Last week I started a trip through George W. M. Reynolds’ sprawling nineteenth-century werewolf novel Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf. The prologue introduced the titular lycanthrope, while the first two chapters depicted thus far unrelated intrigue in a noble household. So, let us see where chapter three takes us…
Nisida, deaf-mute daughter of the reecently-deceased Count of Riverola, has decided to open a closet forbidden to be opened by any but her brother on his wedding day. Inside she finds something that makes her recoil with horror, along with a manuscript which, when read, sends her “grinding her teeth with demoniac rage”, although the exact details are kept from the reader. Aghast at the contents, Nisida decides to put the manuscript back: “she repaired with the lamp to her brother’s room—purloined the key a second time—hastened to the chamber of death—opened the closet again—and again sustained the shock of a single glance at its horrors, as she returned the manuscript to the place whence she had originally taken it.”
She misses a page, however, leaving the offensive fragment on the floor where Flora Francatelli (an orphan adopted into the count’s household) stumbles upon it:
And had the contents of the paper been of no interest, she might even have continued to read more in that same abstracted mood; but those four first lines were of a nature which sent a thrilling sensation of horror through her entire frame; the feeling terminating with an icy coldness of the heart. She shuddered without starting—shuddered as she stood; and not even a murmur escaped her lips. The intenseness of that sudden pang of horror deprived her alike of speech and motion during the instant that it lasted. And those lines, which produced so strange an impression upon the young maiden, ran thus:
“merciless scalpel hacked and hewed away at the still almost palpitating flesh of the murdered man, in whose breast the dagger remained buried—a ferocious joy—a savage hyena-like triumph——”
Flora read no more; she could not—even if she had wished.
(That the above sentence-fragment could be presented as throwing a reader nearly into a fainting fit is a clear illustration of changing attitudes towards horror literature).
Upon learning what has happened, Nisida flies into a rage. Flora vows that she has read no more than those four lines. “I believe you”, declares her mistress through an unspecified non-verbal means, “but beware how you breathe to a living soul a word of what you did read!”
The fourth chapter details the funeral of the late count, which is interrupted by the arrival of “a female, not clothed in a mourning garb, but splendidly as for a festival”.At this point the novel’s two plot threads are united, as the beautiful young woman turns out to be Agnes, a character introduced in the prologue as the missing granddaughter of Wagner. Unaware that her grandfather became a lycanthrope after her departure, she still thinks of him as a harmless old man:
“Speak not of him!” cried Agnes, wildly. “Did he know all, he would curse me—he would spurn me from him—he would discard me forever! Oh! when I think of that poor old man, with his venerable white hair,—that aged, helpless man, who was so kind to me, who loved me so well, and whom I so cruelly abandoned.”
The exact nature of Agnes’ connection to the late count is left unexplored for now, and the fifth chapter moves to the reading of the nobleman’s will. This decrees that Francisco shall inherit the entire estate at the age of thirty — unless Nisida recovers her speech and hearing by that point, in which case the bulk if the inheritance shall be passed to her. Nisida responds with a written note that she is willing to forsake this claim, but her proposal is overruled by the notary-general.
This concludes another instalment of my look at Wagner, the Wehr-wolf. Join me next time as I sample chapter six, which bears the intriguing heading “THE PICTURES—AGNES AND THE UNKNOWN—MYSTERY.”