Read CHAPTER XVI of Wagner‚ the Wehr-Wolf , free online book, by George W. M. Reynolds, on


Punctually at midday, the Lady Nisida of Riverola proceeded, alone and unattended, to the Convent of Carmelite Nuns, where she was immediately admitted into the presence of the abbess.

The superior of this monastic establishment, was a tall, thin, stern-looking woman, with a sallow complexion, an imperious compression of the lips, and small, grey eyes, that seemed to flicker with malignity rather than to beam with the pure light of Christian love.

She was noted for the austerity of her manners, the rigid discipline which she maintained in the convent, and the inexorable disposition which she showed toward those who, having committed a fault, came within her jurisdiction.

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.

These vague and uncertain reports did not, however, prevent some of the wealthiest families in Florence from placing their daughters in the Carmelite Convent. A nobleman or opulent citizen who had several daughters, would consider it a duty to devote one of them to the service of the church; and the votive girl was most probably compelled to perform her novitiate and take the veil in this renowned establishment. It was essentially the convent patronized by the aristocracy; and no female would be received within its walls save on the payment of a considerable sum of money.

There was another circumstance which added to the celebrity and augmented the wealth of the Carmelite Convent. Did a young unmarried lady deviate from the path of virtue, or did a husband detect the infidelity of his wife, the culprit was forthwith consigned to the care of the abbess, and forced to take up her abode in that monastic institution. Or, again did some female openly neglect her religious duties, or imprudently express an opinion antagonistic to the Roman Catholic Church, the family to which she belonged would remove her to the spiritual care of the abbess.

The convent was therefore considered to be an institution recognized by the state as a means of punishing immorality, upholding the Catholic religion, persuading the skeptical, confirming the wavering, and exercising a salutary terror over the ladies of the upper class, at that period renowned for their dissolute morals. The aristocracy of Florence patronized and protected the institution because its existence afforded a ready means to get rid of a dishonored daughter, or an unfaithful wife; and it was even said that the abbess was invested with extraordinary powers by the rescript of the duke himself, powers which warranted her interference with the liberty of young females who were denounced to her by their parents, guardians, or others who might have a semblance of a right to control or coerce them.

Luther had already begun to make a noise in Germany; and the thunders of his eloquence had reverberated across the Alps to the Italian states. The priesthood was alarmed; and the conduct of the reformer was an excuse for rendering the discipline of the monastic institutions more rigid than ever. Nor was the Abbess Maria a woman who hesitated to avail herself of this fact as an apology for strengthening her despotism and widening the circle of her influence.

The reader has now heard enough to make him fully aware that the Carmelite Convent was an establishment enjoying influence, exercising an authority, and wielding a power, which if these were misdirected constituted an enormous abuse in the midst of states bearing the name of a republic. But the career of the Medici was then hastening toward a close; and in proportion as the authority of the duke became more circumscribed, the encroachments of the ecclesiastical orders grew more extensive.

The Abbess Maria, who was far advanced in years, but was endowed with one of those vigorous intellects against which Time vainly directs his influence, received the Lady Nisida in a little parlor plainly furnished. The praying desk was of the most humble description; and above it rose a cross of wood so worm-eaten and decayed that it seemed as if the grasp of a strong hand would crush it into dust. But this emblem of the creed had been preserved in the Carmelite Convent since the period of the Second Crusade, and was reported to consist of a piece of the actual cross on which the Saviour suffered in Palestine.

Against the wall hung a scourge, with five knotted thongs, whereon the blood-stains denoted the severity of that penance which the abbess frequently inflicted upon herself. On a table stood a small loaf of coarse bread and a pitcher of water; for although a sumptuous banquet was every day served up in the refectory, the abbess was never known to partake of the delicious viands nor to place her lips in contact with wine.

When Nisida entered the presence of the abbess, she sank on her knees, and folded her arms meekly across her bosom. The holy mother gave her a blessing, and made a motion for her to rise. Nisida obeyed, and took a seat near the abbess at the table.

She then drew forth her tablets, and wrote a few lines, which the superior read with deep attention.

Nisida placed a heavy purse of gold upon the table, and the abbess nodded an assent to the request contained in the lines inscribed on the tablet.

The interview was about to terminate, when the door suddenly opened, and an elderly nun entered the room.

“Ursula,” said the lady abbess, in a cold but reproachful tone, “didst thou not know that I was engaged? What means this abrupt intrusion?”

“Pardon me, holy mother!” exclaimed the nun: “but the rumor of such a frightful murder has just reached us ”

“A murder!” ejaculated the abbess. “Oh! unhappy Florence, when wilt thou say farewell to crimes which render thy name detestable among Italian states?”

“This indeed, too, holy mother, is one of inordinate blackness,” continued Sister Ursula. “A young and beautiful lady ”

“We know not personal beauty within these walls, daughter,” interrupted the abbess, sternly.

“True, holy mother! and yet I did but repeat the tale as the porteress ere now related it to me. However,” resumed Ursula, “it appears that a young female, whom the worldly-minded outside these sacred walls denominate beautiful, was barbarously murdered this morning shortly after the hour of sunrise ”

“Within the precincts of Florence?” inquired the abbess.

“Within a short distance of the convent, holy mother,” answered the nun. “The dreadful deed was accomplished in the garden attached to the mansion of a certain Signor Wagner, whom the worldly-minded style a young man wondrously handsome.”

“A fair exterior often conceals a dark heart, daughter,” said the abbess. “But who was the hapless victim?”

“Rumor declares, holy mother ”

The nun checked herself abruptly, and glanced at Nisida, who, during the above conversation, had approached the windows which commanded a view of the convent garden, and whose back was therefore turned toward the abbess and Ursula.

“You may speak fearlessly, daughter,” said the abbess; “that unfortunate lady hears you not for she is both deaf and dumb.”

“Holy Virgin succor her,” exclaimed Ursula, crossing herself. “I was about to inform your ladyship,” she continued, “that rumor represents the murdered woman to have been the sister of this Signor Wagner of whom I spoke; but it is more than probable that there was no tie of relationship between them and that ”

“I understand you, daughter,” interrupted the abbess. “Alas! how much wickedness is engendered in this world by the sensual, fleshly passion which mortals denominate love! But is the murderer detected?”

“The murderer was arrested immediately after the perpetration of the crime,” responded Ursula; “and at this moment he is a prisoner in the dungeon of the palace.”

“Who is the lost man that has perpetrated such a dreadful crime?” demanded the abbess, again crossing herself.

“Signor Wagner himself, holy mother,” was the reply.

“The pious Duke Cosmo bequeathed gold to this institution,” said the abbess, “that masses might be offered up for the souls of those who fall beneath the weapon of the assassin. See that the lamented prince’s instructions be not neglected in this instance, Ursula.”

“It was to remind your ladyship of this duty that I ventured to break upon your privacy,” returned the nun, who then withdrew.

The abbess approached Nisida, and touched her upon the shoulder to intimate to her that they were again alone together.

She had drawn down her veil, and was leaning her forehead against one of the iron bars which protected the window apparently in a mood of deep thought.

When the abbess touched her, she started abruptly round then, pressing the superior’s hand with convulsive violence, hurried from the room.

The old porteress presented the alms-box as she opened the gate of the convent; but Nisida pushed it rudely aside, and hurried down the steps as if she were escaping from a lazar-house, rather than issuing from a monastic institution.