Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 22

I’ll not wed Paris, — Romeo is my husband.

SHAKESPEARE

‘Isidora was so accustomed to the wild exclamations and (to her) unintelligible allusions of her mysterious lover, that she felt no unwonted alarm at his singular language, and abrupt departure. There was nothing in either more menacing or formidable than she had often witnessed; and she recollected, that after these paroxysms, he often re-appeared in a mood comparatively tranquil. She felt sustained, therefore, by this reflection, — and perhaps by that mysterious conviction impressed on the hearts of those who love profoundly — that passion must always be united with suffering; and she seemed to hear, with a kind of melancholy submission to the fatality of love, that her lot was to suffer from lips that were sure to verify the oracle. The disappearance, therefore, of Melmoth, gave her less surprise than a summons from her mother a few hours after, which was delivered in these words: ‘Madonna Isidora, your lady-mother desires your presence in the tapestried chamber — having received intelligence by a certain express, which she deems fitting you should be acquainted withal.’

‘Isidora had been in some degree prepared for extraordinary intelligence by an extraordinary bustle in this grave and quiet household. She had heard steps passing, and voices resounding, but

‘She wist not what they were,’

and thought not of what they meant. She imagined that her mother might have some communication to make about some intricate point of conscience which Fra Jose had not discussed to her satisfaction, from which she would make an instant transition to the levity visible in the mode in which one attendant damsel arranged her hair, and the suspected sound of a ghitarra under the window of another, and then fly off at a tangent to inquire how the capons were fed, and why the eggs and Muscadine had not been duly prepared for Fra Jose’s supper. Then would she fret about the family clock not chiming synchronically with the bells of the neighbouring church where she performed her devotions. And finally, she fretted about every thing, from the fattening of the ‘pullen,’ and the preparation for the olio, up to the increasing feuds between the Molinists and Jansenists, which had already visited Spain, and the deadly dispute between the Dominican and Franciscan orders, relative to the habit in which it was most effective to salvation for the dying body of the sinner to be wrapped. So between her kitchen and her oratory, — her prayers to the saints, and her scoldings to her servants, — her devotion and her anger, — Donna Clara continued to keep herself and domestics in a perpetual state of interesting occupation and gentle excitement.

‘Something of this Isidora expected on the summons, and she was, therefore, surprised to see Donna Clara seated at her writing desk, — a large and fairly written manuscript of a letter extended before her, — and to hear words thereafter uttered thus: ‘Daughter, I have sent for you, that you might with me partake of the pleasure these lines should afford both; and that you may do so, I desire you to sit and hear while they are read to you.’

‘Donna Clara, as she uttered these words, was seated in a monstrous high-backed chair, of which she actually seemed a part, so wooden was her figure, so moveless her features, so lacklustre her eyes.

‘Isidora curtsied low, and sat on one of the cushions with which the room was heaped, — while a spectacled duenna, enthroned on another cushion at the right hand of Donna Clara, read, with sundry pauses and some difficulty, the following letter, which Donna Clara had just received from her husband, who had landed, not at Ossuna,1 but at a real sea-port town in Spain, and was now on his way to join his family.

1 Vide Don Quixote, Vol. II. Smollet’s Translation.

‘DONNA CLARA,

‘It is about a year since I received your letter advising me of the recovery of our daughter, whom we believed lost with her nurse on her voyage to India when an infant, to which I would sooner have replied, were I not otherwise hindered by concerns of business.

‘I would have you understand, that I rejoice not so much that I have recovered a daughter, as that heaven hath regained a soul and a subject, as it were, e faucibus Draconis — e profundis Barathri — the which terms Fra Jose will make plain to your weaker comprehension.

‘I trust that, through the ministry of that devout servant of God and the church, she is now become as complete a Catholic in all points necessary, absolute, doubtful, or incomprehensible, — formal, essential, venial, and indispensible, as becomes the daughter of an old Christian such as I (though unworthy of that honour) boast myself to be. Moreover, I expect to find her, as a Spanish maiden should be, equipped and accomplished with all the virtues pertaining to that character, especially those of discretion and reserve. The which qualities, as I have always perceived to reside in you, so I hope you have laboured to transfer to her, — a transfer by which the receiver is enriched, and the giver not impoverished.

‘Finally, as maidens should be rewarded for their chastity and reserve by being joined in wedlock with a worthy husband, so it is the duty of a careful father to provide such a one for his daughter, that she do not pass her marriageable age, and sit in discontent and squalidness at home, as one overlooked of the other sex. My fatherly care, therefore, moving me, I shall bring with me one who is to be her husband, Don Gregorio Montilla, of whose qualifications I have not now leisure to speak, but whom I expect she will receive as becomes the dutiful daughter, and you as the obedient wife, of

FRANCISCO DI ALIAGA.’

‘You have heard your father’s letter, daughter,’ said Donna Clara, placing herself as in act to speak, ‘and doubtless sit silent in expectation of hearing from me a rehearsal of the duties pertaining to the state on which you are so soon to enter, and which, I take it, are three; that is to say, obedience, silence, and thriftiness. And first of the first, which, as I conceive, divides itself into thirteen heads,’ — ‘Holy saints!’ said the duenna under her breath, ‘how pale Madonna Isidora grows!’ — ‘First of the first,’ continued Donna Clara, clearing her throat, elevating her spectacles with one hand, and fixing three demonstrative fingers of the other on a huge clasped volume, containing the life of St Francis Xavier, that lay on the desk before her, — ‘as touching the thirteen heads into which the first divides itself, the eleven first, I take it, are the most profitable — the two last I shall leave you to be instructed in by your husband. First, then,’ — Here she was interrupted by a slight noise, which did not, however, draw her attention, till she was startled by a scream from the duenna, who exclaimed, ‘The Virgin be my protection! Madonna Isidora has fainted!’

‘Donna Clara lowered her spectacles, glanced at the figure of her daughter, who had fallen from her cushion, and lay breathless on the floor, and, after a short pause, replied, ‘She has fainted. Raise her. — Call for assistance, and apply some cold water, or bear her into the open air. I fear I have lost the mark in the life of this holy saint,’ muttered Donna Clara when alone; ‘this comes of this foolish business of love and marriage. I never loved in my life, thank the saints! — and as to marriage, that is according to the will of God and of our parents.’

‘The unfortunate Isidora was lifted from the floor, conveyed into the open air, whose breath had the same effect on her still elementary existence, that water was said to have on that of the ombre pez, (man-fish), of whom the popular traditions of Barcelona were at that time, and still have been, rife.

‘She recovered; and sending an apology to Donna Clara for her sudden indisposition, intreated her attendants to leave her, as she wished to be alone. Alone! — that is a word to which those who love annex but one idea, — that of being in society with one who is their all. She wished in this (to her) terrible emergency, to ask counsel of him whose image was ever present to her, and whose voice she heard with the mind’s ear distinctly even in absence.

‘The crisis was indeed one calculated to try a female heart; and Isidora’s, with its potency of feeling, opposed to utter destitution of judgment and of experience, — its native habits of resolution and self-direction, and its acquired ones of timidity and diffidence almost to despondency, — became the victim of emotions, whose struggle seemed at first to threaten her reason.

‘Her former independent and instinctive existence revived in her heart at some moments, and suggested to her resolutions wild and desperate, but such as the most timid females have been known, under the pressure of a fearful exigency, to purpose, and even to execute. Then the constraint of her new habits, — the severity of her factitious existence, — and the solemn power of her newly-learned but deeply-felt religion, — made her renounce all thoughts of resistance or opposition, as offences against heaven.

‘Her former feelings, her new duties, beat in terrible conflict against her heart; and, trembling at the isthmus on which she stood, she felt it, under the influence of opposing tides, narrowing every moment under her feet.

‘This was a dreadful day to her. She had sufficient time for reflection, but she had within her the conviction that reflection could be of no use, — that the circumstances in which she was placed, not her own thoughts, must decide for her, — and that, situated as she was, mental power was no match for physical.

‘There is not, perhaps, a more painful exercise of the mind than that of treading, with weary and impatient pace, the entire round of thought, and arriving at the same conclusion for ever; then setting out again with increased speed and diminished strength, and again returning to the very same spot — of sending out all our faculties on a voyage of discovery, and seeing them all return empty, and watch the wrecks as they drift helplessly along, and sink before the eye that hailed their outward expedition with joy and confidence.

‘All that day she thought how it was possible to liberate herself from her situation, while the feeling that liberation was impossible clung to the bottom of her heart; and this sensation of the energies of the soul in all their strength, being in vain opposed to imbecillity and mediocrity, when aided by circumstances, is one productive alike of melancholy and of irritation. We feel, like prisoners in romance, bound by threads to which the power of magic has given the force of adamant.

‘To those whose minds incline them rather to observe, than to sympathize with the varieties of human feeling, it would have been interesting to watch the restless agony of Isidora, contrasted with the cold and serene satisfaction of her mother, who employed the whole of the day in composing, with the assistance of Fra Jose, what Juvenal calls ‘verbosa et grandis epistola,’ in answer to that of her husband; and to conceive how two human beings, apparently of similarly-constructed organs, and destined apparently to sympathize with each other, could draw from the same fountain waters sweet and bitter.

‘On her plea of continued indisposition, Isidora was excused from appearing before her mother during the remainder of the day. The night came on, — the night, which, by concealing the artificial objects and manners which surrounded her, restored to her, in some degree, the consciousness of her former existence, and gave her a sense of independence she never felt by day. The absence of Melmoth increased her anxiety. She began to apprehend that his departure was intended to be final, and her heart sunk at the thought.

‘To the mere reader of romance, it may seem incredible that a female of Isidora’s energy and devotedness should feel anxiety or terror in a situation so common to a heroine. She has only to stand proof against all the importunities and authority of her family, and announce her desperate resolution to share the destiny of a mysterious and unacknowledged lover. All this sounds very plausible and interesting. Romances have been written and read, whose interest arose from the noble and impossible defiance of the heroine to all powers human and superhuman alike. But neither the writers or readers seem ever to have taken into account the thousand petty external causes that operate on human agency with a force, if not more powerful, far more effective than the grand internal motive which makes so grand a figure in romance, and so rare and trivial a one in common life.

‘Isidora would have died for him she loved. At the stake or the scaffold she would have avowed her passion, and triumphed in perishing as its victim. The mind can collect itself for one great effort, but it is exhausted by the eternally-recurring necessity of domestic conflicts, — victories by which she must lose, and defeats by which she might gain the praise of perseverance, and feel such gain was loss. The last single and terrible effort of the Jewish champion, in which he and his enemies perished together, must have been a luxury compared to his blind drudgery in his mill.

‘Before Isidora lay that painful and perpetual struggle of fettered strength with persecuting weakness, which, if the truth were told, would divest half the heroines of romance of the power or wish to contend against the difficulties that beset them. Her mansion was a prison — she had no power (and if she possessed the power, would never have exercised it) of obtaining an unpermitted or unobserved egress from the doors of the house for one moment. Thus her escape was completely barred; and had every door in the house been thrown open, she would have felt like a bird on its first flight from the cage, without a spray that she dared to rest on. Such was her prospect, even if she could effect her escape — at home it was worse.

‘The stern and cold tone of authority in which her father’s letter was written, gave her but little hope that in her father she would find a friend. Then the feeble and yet imperious mediocrity of her mother — the selfish and arrogant temper of Fernan — the powerful influence and incessant documentising of Fra Jose, whose good-nature was no match for his love of authority — the daily domestic persecution — that vinegar that would wear out any rock — the being compelled to listen day after day to the same exhausting repetition of exhortation, chiding, reproach, and menace, or seek refuge in her chamber, to waste the weary hours in loneliness and tears — this strife maintained by one strong indeed in purpose, but feeble in power, against so many all sworn to work their will, and have their way — this perpetual conflict with evils so trivial in the items, but so heavy in the amount, to those who have the debt to pay daily and hourly, — was too much for the resolution of Isidora, and she wept in hopeless despondency, as she felt that already her courage shrunk from the encounter, and knew not what concessions might be extorted from her increasing inability of resistance.

‘Oh!’ she cried, clasping her hands in the extremity of her distress, ‘Oh that he were but here to direct, to counsel me! — that he were here even no longer as my lover, but only as my adviser!’

‘It is said that a certain power is always at hand to facilitate the wishes that the individual forms for his own injury; and so it should seem in the present instance, — for she had scarce uttered these words, when the shadow of Melmoth was seen darkening the garden walk, — and the next moment he was beneath the casement. As she saw him approach, she uttered a cry of mingled joy and fear, which he hushed by making a signal of silence with his hand, and then whispered, ‘I know it all!’

‘Isidora was silent. She had nothing but her recent distress to communicate, — and of that, it appeared, he was already apprized. She waited, therefore, in mute anxiety for some words of counsel or of comfort. ‘I know all!’ continued Melmoth; ‘your father has landed in Spain — he brings with him your destined husband. The fixed purpose of your whole family, as obstinate as they are weak, it will be bootless in you to resist; and this day fortnight will see you the bride of Montilla.’ — ‘I will first be the bride of the grave,’ said Isidora, with perfect and fearful calmness.

‘At these words, Melmoth advanced and gazed on her more closely. Any thing of intense and terrible resolution, — of feeling or action in extremity, — made harmony with the powerful but disordered chords of his soul. He required her to repeat the words — she did so, with quivering lip, but unfaultering voice. He advanced still nearer to gaze on her as she spoke. It was a beautiful and fearful sight to see her as she stood; — her marble face — her moveless features — her eyes in which burned the fixed and livid light of despair, like a lamp in a sepulchral vault — the lips that half opened, and remaining unclosed, appeared as if the speaker was unconscious of the words that had escaped them, or rather, as if they had burst forth by involuntary and incontroulable impulse; — so she stood, like a statue, at her casement, the moonlight giving her white drapery the appearance of stone, and her wrought-up and determined mind lending the same rigidity to her expression. Melmoth himself felt confounded — appalled he could not feel. He retreated, and then returning, demanded, ‘Is this your resolution, Isidora? — and have you indeed resolution to’ — ‘To die!’ answered Isidora, with the same unaltered accent, — the same calm expression, — and seeming, as she spake, capable of all she expressed; and this union, in the same slight and tender form, of those eternal competitors, energy and fragility, beauty and death, made every human pulse in Melmoth’s frame beat with a throbbing unknown before. ‘Can you, then,’ he said, with averted head, and in a tone that seemed ashamed of its own softness — ‘Can you, then, die for him you will not live for?’ — ‘I have said I will die sooner than be the bride of Montilla,’ answered Isidora. ‘Of death I know nothing, nor do I know much of life — but I would rather perish, than be the perjured wife of the man I cannot love.’ — ‘And why can you not love him?’ said Melmoth, toying with the heart he held in his hand, like a mischievous boy with a bird, around whose leg he has fastened a string. — ‘Because I can love but one. You were the first human being I ever saw who could teach me language, and who taught me feeling. Your image is for ever before me, present or absent, sleeping or waking. I have seen fairer forms, — I have listened to softer voices, — I might have met gentler hearts, — but the first, the indelible image, is written on mine, and its characters will never be effaced till that heart is a clod of the valley. I loved you not for comeliness, — I loved you not for gay deportment, or fond language, or all that is said to be lovely in the eye of woman, — I loved you because you were my first, — the sole connecting link between the human world and my heart, — the being who brought me acquainted with that wondrous instrument that lay unknown and untouched within and me, whose chords, as long as they vibrate, will disdain to obey any touch but that of their first mover — because your image is mixed in my imagination with all the glories of nature — because your voice, when I heard it first, was something in accordance with the murmur of the ocean, and the music of the stars. And still its tones recal the unimaginable blessedness of those scenes where first I heard it, — and still I listen to it like an exile who hears the music of his native country in a land that is very far off, — because nature and passion, memory and hope, alike cling round your image; and amid the light of my former existence, and the gloom of my present, there is but one form that retains its reality and its power through light and shade. I am like one who has traversed many climates, and looks but to one sun as the light of all, whether bright or obscure. I have loved once — and for ever!’ Then, trembling at the words she uttered, she added, with that sweet mixture of maiden pride and purity that redeems while it pledges the hostage of the heart, ‘The feelings I have entrusted you with may be abused, but never alienated.’ — ‘And these are your real feelings?’ said Melmoth, pausing long, and moving his frame like one agitated by deep and uneasy thoughts. ‘Real!’ repeated Isidora, with some transient glow on her cheek — ‘real! Can I utter any thing but what is real? Can I so soon forget my existence?’ Melmoth looked up once more as she spoke — ‘If such is your resolution, — if such be your feelings indeed,’ — ‘And they are! — they are!’ exclaimed Isidora, her tears bursting through the slender fingers, which, after extending towards him, she clasped over her burning eyes. ‘Then look to the alternative that awaits you!’ said Melmoth slowly, bringing out the words with difficulty, and, as it appeared, with some feeling for his victim; ‘a union with the man who cannot love, — or the perpetual hostility, the wearying, wasting, almost annihilating persecution of your family! Think of days that’ — ‘Oh let me not think!’ cried Isidora, wringing her white and slender hands; ‘tell me — tell me what may be done to escape them!’ — ‘Now, in good troth,’ answered Melmoth, knitting his brows with a most cogitative wrinkle, while it was impossible to discover whether his predominant expression was that of irony or profound and sincere feeling — ‘I know not what resource you have unless you wed me.’ — ‘Wed you!’ cried Isidora, retreating from the window — ‘Wed you!’ and she clasped her hands over her pale forehead; — and at this moment, when the hope of her heart, the thread on which her existence was suspended, was within her reach, she trembled to touch it. ‘Wed you! — but how is that possible?’ — ‘All things are possible to those who love,’ said Melmoth, with his sardonic smile, which was hid by the shades of the night. ‘And you will wed me, then, by the rites of the church of which I am a member?’ — ‘Aye! or of any other!’ — ‘Oh speak not so wildly! — say not aye in that horrible voice! Will you wed me as a Christian maiden should be wed? — Will you love me as a Christian wife should be loved? My former existence was like a dream, — but now I am awake. If I unite my destiny to yours, — if I abandon my family, my country, my’ — ‘If you do, how will you be the loser? — your family harasses and confines you — your country would shout to see you at the stake, for you have some heretical feelings about you, Isidora. And for the rest’ — ‘God!’ said the poor victim, clasping her hands, and looking upwards, ‘God, aid me in this extremity!’ — ‘If I am to wait here only as a witness to your devotions,’ said Melmoth with sullen asperity, ‘my stay will not be long.’ — ‘You cannot leave me, then, to struggle with fear and perplexity alone! How is it possible for me to escape, even if’ — ‘By whatever means I possess of entering this place and retiring unobserved, — by the same you may effect your escape. If you have resolution, the effort will cost you little, — if love, — nothing. Speak, shall I be here at this hour tomorrow night, to conduct you to liberty and’ — Safety he would have added, but his voice faultered. ‘To-morrow night,’ said Isidora, after a long pause, and in accents almost inarticulate. She closed the casement as she spoke, and Melmoth slowly departed.’

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