Chapter 20 of Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf depicts the aftermath of palace servant Flora’s kidnapping by a gang of sadistic nuns. Francisco, the young Count of Riverola, is particularly distraught as he had been pursuing a forbidden romance with her. The next chapter touches upon the Jewish community of Florence, whereupon Reynolds takes a commendable stand against antisemitism:
And not only did the denizens of penury and crushing toil, the artisans, the vine-dressers, the gardeners, the water-carriers, and the porters of Florence occupy lodgings in the suburb of Alla Croce, but even wealthy persons—yes, men whose treasures were vast enough to pay the ransom of princes—buried themselves and their hoards in this horrible neighborhood. We allude to that most undeservedly-persecuted race, the Jews—a race endowed with many virtues and generous qualities, but whose characters have been blackened by a host of writers whose narrow minds and illiberal prejudices have induced them to preserve all the exaggerations and misrepresentations which tradition hands down in the Christian world relative to the cruelly-treated Israelite.
The enlightened commercial policy of those merchant princes, the Medici, had, during the primal glories of their administrative sway in the Florentine Republic, relaxed the severity of the laws against the Jews, and recognizing in the persecuted Israelites those grand trading and financial qualities which have ever associated the idea of wealth with their name, permitted them to follow unmolested their specific pursuits. But at the time of which we are writing—the year 1521—the prince who had the reins of the Florentine Government, had yielded to the representations of a bigoted and intolerant clergy, and the Jews had once more become the subjects of persecution.
We then meet Isaachar ben Solomon, an elderly Jewish usurer, as he is visited at night by the bandit ringleader Stephano Verrina. It turns out that Isaachar was pledged diamonds by the Countess of Arestino (a character hitherto unmentioned) who needed to pay off her lover’s gambling debts. Despite having already extorted protection money from poor Isaachar, Stephano has no qualms about making off with the gems himself.
In another revelation, it turns out that Stephano is aware that Wagner — currently imprisoned for the killing of his granddaughter Agnes — is actually innocent of that particular murder, as the bandit-chief was at the scene of the crime. Although he didn’t recognise the real killer, her homicidal tendencies were enough to get his heart a-thumping: “That woman must be mine; she is worthy of me!”
In chapter 22 we get to meet the Countess of Arestino in person. Living in luxury and surrounded by Parisian trinkets (“for France already began to exercise the influence of its superior civilization and refinement over the south of Europe”) the countess despairs of her involvement with Stephano. TJust as she is contemplating suicide, the bandit-chief turns up with the diamonds, a kiss on the hand (“Deep was the crimson glow which suffused her countenance—her neck—even all that was revealed of her bosom”) and a request for compensation. Specifically, he dictates to her a note with the potential to be used as blackmail against her:
“I, Giulia, Countess of Arestino,” began the brigand, dictating to her, “confess myself to owe Stephano Verrina a deep debt of gratitude for his kindness in recovering my diamonds from the possession of the Jew Isaachar, to whom they were pledged for a sum which I could not pay.”
“But wherefore this document?” exclaimed the countess, looking up in a searching manner at the robber-chief; for she had seated herself at the table to write, and he was leaning over the back of her chair.
“’Tis my way at times,” he answered, carelessly, “when I perform some service for a noble lord or a great lady, to solicit an acknowledgment of this kind in preference to gold.” Then, sinking his voice to a low whisper, he added with an air of deep meaning, “Who knows but that this document may some day save my head?”
Giulia uttered a faint shriek, for she comprehended in a moment how cruelly she might sooner or later be compromised through that document, and how entirely she was placing herself in the bandit’s power.
Well, that’s three more lycanthropy-free chapters of Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf, and we’ve now passed the novel’s quarter-mark. Join me next week for more scandalous exploits starring Giulia Arestino.