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


It was past the hour of ten on Saturday night, when a tall, powerfully built man emerged from what might be termed the fashionable portion of the city of Florence, and struck into the straggling suburb of Alla Croce.

This quarter of the town was of marvelously bad reputation, being infested by persons of the worst description, who, by herding, as it were, together in one particular district, had converted the entire suburb into a sort of sanctuary where crime might take refuge, and into which the sbirri, or police-officers, scarcely dared to penetrate.

The population of Alla Croce was not, however, entirely composed of individuals who were at variance with the law, for poverty as well as crime sought an asylum in that assemblage of forbidding-looking dwellings, which formed so remarkable a contrast with the marble palaces, noble public buildings, and handsome streets of the city of Florence itself.

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. The dissipated nobles extorted from them by menace those loans which would not have been granted on the security proffered; and the wealthy members of the “scattered race” actually began to discover that they could repose greater confidence in the refuse of the Florentine population than in the brilliant aristocracy, or even in the famous sbirri themselves. Thus had many rich Jews established themselves in the quarter of Alla Croce; and by paying a certain sum to the syndic, or magistrate of this suburb a functionary elected by the inhabitants themselves, and in virtue of a law of their own enactment the persecuted Israelites enjoyed comparative security and peace.

We now return to the man we left plunging into the suburbs of which we have afforded a short and necessary account.

This individual was dressed in simple attire, but composed of excellent materials. His vest was of dark velvet, slashed, but not embroidered; and on his breast he wore a jazeran, or mailed cuirass, which was not only lighter than a steel corselet, but was equally proof against poniard or pike. In his broad leather belt were stuck two pairs of pistols, and a long dagger; a heavy broadsword also hung by his side. His black boots came up nearly to the knee in contravention of the prevailing fashion of that age, when these articles of dress seldom reached above the swell of the leg. A large slouched hat, without plumage or any ornament, was drawn down as much as possible over his features; and the broad mantello, or cloak, was gathered round the body in such a manner that it covered all the left side and the weapons fastened in the belt, but left the sword arm free for use in any sudden emergency.

Behind the wayfarer stretched the magnificent city of Florence, spreading over the deep vale, on both sides of the Arno, and, as usual, brilliant with light, like a world of stars shining in mimic rivalry of those that studded the purple vault above.

Before him were the mazes of the Alla Croce, the darkness of which suburb was only interrupted by a few straggling and feeble lights gleaming from houses of entertainment, or from huts whose poverty required not the protection of shutters to the casements.

And now, as one of those faint lights suddenly fell upon the wayfarer’s countenance, as he passed the abode in which it shone let us avail ourselves of the opportunity afforded by that glimpse, to state that this man’s features were handsome, but coarse, bearing the traces of a dissolute life. His age was apparently forty; it might even have been a few years more matured but his coal-black hair, mustachio, and bushy whiskers, unstreaked by silver, showed that time sat lightly on his head, in spite of the evident intimacy with the wine-cup above alluded to.

Having threaded the greater portion of the suburb, which was almost knee-deep in mud for it had been raining nearly all day, and had only cleared up after sunset the individual whom we have been describing stopped at the corner of a street, and gave a shrill whistle.

The signal was immediately answered in a similar fashion, and in a few minutes a man emerged from the darkness of a by-street. He also was well-armed, but much more plainly dressed than the other; and his countenance was such as would not have proved a very friendly witness in his favor in a court of justice.

“Lomellino?” said the first individual whom we have described in this chapter.

“Captain Stephano!” responded the other.

“All right, my fine lad,” returned the bandit-captain. “Follow me.”

The two robbers then proceeded in silence until they reached a house larger and stronger in appearance than any other in the same street. The shutters which protected the casements were massive and strengthened with iron bars and huge nails, somewhat after the fashion of church doors.

The walls were of solid gray stones, whereas those of the adjacent huts were of mud or wood. In a word, this dwelling seemed a little fortress in the midst of an exposed and unprotected town.

Before this house the robbers stopped.

“Do you remain on the other side of the street, Lomellino,” said the bandit-chief; “and if need be, you will answer to my accustomed signal.”

“Good, captain,” was the reply; and Lomellino crossed over the way to the deep shade of the houses on that side.

Stephano then gave a low knock at the door of the well-defended dwelling above described.

Several minutes elapsed; and no sounds were heard within.

“The old usurer is at home, I know,” muttered Stephano to himself; for the moment he had knocked a gleam of light, peeping through a crevice in an upper casement, had suddenly disappeared. He now rapped more loudly at the door with the handle of his heavy broadsword.

“Ah! he comes!” muttered the bandit-chief, after another long pause.

“Who knocks so late?” demanded a weak and tremulous voice from within.

“I Stephano Verrina!” cried the brigand pompously: “open and fear not.”

The bolts were drawn back a chain fell heavily on the stone floor inside and the door opened, revealing the form of an old and venerable-looking man, with a long white beard. He held a lamp in his hand: and, by its fitful glare, his countenance, of the Jewish cast, manifested an expression denoting the terror which he vainly endeavored to conceal.

“Enter. Signor Stephano,” said the old man. “But wherefore here so late?”

“Late, do ye call it. Signor Isaachar?” ejaculated the bandit, crossing the threshold. “Meseems there is yet time to do a world of business this night, for those who have the opportunity and the inclination.”

“Ah! but you and yours turn night into day,” replied the Jew, with a chuckle intended to be of a conciliatory nature: “or rather you perform your avocations at a time when others sleep.”

“Every one to his calling, friend Isaachar,” said the brigand chief. “Come! have you not made that door fast enough yet? you will have to open it soon again for my visit will be none of the longest.”

The Jew having replaced the chains and fastened the huge bolts which protected the house-door, took up the lamp and led the way to a small and meanly-furnished room at the back of his dwelling.

“What business may have brought you hither to-night, good Captain Verrina?” he inquired in a tone of ill-subdued apprehension.

“Not to frighten thee out of thy wits, good Isaachar,” responded Stephano, laughing.

“Ah! ha!” exclaimed the Jew, partially reassured: “perhaps you have come to repay me the few crowns I had the honor to lend you without security, and without interest ”

“By my patron saint! thou wast never more mistaken in thy life, friend Isaachar!” interrupted the robber chief. “The few crowns you speak of, were neither more nor less than a tribute paid on consideration that my men should leave unscathed the dwelling of worthy Isaachar ben Solomon: in other words, that thy treasures should be safe at least from them.”

“Well well! be it so!” cried the Jew. “Heaven knows I do not grudge the amount in question although,” he added slowly, “I am compelled to pay almost an equal sum to the syndic.”

“The syndic of Alla Croce and the captain of the banditti are two very different persons,” returned Stephano. “The magistrate protects you from those over whom he has control: and I, on my side, guaranty you against the predatory visits of those over whom I exercise command. But let us to business.”

“Ay to business!” echoed the Jew, anxious to be relieved from the state of suspense into which this visit had thrown him.

“You are acquainted with the young, beautiful, and wealthy Countess of Arestino, Isaachar?” said the bandit.

The Jew stared at him in increased alarm, now mingled with amazement.

“But, in spite of all her wealth,” continued Stephano, “she was compelled to pledge her diamonds to thee, to raise the money wherewith to discharge a gambling debt contracted by her lover, the high-born, handsome, but ruined Marquis of Orsini.”

“How knowest thou all this?” inquired the Jew.

“From her ladyship’s own lips,” responded Stephano. “At least she told me she had raised the sum to accommodate a very particular friend. Now, as the transaction is unknown to her husband, and as I am well assured that the Marquis of Orsini is really on most excellent terms with her ladyship moreover, as this same marquis did pay a certain heavy gambling debt within an hour after the diamonds were pledged to you it requires but little ingenuity to put all these circumstances together, to arrive at the result which I have mentioned. Is it not so, Isaachar?”

“I know not the motive for which the money was raised,” answered the Jew, wondering what was coming next.

“Oh! then the money was raised with you,” cried Stephano, “and consequently you hold the diamonds.”

“I did not say so I ”

“A truce to this fencing with my words!” ejaculated the bandit, impatiently. “I have an unconquerable desire to behold these diamonds ”

“You, good captain!” murmured Isaachar, trembling from head to foot.

“Yes, I! And wherefore not? Is there anything so marvelous in a man of my refined tastes and exquisite notions taking a fancy to inspect the jewels of one of the proudest beauties of gay Florence? By my patron saint! you should thank me that I come in so polite a manner to request a favor, the granting of which I could so easily compel without all this tedious circumlocution.”

“The diamonds!” muttered the Jew, doubtless troubled at the idea of surrendering the security which he held for a very considerable loan.

“Perdition seize the man!” thundered Stephano, now waxing angry. “Yes, the diamonds, I say; and fortunate will it be for you if they are produced without further parley.”

Thus speaking the bandit suffered his cloak to fall from over his belt, and the Jew’s quick eye recoiled from the sight of those menacing weapons, with which his visitor was armed, as it were, to the teeth.

Then without further remonstrance, but with many profound sighs, Isaachar proceeded to fetch a small iron box from another room; and in a few moments the diamond case, made of sandal wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl, was in the bandit captain’s hands.

“Let me convince myself that it is all right!” exclaimed Stephano, examining the lid of the case. “Yes, there are the arms of Arestino, with the ciphers of the Countess, G. A. Giulia Arestino a very pretty name, by my troth! Ah, how the stones sparkle!” he cried, as he opened the case. “And the inventory is complete, just as it was described to me by her ladyship. You are a worthy man, Isaachar, a good man; you will have restored tranquillity to the mind of the beautiful countess,” continued Stephano, in a bantering tone: “and she will be enabled to appear at court to-morrow, with her husband. Good-night, Isaachar; my brave men shall receive orders to the effect that the first who dares to molest you may reckon upon swinging to the highest tree that I can find for his accommodation.”

“You violate your compact, Signor Verrina!” exclaimed the Jew, his rage now mastering his fears. “Wherefore should I pay you tribute to protect me, when you enter my house and rob me thus vilely?”

“In this case a lady is concerned, good Isaachar,” responded the bandit, calmly; “and you know that with all true cavaliers the ladies are pre-eminent. Once more, a fair night’s repose, my much respected friend.”

Thus saying, Stephano Verrina rose from the seat on which he had been lounging; and the Jew, knowing that altercation and remonstrance were equally useless, hastened to afford the means of egress to so unwelcome a visitor.

Stephano lingered a moment opposite the house until he heard the door bolted and chained behind him; then crossing the street, he rejoined his follower, Lomellino.

“All right, captain?” said the latter, inquiringly.

“All right!” answered Stephano. “Poor Isaachar is inconsolable, no doubt; but the countess will be consoled at his expense. Thus it is with the world, Lomellino; what is one person’s misery is another’s happiness.”

“Dost grow sentimental, good captain?” exclaimed the man, whose ears were entirely unaccustomed to such language on the part of his chief.

“Lomellino, my friend,” answered Verrina, “when a man is smitten in a certain organ, commonly called the heart, he is apt to give utterance to that absurdity which the world denominates sentiment. Such is my case.”

“You are, then, in love, captain?” said Lomellino, as they retraced their way through the suburb of Alla Croce.

“Just so,” replied the bandit chief. “I will tell you how it happened. Yesterday morning, when those impertinent sbirri gave me a harder run than I have ever yet experienced, I was fain to take refuge in the garden of that very same Signor Wagner ”

“Who was yesterday arrested for murder?” interrupted Lomellino.

“The identical one,” returned Stephano. “I concealed myself so well that I knew I might bid defiance to those bungling sbirri although their scent was sharpened by the hope of the reward set on my head by the prince. While I thus lay hidden, I beheld a scene that would have done good to the heart of even such a callous fellow as yourself I mean callous to female qualifications. In a word, I saw one woman stab another as effectually as ”

“But it was Wagner who killed the woman!” ejaculated Lomellino.

“No such thing,” said Stephano quietly. “The murderess is of the gentle sex though she can scarcely be gentle in disposition. And such a splendid creature, Lomellino! I beheld her countenance for a few minutes, as she drew aside her veil that her eyes might glare upon her victim; and I whispered to myself, ’That woman must be mine; she is worthy of me!’ Then the blow descended her victim lay motionless at her feet and I never took my eyes off the countenance of the murderess. ‘She is an incarnate fiend,’ I thought, ’and admirably fitted to mate with the bandit captain.’ Such was my reflection then; and the lapse of a few hours has only served to strengthen the impression. You may now judge whether I have formed an unworthy attachment!”

“She is worthy of you, captain!” exclaimed Lomellino. “Know you who she is?”

“Not a whit,” replied Stephano Verrina. “I should have followed her when she left the garden, and complimented her on her proficiency in handling a poniard, but I was not so foolhardy as to stand the chance of meeting the sbirri. Moreover, I shall speedily adopt measures to discover who and what she is; and when I present myself to her, and we compare qualifications, I do not think there can arise any obstacle to our happiness as lovers are accustomed to say.”

“Then it was she who murdered the Lady Agnes?” said Lomellino.

“Have I not told you so? Signor Wagner is as innocent of that deed as the babe unborn; but it is not for me to step forward in his behalf, and thereby criminate a lady on whom I have set my affections.”

“That were hardly to be expected captain,” returned Lomellino.

“And all that I have now told thee thou wilt keep to thyself,” added Stephano; “for to none else of the band do I speak so freely as to thee.”

“Because no one is so devoted to his captain as I,” rejoined Lomellino. “And now that we are about to separate,” added the man, as they reached the verge of the suburb, which was then divided by a wide, open space from the city itself, and might even be termed a detached village “now that we are about to separate, captain, allow me to ask whether the affair of Monday night still holds good?”

“The little business at the Riverola Palace, you mean?” said Stephano. “Most assuredly! You and Piero will accompany me. There is little danger to be apprehended; and Antonio has given me the necessary information. Count Francisco sleeps at a great distance from the point where we must enter; and as for his sister she is as deaf as if she had her ears sealed up.”

“But what about the pages, the lackeys ”

“Antonio will give them all a sleeping draught. Everything,” added the robber-chief, “is settled as cleverly as can be.”

“Antonio is your cousin, if I err not?” said Lomellino.

“Something of the kind,” replied Stephano; “but what is better and more binding we are friends. And yet, strange to say, I never was within the precincts of the Riverola mansion until the night before last, and more singular still I have never, to my knowledge, seen any members of the family in whose service Antonio has been so long.”

“Why, Florence is not much honored with your presence during the day-time,” observed Lomellino; “and at night the great lords and high-born ladies who happen to be abroad, are so muffled up the former in their cloaks, the latter in their veils ”

“True true; I understand all you would say, Lomellino,” interrupted the captain; “but you know how to be rather tedious at times. Here we separate, I repair to the Arestino Palace, and you ”

“To the cavern,” replied Lomellino: “where I hope to sleep better than I did last night,” he added.

“What! a renewal of those infernal shriekings and screamings, that seem to come from the bowels of the earth?” exclaimed the captain.

“Worse than ever,” answered Lomellino. “If they continue much longer, I must abandon my office of treasure-keeper, which compels me to sleep in the innermost room ”

“That cannot be allowed, my worthy friend,” interrupted the captain; “for I should not know whom to appoint in your place. If it were not that we should not betray our own stronghold,” continued Stephano, emphatically, “we would force our way into the nest of our noisy neighbors, and levy such a tribute upon them as would put them on their good behavior for the future.”

“The scheme is really worth consideration,” remarked Lomellino.

“We will talk more of it another time,” said the captain. “Good-night, Lomellino. I shall not return to the cavern until very late.”

The two banditti then separated Lomellino striking off to the right, and Stephano Verrina pursuing his way toward the most aristocratic quarter of Florence.

Upon entering the sphere of marble palaces, brilliantly lighted villas, and gay mansions, the robber chief covered his face with a black mask a mode of disguise so common at that period, not only amongst ladies, but also with cavaliers and nobles, that it was not considered at all suspicious, save as a proof of amatory intrigue, with which the sbirri had no right of interference.