Werewolf Wednesday: Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf by George W. M. Reynolds (1846-7) Part 27

Chapte 63 opens with Francisco marrying Flora, after which he remembers a plot thread introduced near the start of the novel but long absent from its narrative: that is, the one dealing with Francisco’s oath to his dying father that, on his wedding day, he should retrieve a certain manuscript from a forbidden chamber.

Reynolds really does seem to be in a hurry at this point. as he has a major series of events — including the death of his title character — occur off-page before being described to the reader past-tense:

Nisida was now acquainted with the marriage of her brother, the secret chamber had been visited, the manuscript brought forth to be read; but one of the party that but a few moments before occupied that room was no more—Fernand Wagner was dead! True to the letter were the words of the founder of the order of the Rosy Cross, that “the spell which the Evil One hath cast upon thee, Fernand Wagner, shall be broken only on that day and that hour when thine eyes shall behold the bleached skeletons of two innocent victims suspended to the same beam.”

Flora and Francisco had visited the secret chamber alone, but the scream of horror which came from the bride on seeing the spectacle which there presented itself to her, brought Wagner and Nisida to their side. Instantly on seeing the skeletons, the prophecy of Rosencrux rushed on the mind of Wagner; a complete revolution came over his whole frame, beautiful visions floated before his eyes, as of angels waiting to receive him and herald him to eternal glory; then stretching forth his arms, as if to embrace something immaterial, he fell heavily to the earth, and in a few moments he had breathed his last in the arms of Nisida.

Well, it had been established back in the third chapter that the closet contained something scary alongside the manuscript, so credit to Reynolds: as ramshackle as this novel may be, he at least remembered where he put his Chekhov’s guns.

With Wagner’s death out of the way, the novel clears up its longest-lasting mystery — that of the manuscript’s contents. It turns out to be a testimony by Francisco and Nisida’s late father, detailing a how-I-met-your-mother story with lines like “I was perfectly amazed and horrified by the wild vehemence of her ejaculations”. Things get juicier when the woman he has fallen in love with reveals her family occupation:

“‘Because,’ she said, in a tone of such intense anguish that it rent my heart as she began to speak; ‘because,’ she repeated slowly and emphatically, ‘he is viewed with abhorrence by that world which is so unjust; for that which constitutes the stigma is hereditary office in his family—an office that he dares not vacate under pain of death; and now you can too well comprehend that my sire is the Public Executioner of Naples!’

“This announcement came upon me like a thunderbolt. I turned sick at heart—my eyes grew dim—my brain whirled—I staggered and should have fallen had I not come in contact with a wall…”

The marriage goes ahead despite this detail, and the countess begets Nisida and Francisco. But the count doubts her fidelity — particularly given that Francisco has no family resemblance to himself. The count stalks his wife, eventually catching her with another man. He kills the man and, in the scene that so troubled Nisida when she read a brief snippet earlier in the novel, forces his wife to watch as he mutilates the corpse:

“When her eyes caught sight of the countenance of that lifeless being, they remained fixed with frenzied wildness in their sockets, and even if there had been no gag between her teeth, I do not believe that she could have uttered a syllable. And now commenced the second act in this appalling tragedy! While one of the bravoes held the countess in his iron grasp, in such a manner that she could not avert her head, the other, who had once been a surgeon, tore away the garments from the corpse, and commenced the task which I had before assigned to him. And as the 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 filled my soul; and I experienced no remorse for the deed I had done! Far—very far from that—for as the work progressed, I exclaimed—

“‘Behold, Vitangela, how the scalpel hews that form so loved by thee! Now hack away at the countenance—deface that beauty—pick out those mild blue eyes!’—and I laughed madly!

The countess faints while her (presumed) lover is reduced to “naught save a skeleton” and subsequently hung in the closet. The countess dies, possibly as a result of the psychological strain from having witnessed this atrocity, and her husband has her body similarly mutilated so that her skeleton can be put in the closet as a dire warning to any potentially unfaithful women in the family:

But Vitangela’s remains went not in the velvet-covered coffin to the family vault;—no—her flesh was buried in the same soil where rotted the flesh of her paramour—and her skeleton was suspended from the same beam to which his bones had been already hung. For I thought within myself: ‘This is the first time that the wife of a Count of Riverola has ever brought dishonor and disgrace upon her husband; and I will take care that it shall be the last. To Nisida will I leave all my estates—all my wealth, save a miserable pittance as an inheritance for the bastard Francisco. She shall inherit the title, and the man on whom she may confer her hand shall be the next Count of Riverola. The wedding-day will be marked by a revelation of the mystery of this cabinet; and the awful spectacle will teach him, whoever he may be, to watch his wife narrowly—and will teach her what it is to prove unfaithful to a fond husband! To both, the lesson will be as useful as the manner of conveying it will be frightful, and they will hand down the tradition to future scions of the Riverola family. Francisco, too, shall learn the secrets of the cabinet; he shall be taught why he is disinherited—why I have hated him: and thus even from the other world shall the spirits of the vile paramour and the adulterous wife behold the consequences of their crime perpetuated in this.’

However, after Nisida became (apparently) deaf-mute, the count decided to make the supposedly illegitimate Francisco his heir instead — unless Nisida should lose her disability. This presents a wrinkle, as we now know that Nisida was only pretending to be deaf-mute.

Francisco, having read all of this, doubts that his mother was unfaithful. Meanwhile, Nisida is torn up over Wagner: not because he’s dead, but because she witnessed how he had “changed to such revolting ugliness” before perishing. She declares that she is dying, and decides to use her remaining time upon earth to clear her mother’s name.

Nisida reveals that the man the late countess had visited was not an adulterous lover, but her brother — a detail she had to keep a secret because of the stigma arising from a family connection to the public executioner of Naples. She was, in fact, told all of this by her mother prior to the latter’s death. She also reveals that her murder of Antonio’s mother Margaretha, an unexplained occurence from earlier in the novel, was vengeance for Margaretha’s role in the stalking of the countess.

One chapter left.

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