Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 24

Responde meum argumentum — nomen est nomen

ergo, quod tibi est nomen — responde argumentum.

BEAUMONT and FLETCHER’S Wit at several Weapons

‘That night was the one fixed on for the union of Isidora and Melmoth. She had retired early to her chamber, and sat at the casement watching for his approach for hours before she could probably expect it. It might be supposed that at this terrible crisis of her fate, she felt agitated by a thousand emotions, — that a soul susceptible like hers felt itself almost torn in pieces by the struggle, — but it was not so. When a mind strong by nature, but weakened by fettering circumstances, is driven to make one strong spring to free itself, it has no leisure to calculate the weight of its hindrances, or the width of its leap, — it sits with its chains heaped about it, thinking only of the bound that is to be its liberation — or —

‘During the many hours that Isidora awaited the approach of this mysterious bridegroom, she felt nothing but the awful sense of that approach, and of the event that was to follow. So she sat at her casement, pale but resolute, and trusting in the extraordinary promise of Melmoth, that by whatever means he was enabled to visit her, by those she would be enabled to effect her escape, in spite of her well-guarded mansion, and vigilant household.

‘It was near one (the hour at which Fra Jose, who was sitting in consultation with her mother over that melancholy letter, heard the noise alluded to in the preceding chapter) when Melmoth appeared in the garden, and, without uttering a word, threw up a ladder of ropes, which, in short and sullen whispers, he instructed her to fasten, and assisted her to descend. They hurried through the garden, — and Isidora, amid all the novelty of her feelings and situation, could not avoid testifying her surprise at the facility with which they passed through the well-secured garden gate.

‘They were now in the open country, — a region far wilder to Isidora than the flowery paths of that untrodden isle, where she had no enemy. Now in every breeze she heard a menacing voice, — in the echoes of her own light steps she heard the sound of steps pursuing her.

‘The night was very dark, — unlike the midsummer nights in that delicious climate. A blast sometimes cold, sometimes stifling from heat, indicated some extraordinary vicissitude in the atmosphere. There is something very fearful in this kind of wintry feeling in a summer night. The cold, the darkness, followed by intense heat, and a pale, meteoric lightning, seemed to unite the mingled evils of the various seasons, and to trace their sad analogy to life, — whose stormy summer allows youth little to enjoy, and whose chilling winter leaves age nothing to hope.

‘To Isidora, whose sensibilities were still so acutely physical, that she could feel the state of the elements as if they were the oracles of nature, which she could interpret at sight, — this dark and troubled appearance seemed like a fearful omen. More than once she paused, trembled, and turned on Melmoth a glance of doubt and terror, — which the darkness of the night, of course, prevented him from observing. Perhaps there was another cause, — but as they hurried on, Isidora’s strength and courage began to fail together. She perceived that she was borne on with a kind of supernatural velocity, — her breath failed, — her feet faultered, — and she felt like one in a dream.

‘Stay!’ she exclaimed, gasping from weakness, ‘stay! — whither am I going? — where do you bear me?’ — ‘To your nuptials,’ answered Melmoth, in low and almost inarticulate tones; — but whether rendered so by emotion, or by the speed with which they seemed to fly along, Isidora could not discover.

‘In a few moments, she was forced to declare herself unable to proceed, and leaned on his arm, gasping and exhausted. ‘Let me pause,’ said she ominously, ‘in the name of God!’ Melmoth returned no answer. He paused, however, and supported her with an appearance of anxiety, if not of tenderness.

‘During this interval, she gazed around her, and tried to distinguish the objects near; but the intense darkness of the night rendered this almost impossible, — and what she could discover, was not calculated to dispel her alarm. They seemed to be walking on a narrow and precipitous path close by a shallow stream, as she could guess, by the hoarse and rugged sound of its waters, as they fought with every pebble to win their way. This path was edged on the other side by a few trees, whose stunted growth, and branches tossing wild and wide to the blast that now began to whisper mournfully among them, seemed to banish every image of a summer night from the senses, and almost from the memory. Every thing around was alike dreary and strange to Isidora, who had never, since her arrival at the villa, wandered beyond the precincts of the garden, — and who, even if she had, would probably have found no clue to direct her where she now was. ‘This is a fearful night,’ said she, half internally. She then repeated the same words more audibly, perhaps in hope of some answering and consolatory sounds. Melmoth was silent — and her spirits subdued by fatigue and emotion, she wept. ‘Do you already repent the step you have taken?’ said he, laying a strange emphasis on the word — already. ‘No, love, no!’ replied Isidora, gently wiping away her tears; ‘it is impossible for me ever to repent it. But this loneliness, — this darkness, — this speed, — this silence, — have in them something almost awful. I feel as if I were traversing some unknown region. Are these indeed the winds of heaven that sigh around me? Are these trees of nature’s growth, that nod at me like spectres? How hollow and dismal is the sound of the blast! — it chills me though the night is sultry! — and those trees, they cast their shadows over my soul! Oh, is this like a bridal night?’ she exclaimed, as Melmoth, apparently disturbed at these words, attempted to hurry her on — ‘Is this like a bridal? No father, no brother, to support me! — no mother near me! — no kiss of kindred to greet me! — no congratulating friends!’ — and her fears increasing, she wildly exclaimed, ‘Where is the priest to bless our union? — where is the church under whose roof we are to be united?’

‘As she spoke, Melmoth, drawing her arm under his, attempted to lead her gently forward. ‘There is,’ said he, ‘a ruined monastery near — you may have observed it from your window.’ — ‘No! I never saw it. Why is it in ruins?’ — ‘I know not — there were wild stories told. It was said the Superior, or Prior, or — I know not what — had looked into certain books, the perusal of which was not altogether sanctioned by the rules of his order — books of magic they called them. There was much noise about it, I remember, and some talk of the Inquisition, — but the end of the business was, the Prior disappeared, some said into the prisons of the Inquisition, some said into safer custody — (though how that could be, I cannot well conceive) — and the brethren were drafted into other communities, and the building became deserted. There were some offers made for it by the communities of other religious houses, but the evil, though vague and wild reports, that had gone forth about it, deterred them, on inquiry, from inhabiting it, — and gradually the building fell to ruin. It still retains all that can sanctify it in the eyes of the faithful. There are crucifixes and tomb-stones, and here and there a cross set up where there has been murder, — for, by a singular congeniality of taste, a banditti has fixed their seat there now, — and the traffic of gold for souls, once carried on so profitably by the former inmates, is exchanged for that of souls for gold, by the present.’

‘At these words, Melmoth felt the slender arm that hung on his withdrawn, — and he perceived that his victim, between shuddering and struggling, had shrunk from his hold. ‘But there,’ he added, ‘even amid those ruins, there dwells a holy hermit, — one who has taken up his residence near the spot, — he will unite us in his oratory, according to the rites of your church. He will speak the blessing over us, — and one of us, at least, shall be blessed.’ — ‘Hold!’ said Isidora, repelling, and standing at what distance from him she could, — her slight figure expanding to that queen-like dignity with which nature had once invested her as the fair and sole sovereign of her own island-paradise. ‘Hold!’ she repeated — ‘approach me not by another step, — address me not by another word, — till you tell me when and where I am to be united to you, — to become your wedded wife! I have borne much of doubt and terror, — of suspicion and persecution, — but’ — ‘Hear me, Isidora,’ said Melmoth, terrified at this sudden burst of resolution. ‘Hear me,’ answered the timid but heroic girl, springing, with the elasticity of her early movements, upon a crag that hung over their stony path, and clinging to an ash-tree that had burst through its fissures — ‘Hear me! Sooner will you rend this tree from its bed of stone, than me from its trunk! Sooner will I dash this body on the stony bed of the stream that groans below my feet, than descend into your arms, till you swear to me they will bear me to honour and safety! For you I have given up all that my newly-taught duties have told me was holy! — all that my heart long ago whispered I ought to love! Judge by what I have sacrificed, of what I can sacrifice — and doubt not that I would be my own victim ten thousand times sooner than yours!’ — ‘By all that you deem holy!’ cried Melmoth, humbling himself even to kneel before her as she stood, — ‘my intentions are as pure as your own soul! — the hermitage is not an hundred paces off. Come, and do not, by a fantastic and causeless apprehension, frustrate all the magnanimity and tenderness you have hitherto shewed, and which have raised you in my eyes not only above your sex, but above your whole species. Had you not been what you are, and what no other but you could be, you had never been the bride of Melmoth. With whom but you did he ever seek to unite his dark and inscrutable destiny? Isidora,’ he added, in tones more potent and emphatic, perceiving she still hesitated, and clung to the tree — ‘Isidora, how weak, how unworthy of you is this! You are in my power, — absolutely, hopelessly in my power. No human eye can see me — no human arm can aid you. You are as helpless as infancy in my grasp. This dark stream would tell no tales of deeds that stained its waters, — and the blast that howls round you would never waft your groans to mortal ear! You are in my power, yet I seek not to abuse it. I offer you my hand to conduct you to a consecrated building, where we shall be united according to the fashion of your country — and will you still persevere in this fanciful and profitless waywardness?’

‘As he spoke, Isidora looked round her helplessly — every object was a confirmation of his arguments — she shuddered and submitted. But as they walked on in silence, she could not help interrupting it to give utterance to the thousand anxieties that oppressed her heart.

‘But you speak,’ said she, in a suppressed and pleading tone, — ‘you speak of religion in words that make me tremble — you speak of it as the fashion of a country, — as a thing of form, of accident, of habit. What faith do you profess? — what church do you frequent? — what holy rites do you perform?’ — ‘I venerate all faiths — alike, I hold all religious rites — pretty much in the same respect,’ said Melmoth, while his former wild and scoffing levity seemed to struggle vainly with a feeling of involuntary horror. ‘And do you then, indeed, believe in holy things?’ asked Isidora. ‘Do you indeed?’ she repeated anxiously. ’I believe in a God,’ answered Melmoth, in a voice that froze her blood; ‘you have heard of those who believe and tremble, — such is he who speaks to you!’

‘Isidora’s acquaintance with the book from which he quoted, was too limited to permit her to understand the allusion. She knew, according to the religious education she had received, more of her breviary than her Bible; and though she pursued her inquiry in a timid and anxious tone, she felt no additional terror from words she did not understand.

‘But,’ she continued, ‘Christianity is something more than belief in a God. Do you also believe in all that the Catholic church declares to be essential to salvation? Do you believe that’ — And here she added a name too sacred, and accompanied with terms too awful, to be expressed in pages so light as these.1 ‘I believe it all — I know it all,’ answered Melmoth, in a voice of stern and reluctant confession. ‘Infidel and scoffer as I may appear to you, there is no martyr of the Christian church, who in other times blazed for his God, that has borne or exhibited a more resplendent illustration of his faith, than I shall bear one day — and for ever. There is a slight difference only between our testimonies in point of duration. They burned for the truths they loved for a few moments — not so many perchance. Some were suffocated before the flames could reach them, — but I am doomed to bear my attestation on the truth of the gospel, amid fires that shall burn for ever and ever. See with what a glorious destiny yours, my bride, is united! You, as a Christian, would doubtless exult to see your husband at the stake, — and amid the faggots to prove his devotion. How it must ennoble the sacrifice to think that it is to last to eternity!’

1 Here Monçada expressed his surprise at this passage, (as savouring more of Christianity than Judaism), considering it occurred in the manuscript of a Jew.

‘Melmoth uttered these words in ears that heard no longer. Isidora had fainted; and hanging with one cold hand on his arm still, fell a helpless, senseless weight on the earth. Melmoth, at this sight, shewed more feeling than he could have been suspected of. He disentangled her from the folds of her mantle, sprinkled water from the stream on her cold cheek, and supported her frame in every direction where a breath of air was to be caught. Isidora recovered; for her swoon was that of fatigue more than fear; and, with her recovery, her lover’s short-lived tenderness seemed to cease. The moment she was able to speak he urged her to proceed, — and while she feebly attempted to obey him, he assured her, her strength was perfectly recovered, and that the place they had to reach was but a few paces distant. Isidora struggled on. Their path now lay up the ascent of a steep hill, — they left the murmur of the stream, and the sighing of trees, behind them, — the wind, too, had sunk, but the night continued intensely dark, — and the absence of all sound seemed to Isidora to increase the desolateness of the scene. She wished for something to listen to beside her impeded and painful respiration, and the audible beatings of her heart. As they descended the hill on the other side, the murmuring of the waters became once more faintly audible; and this sound she had longed to hear again, had now, amid the stillness of the night, a cadence so melancholy, that she almost wished it hushed.

‘Thus always, to the unhappy, the very fulfilment of their morbid wishings becomes a source of disappointment, and the change they hoped for is desirable only as it gives them cause to long for another change. In the morning they say, Would to God it were evening! — Evening comes, — and in the evening they say, Would to God it were morning! But Isidora had no time to analyse her feelings, — a new apprehension struck her, — and, as she could well guess from the increasing speed of Melmoth, and head thrown backward impatiently, and often, it had probably reached him too. A sound they had been for some time watching, (without communicating their feelings to each other), became every moment more distinct. It was the sound of a human foot, evidently pursuing them, from the increasing quickness of its speed, and a certain sharpness of tread, that irresistibly gave the idea of hot and anxious pursuit. Melmoth suddenly paused, and Isidora hung trembling on his arm. Neither of them uttered a word; but Isidora’s eyes, instinctively following the slight but fearful waving of his arm, saw it directed towards a figure so obscure, that it at first appeared like a spray moving in the misty night, — then was lost in darkness as it descended the hill, — and then appeared in a human form, as far as the darkness of the night would permit its shape to be distinguishable. It came on — its steps were more and more audible, and its shape almost distinct. — Then Melmoth suddenly quitted Isidora, who, shivering with terror, but unable to utter a word that might implore him to stay, stood alone, her whole frame trembling almost to dissolution, and her feet feeling as if she were nailed to the spot where she stood. What passed she knew not. There was a short and darkened struggle between two figures, — and, in this fearful interval, she imagined she heard the voice of an ancient domestic, much attached to her, call on her, first in accents of expostulation and appeal, then in choaked and breathless cries for help — help — help! — Then she heard a sound as if a heavy body fell into the water that murmured below. — It fell heavily — the wave groaned — the dark hill groaned in answer, like murderers exchanging their stilled and midnight whispers over their work of blood — and all was silent. Isidora clasped her cold and convulsed fingers over her eyes, till a whispering voice, the voice of Melmoth, uttered, ‘Let us hasten on, my love.’ — ‘Where?’ said Isidora, not knowing the meaning of the words she uttered. — ‘To the ruined monastery, my love, — to the hermitage, where the holy man, the man of your faith, shall unite us.’ — ‘Where are the steps that pursued us?’ said Isidora, suddenly recovering her recollection. — ‘They will pursue you no more.’ — ‘But I saw a figure.’ — ‘But you will see it no more.’ — ‘I heard something fall into that stream — heavily — like a corse.’ — ‘There was a stone that fell from the precipice of the hill — the waters splashed, and curled, and whitened round it for a moment, but they have swallowed it now, and appear to have such a relish for the morsel, that they will not be apt to resign it.’

‘In silent horror she proceeded, till Melmoth, pointing to a dusky and indefinite mass of what, in the gloom of night, bore, according to the eye or the fancy, the shape of a rock, a tuft of trees, or a massive and unlighted building, whispered, ‘There is the ruin, and near it stands the hermitage, — one moment more of effort, — of renewed strength and courage, and we are there.’ Urged by these words, and still more by an undefinable wish to put an end to this shadowy journey, — these mysterious fears, — even at the risk of finding them worse than verified at its termination, Isidora exerted all her remaining strength, and, supported by Melmoth, began to ascend the sloping ground on which the monastery had once stood. There had been a path, but it was now all obstructed by stones, and rugged with the knotted and interlaced roots of the neglected trees that had once formed its shelter and its grace.

‘As they approached, in spite of the darkness of the night, the ruin began to assume a distinct and characteristic appearance, and Isidora’s heart beat less fearfully, when she could ascertain, from the remains of the tower and spire, the vast Eastern window, and the crosses still visible on every ruined pinnacle and pediment, like religion triumphant amid grief and decay, that this had been a building destined for sacred purposes. A narrow path, that seemed to wind round the edifice, conducted them to a front which overlooked an extensive cemetery, at the extremity of which Melmoth pointed out to her an indistinct object, which he said was the hermitage, and to which he would hasten to intreat the hermit, who was also a priest, to unite them. ‘May I not accompany you?’ said Isidora, glancing round on the graves that were to be her companions in solitude. — ‘It is against his vow,’ said Melmoth, ‘to admit a female into his presence, except when obliged by the course of his duties.’ So saying he hasted away, and Isidora, sinking on a grave for rest, wrapt her veil around her, as if its folds could exclude even thought. In a few moments, gasping for air, she withdrew it; but as her eye encountered only tomb-stones and crosses, and that dark and sepulchral vegetation that loves to shoot its roots, and trail its unlovely verdure amid the joints of grave-stones, she closed it again, and sat shuddering and alone. Suddenly a faint sound, like the murmur of a breeze, reached her, — she looked up, but the wind had sunk, and the night was perfectly calm. The same sound recurring, as of a breeze sweeping past, made her turn her eyes in the direction from which it came, and, at some distance from her, she thought she beheld a human figure moving slowly along on the verge of the inclosure of the burial-ground. Though it did not seem approaching her, (but rather moving in a low circuit on the verge of her view), conceiving it must be Melmoth, she rose in expectation of his advancing to her, and, at this moment, the figure, turning and half-pausing, seemed to extend its arm towards her, and wave it once or twice, but whether with a motion or purpose of warning or repelling her, it was impossible to discover, — it then renewed its dim and silent progress, and the next moment the ruins hid it from her view. She had no time to muse on this singular appearance, for Melmoth was now at her side urging her to proceed. There was a chapel, he told her, attached to the ruins, but not like them in decay, where sacred ceremonies were still performed, and where the priest had promised to join them in a few moments. ‘He is there before us,’ said Isidora, adverting to the figure she had seen; ‘I think I saw him.’ — ‘Saw whom?’ said Melmoth, starting, and standing immoveable till his question was answered. — ‘I saw a figure,’ said Isidora, trembling — ‘I thought I saw a figure moving towards the ruin.’ — ‘You are mistaken,’ said Melmoth; but a moment after he added, ‘We ought to have been there before him.’ And he hurried on with Isidora. Suddenly slackening his speed, he demanded, in a choaked and indistinct voice, if she had ever heard any music precede his visits to her, — any sounds in the air. ‘Never,’ was the answer. — ‘You are sure?’ — ‘Perfectly sure.’

‘At this moment they were ascending the fractured and rugged steps that led to the entrance of the chapel, now they passed under the dark and ivied porch, — now they entered the chapel, which, even in darkness, appeared to the eyes of Isidora ruinous and deserted. ‘He has not yet arrived,’ said Melmoth, in a disturbed voice; ‘Wait there a moment.’ And Isidora, enfeebled by terror beyond the power of resistance, or even intreaty, saw him depart without an effort to detain him. She felt as if the effort would be hopeless. Left thus alone, she glanced her eyes around, and a faint and watery moon-beam breaking at that moment through the heavy clouds, threw its light on the objects around her. There was a window, but the stained glass of its compartments, broken and discoloured, held rare and precarious place between the fluted shafts of stone. Ivy and moss darkened the fragments of glass, and clung round the clustered pillars. Beneath were the remains of an altar and crucifix, but they seemed like the rude work of the first hands that had ever been employed on such subjects. There was also a marble vessel, that seemed designed to contain holy water, but it was empty, — and there was a stone bench, on which Isidora sunk down in weariness, but without hope of rest. Once or twice she looked up to the window, through which the moon-beams fell, with that instinctive feeling of her former existence, that made companions of the elements, and of the beautiful and glorious family of heaven, under whose burning light she had once imagined the moon was her parent, and the stars her kindred. She gazed on the window still, like one who loved the light of nature, and drank health and truth from its beams, till a figure passing slowly but visibly before the pillared shafts, disclosed to her view the face of that ancient servant, whose features she remembered well. He seemed to regard her with a look, first of intent contemplation, — then of compassion, — the figure then passed from before the ruined window, and a faint and wailing cry rung in the ears of Isidora as it disappeared.

‘At that moment the moon, that had so faintly lit the chapel, sunk behind a cloud, and every thing was enveloped in darkness so profound, that Isidora did not recognize the figure of Melmoth till her hand was clasped in his, and his voice whispered, ‘He is here — ready to unite us.’ The long-protracted terrors of this bridal left her not a breath to utter a word withal, and she leaned on the arm that she felt, not in confidence, but for support. The place, the hour, the objects, all were hid in darkness. She heard a faint rustling as of the approach of another person, — she tried to catch certain words, but she knew not what they were, — she attempted also to speak, but she knew not what she said. All was mist and darkness with her, — she knew not what was muttered, — she felt not that the hand of Melmoth grasped hers, — but she felt that the hand that united them, and clasped their palms within his own, was as cold as that of death.’

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