance in the direction indicated.

“Who told you that the door was never opened,” demanded the count, sternly.

“I have heard the servants remark——” began the youth in a timid, but still frank and candid manner.

“Then, when I am no more, see that you put an end to such impertinent gossiping,” said the nobleman, impatiently; “and you will be the better convinced of the propriety of thus acting, as soon as you have learned the nature of my injunctions. That door,” he continued, “communicates with a small closet, which is accessible by no other means. Now my wish—my command is this:—Upon the day of your marriage, whenever such an event may occur—and I suppose you do not intend to remain unwedded all your life—I enjoin you to open the door of that closet. You must be accompanied by your bride—and by no other living soul. I also desire that this may be done with the least possible delay—the very morning—within the very hour after you quit the church. That closet contains the means of elucidating a mystery profoundly connected with me—with you—with the family—a mystery, the developments of which may prove of incalculable service alike to yourself and to her who may share your title and your wealth. But should you never marry, then must the closet remain unvisited by you; nor need you trouble yourself concerning the eventual discovery of the secret which it contains, by any person into whose hands the mansion may fall at your death. It is also my wish that your sister should remain in complete ignorance of the instructions which I am now giving you. Alas! poor girl—she cannot hear the words which fall from my lips! neither shall you communicate their import to her by writing, nor by the language of the fingers. And remember that while I bestow upon you my blessing—my dying blessing—may that blessing become a withering curse—the curse of hell upon you—if in any way you violate one tittle of the injunctions which I have now given you.”

“My dearest father,” replied the weeping youth, who had listened with the most profound attention, to these extraordinary commands; “I would not for worlds act contrary to your wishes. Singular as they appear to me, they shall be fulfilled to the very letter.”

He received from his father’s hand the mysterious key, which he had secured about his person.

“You will find,” resumed the count after a brief pause, “that I have left the whole of my property to you. At the same time my will specifies certain conditions relative to your sister Nisida, for whom I have made due provision only in the case—which is, alas! almost in defiance of every hope!—of her recovery from that dreadful affliction which renders her so completely dependent upon your kindness.”

“Dearest father, you know how sincerely I am attached to my sister—how devoted she is to me——”

“Enough, enough!” cried the count; and overcome by the effort he had made to deliver his last injunction, he fell back insensible on his pillow.

Nisida, who had retained her face buried in her hands during the whole time occupied in the above conversation, happened to look up at that moment; and, perceiving the condition of her father, she made a hasty sign to Francisco to summon the physician and the priest from the room to which they had retired.

This commission was speedily executed, and in a few minutes the physician and the priest were once more by the side of the dying noble.

But the instant that Dr. Duras—who was a venerable looking man of about sixty years of age—approached the bed, he darted, unseen by Francisco, a glance of earnest inquiry toward Nisida, who responded by one of profound meaning, shaking her head gently, but in a manner expressive of deep melancholy, at the same time.

The physician appeared to be astonished at the negative thus conveyed by the beautiful mute; and he even manifested a sign of angry impatience.

But Nisida threw upon him a look of so imploring a nature, that his temporary vexation yielded to a feeling of immense commiseration for that afflicted creature: and he gave her to understand, by another rapid glance, that her prayer was accorded.

This interchange of signs of such deep mystery scarcely occupied a moment, and was altogether unobserved by Francisco.

Dr. Duras proceeded to administer restoratives to the dying nobleman—but in vain!

The count had fallen into a lethargic stupor, which lasted until four in the morning, when his spirit passed gently away.

The moment Francisco and Nisida became aware that they were orphans, they threw themselves into each other’s arms, and renewed by that tender embrace the tacit compact of sincere affection which had ever existed between them.

Francisco’s tears flowed freely; but Nisida did not weep!

A strange—an almost portentous light shone in her brilliant black eyes; and though that wild gleaming denoted powerful emotions, yet it shed no luster upon the depths of her soul—afforded no clew to the real nature of these agitated feelings.

Suddenly withdrawing himself from his sister’s arms, Francisco conveyed to her by the language of the fingers the following tender sentiment:—“You have lost a father, beloved Nisida, but you have a devoted and affectionate brother left to you!”

And Nisida replied through the same medium, “Your happiness, dearest brother, has ever been my only study, and shall continue so.”

The physician and Father Marco, the priest, now advanced, and taking the brother and sister by the hands, led them from the chamber of death.

“Kind friends,” said Francisco, now Count of Riverola, “I understand you. You would withdraw my sister and myself from a scene too mournful to contemplate. Alas! it is hard to lose a father; but especially so at my age, inexperienced as I am in the ways of the world!”

“The world is indeed made up of thorny paths and devious ways, my dear young friend,” returned the physician; “but a stout heart and integrity of purpose will ever be found faithful guides. The more exalted and the wealthier the individual, the greater the temptations he will have to encounter. Reflect upon this, Francisco: it is advice which I, as an old—indeed, the oldest friend of your family—take the liberty to offer.”

With these words, the venerable physician wrung the hands of the brother and sister, and hurried from the house, followed by the priest.

The orphans embraced each other, and retired to their respective apartments.

CHAPTER II.
NISIDA—THE MYSTERIOUS CLOSET.

Table of Contents

The room to which Nisida withdrew, between four and five o’clock on that mournful winter’s morning, was one of a suit entirely appropriated to her own use.

This suit consisted of three apartments, communicating with each other, and all furnished in the elegant and tasteful manner of that age.

The innermost of the three rooms was used as her bed-chamber, and when she now entered it, a young girl of seventeen, beautiful as an angel, but dressed in the attire of a dependent, instantly arose from a seat near the fire that blazed on the hearth, and cast a respectful but inquiring glance toward her mistress.

Nisida gave her to understand, by a sign, that all was over.

The girl started, as if surprised that her lady indicated so little grief; but the latter motioned her, with an impatient gesture, to leave the room.

When Flora—such was the name of the dependent—had retired Nisida threw herself into a large arm-chair near the fire, and immediately became buried in a deep reverie. With her splendid hair flowing upon her white shoulders—her proud forehead supported on her delicate hand—her lips apart, and revealing the pearly teeth—her lids with their long black fringes half-closed over the brilliant eyes—and her fine form cast in voluptuous abandonment upon the soft cushions of the chair—she indeed seemed a magnificent creature!

But when, suddenly awaking from that profound meditation, she started from her seat with flashing eyes—heaving bosom—and an expression of countenance denoting a fixed determination to accomplish some deed from which her better feelings vainly bade her to abstain:—when she drew her tall—her even majestic form up to its full height, the drapery shadowing forth every contour of undulating bust and exquisitely modeled limb—while her haughty lip curled in contempt of any consideration save her own indomitable will—she appeared rather a heroine capable of leading an Amazonian army, than a woman to whom the sighing swain might venture to offer up the incense of love.

There was something awful in the aspect of this mysterious being—something ineffably grand and imposing in her demeanor—as she thus suddenly rose from her almost recumbent posture, and burst into the attitude of a resolute and energetic woman.

Drawing the wrapper around her form, she lighted a lamp, and was about to quit the chamber, when her eyes suddenly encountered the mild and benignant glance which the portrait of a lady appeared to cast upon her.

This portrait, which hung against the wall precisely opposite to the bed, represented a woman of about thirty years of age—a woman of a beauty much in the same style as that of Nisida, but not marred by anything approaching to a sternness of expression. On the contrary, if an angel had looked through those mild black eyes, their glances could not have been endowed with a holier kindness; the smiles of good spirits could not be more plaintively sweet than those which the artist had made to play upon the lips of that portrait.

Yet, in spite of this discrepancy between the expression of Nisida’s countenance and that of the lady who had formed the subject of the picture, it was not difficult to perceive a certain physical likeness between the two; nor will the reader be surprised when we state that Nisida was gazing on the portrait of her deceased mother.

And that gaze—oh! how intent, how earnest, how enthusiastic it was! It manifested something more than love—something more impassioned and ardent than the affection which a daughter might exhibit toward even a living mother; it showed a complete devotion—an adoration—a worship!

Long and fixedly did Nisida gaze upon that portrait; till suddenly from her eyes, which shot forth such burning glances, gushed a torrent of tears.

Then—probably fearful lest this weakness on her part might impair the resolution necessary to execute the purpose which she had in view—Nisida dashed away the tears from her long lashes, hastily quitted the room.

Having traversed the other two apartments of her own suit, she cast a searching glance along the passage which she now entered; and, satisfied that none of the domestics were about, for it was not yet six o’clock on that winter’s morning, she hastened to the end of the corridor.

The lamp flared with the speed at which she walked; and its uncertain light enhanced the pallor that now covered her countenance.

At the bottom of the passage she cautiously opened the door, and entered the room with which it communicated.

This was the sleeping apartment of her brother.

A single glance convinced her that he was wrapt in the arms of slumber.

He slept soundly too—for he was wearied with the vigil which he had passed by the death-bed of his father—worn out also by the thousand conflicting and unsatisfactory conjectures that the last instructions of his parent had naturally excited in his mind.

He had not, however, been asleep a quarter of an hour when Nisida stole, in the manner described, into his chamber.

A smile of mingled joy and triumph animated her countenance, and a carnation tinge flushed her cheeks when she found he was fast locked in the embrace of slumber.

Without a moment’s hesitation, she examined his doublet, and clutched the key that his father had given to him scarcely six hours before.

Then, light as the fawn, she left the room.

Having retraced her steps half-way up the passage, she paused at the door of the chamber in which the corpse of her father lay.

For an instant—a single instant—she seemed to revolt from the prosecution of her design, then, with a stern contraction of the brows, and an imperious curl of the lip—as if she said within herself, “Fool that I am to hesitate!”—she entered the room.

Without fear—without compunction, she approached the bed. The body was laid out: stretched in its winding sheet, stiff and stark did it seem to repose on the mattress—the countenance rendered more ghastly than even death could make it, by the white band which tied up the under jaw.

The nurse who had thus disposed the corpse, had retired to snatch a few hours of rest; and there was consequently no spy upon Nisida’s actions.

With a fearless step she advanced toward the closet—the mysterious closet relative to which such strange injunctions had been given.