In the previous instalment of Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf we left the title character held cpativei n a dungeon. So, with its werewolf confined, how can this penny dreadful keep up the blood and thunder? Answer: with sadistic nuns!
Chapter fourteen opens with Nisida visiting the Convent of Carmelite Nuns, which is something of a centrepoint for rumour:
Rumor was often busy with the affairs of the Carmelite Convent; and the grandams and gossips of Florence would huddle together around their domestic hearths, on the cold winter’s evenings, and venture mysterious hints and whispers of strange deeds committed within the walls of that sacred institution; how from time to time some young and beautiful nun had suddenly disappeared, to the surprise and alarm of her companions; how piercing shrieks had been heard to issue from the interior of the building, by those who passed near it at night,—and how the inmates themselves were often aroused from their slumbers by strange noises resembling the rattling of chains, the working of ponderous machinery, and the revolution of huge wheels.
Such food for scandal as those mysterious whispers supplied, was not likely to pass without exaggeration; and that love of the marvelous which inspired the aforesaid gossips, led to the embellishment of the rumors just glanced at—so that one declared with a solemn shake of the head, how spirits were seen to glide around the convent walls at night—and another averred that a nun, with whom she was acquainted, had assured her that strange and unearthly forms were often encountered by those inmates of the establishment who were hardy enough to venture into the chapel, or to traverse the long corridors or gloomy cloisters after dusk.
Inside, the abess hears from a nun about the murder of Agnes (“a young female, whom the worldly-minded outside these sacred walls denominate beautiful”) and the subsequent arrest of Fernand Wagner (“whom the worldly-minded style a young man wondrously handsome”). Nisida then disguises herself as a German cavalier and visits Wagner in his dungeon cell, making him swear that he did not kill Agnes. She offers to break him out, but he declines on the grounds that he would rather stay in captivity to prove his innocence.
Having spent two chapters wandering around achieving nothing, Nisida goes back home. Her servant Flora notices her odd behaviour and ponders its possible cuases. As the novel spills out Flora’s anxieties, we learn that her brother Allesandro “had abjured the faith of his forefathers and had embraced the Mussulman creed”, although it is unclear as to whether he did so out of personal conviction or “love for some Turkish maiden”. Either way, Flora is distraiught at the prospect of her brother going to hell.
Then, Flora receives an unexpected visit from three nuns, who blindfold and abduct her. She finds herself in a “cold, cheerless apartment”:
“Why have you brought me hither?” she demanded, springing from the couch, and addressing the recluses with frantic wildness.
“To benefit you in a spiritual sense,” replied the one who had before acted as spokeswoman: “to purge your mind of those mundane vanities which have seized upon it, and to render you worthy of salvation. Pray, sisters—pray for this at present benighted creature!”
Then, to the surprise of the young maiden, the three nuns all fell upon their knees around her, and began to chant a solemn hymn in most lugubrious notes. They had thrown aside their veils, and the flickering light of the dim lamp gave a ghastly and unearthly appearance to their pale and severe countenances. They were all three elderly persons: and their aspect was of that cold, forbidding nature, which precludes hope on the part of any one who might have to implore mercy.
The nuns’ next move is to drag Flora into another room, where they force her into a wicker armchair: “Then commenced the maddening scene which will be found in the ensuing chapter.” A trapdoor opens beneath the chair, plunging Flora into a pit. There, she meets still another nun, who welcomes her to the “chamber of penitence”:
“No harm will befall you, daughter,” said the nun, “if you manifest contrition for past errors and a resolution to devote your future years to the service of Heaven.”
“My past errors!” repeated Flora, with mingled indignation and astonishment. “I am not aware that I ever injured a living soul by a word or deed—nor entertained a thought for which I need to blush! Neither have I neglected those duties which manifest the gratitude of mortals for the bounties bestowed upon them by Providence.”
“Ah! daughter,” exclaimed the nun, “you interpret not your own heart rightly. Have you never abandoned yourself to those carnal notions—those hopes—those fears—those dreams of happiness—which constitute the passion which the world calls love?”
Flora started, and a blush mantled on her cheeks, before so pale! “You see that I have touched a chord which vibrates to your heart’s core, daughter,” continued the nun, on whom that sudden evidence of emotion was not lost. “You have suffered yourself to be deluded by the whisperings of that feeling whose tendency was to wean your soul from Heaven.”
Flora is then forced to watch a ritual of self-laceration:
A minute elapsed, during which the five penitents remained motionless as statues, with their heads bowed upon their bosoms, and their hands hanging down by their sides, as if those limbs were lifeless—save in respect to the hands that held the scourges. But, suddenly, one of them—a young and beautiful woman—exclaimed, in a tone of piercing anguish, “It is my fault! it is my fault! it is my fault!”—and the others took up the wail in voices equally characteristic of heartfelt woe.
Then they lacerated their shoulders with the hard leathern thongs of their scourges; and a faintness came over Flora Francatelli when she observed the blood appear on the back of the young and beautiful penitent who had given the signal for this self-mortification.
The nun, perceiving the effect thus produced upon the maiden, touched her upon the shoulder as a signal to follow whither she was about to lead; and, opening one of the several doors communicating with the Chamber of Penitence, she said in a low whisper—“This is your cell. May the Virgin bless you!”
And so we arrive at chapter twenty of Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf.