Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 19

Que donne le monde aux siens plus souvent,

        Echo Vent.

Que dois-je vaincre ici, sans jamais relacher,

        Echo la chair.

Qui fit le cause des maux, qui me sont survenus,

        Echo Venus.

Que faut dire après d’une telle infidelle,

        Echo Fi d’elle.

MAGDALÈNIADE, by Father Pierre de St Louis.

‘Three years had elapsed since the parting of Immalee and the stranger, when one evening the attention of some Spanish gentlemen, who were walking in a public place in Madrid, was arrested by a figure that passed them, habited in the dress of the country, (only without a sword), and walking very slowly. They stopt by a kind of simultaneous movement, and seemed to ask each other, with silent looks, what had been the cause of the impression this person’s appearance had made on them. There was nothing remarkable in his figure, — his demeanour was quiet; it was the singular expression of his countenance which had struck them with a sensation they could neither define or account for.

‘As they paused, the person returned alone, and walking slowly — and they again encountered that singular expression of the features, (the eyes particularly), which no human glance could meet unappalled. Accustomed to look on and converse with all things revolting to nature and to man, — for ever exploring the mad-house, the jail, or the Inquisition, — the den of famine, the dungeon of crime, or the death-bed of despair, — his eyes had acquired a light and a language of their own — a light that none could gaze on, and a language that few dare understand.

‘As he passed slowly by them, they observed two others whose attention was apparently fixed on the same singular object, for they stood pointing after him, and speaking to each other with gestures of strong and obvious emotion. The curiosity of the groupe for once overcame the restraint of Spanish reserve, and approaching the two cavaliers, they inquired if the singular personage who had passed was not the subject of their conversation, and the cause of the emotion which appeared to accompany it. The others replied in the affirmative, and hinted at their knowledge of circumstances in the character and history of that extraordinary being that might justify even stronger marks of emotion at his presence. This hint operated still more strongly on their curiosity — the circle of listeners began to deepen. Some of them, it appeared, had, or pretended to have, some information relative to this extraordinary subject. And that kind of desultory conversation commenced, whose principal ingredients are a plentiful proportion of ignorance, curiosity, and fear, mingled with some small allowance of information and truth; — that conversation, vague, unsatisfactory, but not uninteresting, to which every speaker is welcome to contribute his share of baseless report, — wild conjecture, — anecdote the more incredible the better credited, — and conclusion the more falsely drawn the more likely to carry home conviction.

‘The conversation passed very much in language incoherent as this:— ‘But why, if he be what he is described, what he is known to be, — why is he not seized by order of government? — why is he not immured in the Inquisition?’ — ‘He has been often in the prison of the holy office — oftener, perhaps, than the holy fathers wished,’ said another. ‘But it is a well-known fact, that whatever transpired on his examination, he was liberated almost immediately.’ Another added, ‘That the stranger had been in almost every prison in Europe, but had always contrived either to defeat or defy the power in whose grasp he appeared to be inclosed, — and to be active in his purposes of mischief in the remotest parts of Europe at the moment he was supposed to be expiating them in others.’ Another demanded, ‘If it was known to what country he belonged?’ and was answered, ‘He is said to be a native of Ireland — (a country that no one knows, and which the natives are particularly reluctant to dwell in from various causes) — and his name is Melmoth.’ The Spaniard had great difficulty in expressing the theta, unpronounceable by continental lips. Another, who had an appearance of more intelligence than the rest, added the extraordinary fact of the stranger’s being seen in various and distant parts of the earth within a time in which no power merely human could be supposed to traverse them — that his marked and fearful habit was every where to seek out the most wretched, or the most profligate, of the community among which he flung himself — what was his object in seeking them was unknown.’ — ‘It is well known,’ said a deep-toned voice, falling on the ears of the startled listeners like the toll of a strong but muffled bell, — ‘it is well known both to him and them.’

‘It was now twilight, but the eyes of all could distinguish the figure of the stranger as he passed; and some even averred they could see the ominous lustre of those eyes which never rose on human destiny but as planets of woe. The groupe paused for some time to watch the retreat of the figure that had produced on them the effect of the torpedo. It departed slowly, — no one offered it molestation.

‘I have heard,’ said one of the company, ‘that a delicious music precedes the approach of this person when his destined victim, — the being whom he is permitted to tempt or to torture, — is about to appear or to approach him. I have heard a strange tale of such music being heard; and — Holy Mary be our guide! did you ever hear such sounds?’ — ‘Where — what? — ’ and the astonished listeners took off their hats, unclasped their mantles, opened their lips, and drew in their breath, in delicious ecstasy at the sounds that floated round them. ‘No wonder,’ said a young gallant of the party, ‘no wonder that such sounds harbinger the approach of a being so heavenly. She deals with the good spirits; and the blessed saints alone could send such music from above to welcome her.’ As he spoke, all eyes were turned to a figure, which, though moving among a groupe of brilliant and attractive females, appeared the only one among them on whom the eye could rest with pure and undivided light and love. She did not catch observation — observation caught her, and was proud of its prize.

‘At the approach of a large party of females, there was all that anxious and flattering preparation among the cavaliers, — all that eager arrangement of capas, and hats, and plumes, — that characterized the manners of a nation still half-feudal, and always gallant and chivalrous. These preliminary movements were answered by corresponding ones on the part of the fair and fatal host approaching. The creaking of their large fans — the tremulous and purposely-delayed adjustment of their floating veils, whose partial concealment flattered the imagination beyond the most full and ostentatious disclosure of the charms they seemed jealous of — the folds of the mantilla, of whose graceful falls, and complicated manoeuvres, and coquettish undulations, the Spanish women know how to avail themselves so well — all these announced an attack, which the cavaliers, according to the modes of gallantry in that day (1683), were well prepared to meet and parry.

‘But, amid the bright host that advanced against them, there was one whose arms were not artificial, and the effect of whose singular and simple attractions made a strong contrast to the studied arrangements of her associates. If her fan moved, it was only to collect air — if she arranged her veil, it was only to hide her face — if she adjusted her mantilla, it was but to hide that form, whose exquisite symmetry defied the voluminous drapery of even that day to conceal it. Men of the loosest gallantry fell back as she approached, with involuntary awe — the libertine who looked on her was half-converted — the susceptible beheld her as one who realized that vision of imagination that must never be embodied here — and the unfortunate as one whose sight alone was consolation — the old, as they gazed on her, dreamt of their youth — and the young for the first time dreamt of love — the only love which deserves the name — that which purity alone can inspire, and perfect purity alone can reward.

‘As she mingled among the gay groupes that filled the place, one might observe a certain air that distinguished her from every female there, — not by pretension to superiority, (of that her unequalled loveliness must have acquitted her, even to the vainest of the groupe), but by an untainted, unsophisticated character, diffusing itself over look and motion, and even thought — turning wildness into grace — giving an emphasis to a single exclamation, that made polished sentences sound trifling — for ever trespassing against etiquette with vivid and fearless enthusiasm, and apologizing the next moment with such timid and graceful repentance, that one doubted whether the offence or the apology were most delightful.

‘She presented altogether a singular contrast to the measured tones, the mincing gait, and the organized uniformity of dress, and manner, and look, and feeling, of the females about her. The harness of art was upon every limb and feature from their birth, and its trappings concealed or crippled every movement which nature had designed for graceful. But in the movement of this young female, there was a bounding elasticity, a springiness, a luxuriant and conscious vitality, that made every action the expression of thought; and then, as she shrunk from the disclosure, made it the more exquisite interpreter of feeling. There was around her a mingled light of innocence and majesty, never united but in her sex. Men may long retain, and even confirm, the character of power which nature has stamped on their frames, but they very soon forfeit their claim to the expression of innocence.

‘Amid the vivid and eccentric graces of a form that seemed like a comet in the world of beauty, bound by no laws, or by laws that she alone understood and obeyed, there was a shade of melancholy, that, to a superficial observer, seemed transitory and assumed, perhaps as a studied relief to the glowing colours of a picture so brilliant, but which, to other eyes, announced, that with all the energies of intellect occupied, — with all the instincts of sense excited, — the heart had as yet no inmate, and wanted one.

‘The groupe who had been conversing about the stranger, felt their attention irresistibly attracted by this object; and the low murmur of their fearful whispers was converted into broken exclamations of delight and wonder, as the fair vision passed them. She had not long done so, when the stranger was seen slowly returning, seeming, as before, known to all, but knowing none. As the female party turned, they encountered him. His emphatic glance selected and centred in one alone. She saw him too, recognized him, and, uttering a wild shriek, fell on the earth senseless.

‘The tumult occasioned by this accident, which so many witnessed, and none knew the cause of, for some moments drew off the attention of all from the stranger — all were occupied either in assisting or inquiring after the lady who had fainted. She was borne to her carriage by more assistants than she needed or wished for — and just as she was lifted into it, the voice of some one near her uttered the word ‘Immalee!’ She recognized the voice, and turned, with a look of anguish and a feeble cry, towards the direction from which it proceeded. Those around her had heard the sound, — but as they did not understand its meaning, or know to whom it was addressed, they ascribed the lady’s emotion to indisposition, and hastened to place her in her carriage. It drove away, but the stranger pursued its course with his eyes — the company dispersed, he remained alone — twilight faded into darkness — he appeared not to notice the change — a few still continued lingering at the extremity of the walk to mark him — they were wholly unmarked by him.

‘One who remained the longest said, that he saw him use the action of one who wipes away a tear hastily. To his eyes the tear of penitence was denied for ever. Could this have been the tear of passion? If so, how much woe did it announce to its object!’

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09