In the run-up to Halloween, I’ve decided to make my weekly column on werewolves into a daily feature. Kicking things off, let me resume my enlightening journey through George W. M. Reynolds’ lycanthropic penny dreadful Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf. Before I go on, let’s have a quick recap of the main characters…
- Fernand Wagner: A werewolf currently trapped in a dungeon for the murder of his granddaughter Agnes (who was actually killed by a mysterious woman)
- Francisco, Count of Riverola: A young aristocrat
- Nisida: Francisco’s deaf-mute sister, who loves Wagner
- Flora: Francisco’s servant, currently held captive by sadistic nuns for perceived sexual immorality
- Giulia, Countess of Arestino: Currently held captive by sadistic nuns for perceived sexual immorality
- Manuel, Marquis of Orsini: Giulia’s lover
- The Count of Arestino: Giulia’s cuckolded husband
- Stephano Verrina: A bandit-chief
- Isaachar ben Solomon: A Jewish usurer and victim of anti-Semitism
With Giulia captive, her lover Manuel and the bandit-chief Stephano decide that she must be rescued; the two spend an extended amount chapter 27 standing around talking about this before Stephano finally takes Manuel to his hideout, which turns out to be filled with riches.
Elsewhere, the usurer Isaachar is awakened by a visit from “the lieutenant of police, accompanied by half a dozen of his terrible sbirri” who want to retrieve a set of diamonds in Isachaar’s care. While there, they find blood on the floor, left from the earlier fight between Stephano and Manuel; this prompts anti-Semitic speculation:
“It is decidedly blood,” whispered the sbirro to one of his companions.
“Not a doubt of it,” observed another.
“We must mention it to the lieutenant when he has done counting out that gold.” “Do you know what I have heard about the Jews?” asked the first speaker, drawing his comrades still further aside.
“What?” was the general question. “That they kill Christian children to mix the blood in the dough with which they make the bread used at their religious ceremonies,” answered the sbirro.
“Depend upon it. Isaachar has murdered a Christian child for that purpose!” said one of his companions. This atrocious idea gained immediate belief among the ignorant sbirri; and as the Jew now quitted the room for a few moments to secure the gold which he had just received, in his coffer in the adjacent apartment, the police officers had leisure to point out to their superior the traces of blood which they had noticed, and the suspicion which these marks had engendered.
And so Isachaar is bound, gagged and thrown into the same dungeon of the inquisition that presently houses the werewolf Wagner.
With chapter 29 we return to Francisco and Nisida, characters who has been absent from the novel for a while. Francisco is weary from his fruitless efforts to find his lover Flora, while Nisida yearns for her own lover: Wagner. She’s anyhting but worn out, however, and instead is presently “arming herself with all the resolution, all the magnanimity, all the firmness with which her masculine soul was capable”…
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 then goes into the room containing the forbidden closet containign the forbidden manuscript that she read earlier in the book. Amusingly, the novel actually reminds us that so far it has given us only a short sample of this supposedly dreadful text:
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.
While of the full contents of the manuscript remain a mystery, one of the novel’s other enigmas is cleared up at this point. We learn that, yes, the woman who murdered Wagner’s granddaughter Agnes was none other than Nisida, who wrongly believed that Agnes was a rival for the heart of the (rejuvenated) Wagner:
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.
Thw=en Stephano barges in with his accomplices, hoping to steal treasure from the forbidden closet. He’s caught by Nisida and recognises her as the woman who killed Agnes, placing the two in a position to blackmail each other. They then broker a deal: if the bandits help Nisida to rescue Wagner, she will pay them handsomely.
Join me tomorrow, as I catch up with Flora to see how she’s been getting on with those sadistic nuns.