Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 25

Τηλε μειργουσι ψυχαι, ειδοωλα καμοντων.

HOMER

‘We have now to retrace a short period of our narrative to the night on which Don Francisco di Aliaga, the father of Isidora, ‘fortuned,’ as he termed it, to be among the company whose conversation had produced so extraordinary an effect on him.

‘He was journeying homewards, full of the contemplation of his wealth, — the certainty of having attained complete security against the evils that harass life, — and being able to set at defiance all external causes of infelicity. He felt like a man ‘at ease in his possessions,’ — and he felt also a grave and placid satisfaction at the thought of meeting a family who looked up to him with profound respect as the author of their fortunes, — of walking in his own house, amid bowing domestics and obsequious relatives, with the same slow authoritative step with which he paced the mart among wealthy merchants, and saw the wealthiest bow as he approached, — and when he had passed, point out the man of whose grave salute they were proud, and whisper, That is Aliaga the rich. — So thinking and feeling, as most prosperous men do, with an honest pride in their worldly success, — an exaggerated expectation of the homage of society, — (which they often find frustrated by its contempt), — and an ultimate reliance on the respect and devotion of their family whom they have enriched, making them ample amends for the slights they may be exposed to where their wealth is unknown, and their newly assumed consequence unappreciated, — or if appreciated, not valued:— So thinking and feeling, Don Francisco journeyed homeward.

‘At a wretched inn where he was compelled to halt, he found the accommodation so bad, and the heat of the weather so intolerable in the low, narrow, and unwindowed rooms, that he preferred taking his supper in the open air, on a stone bench at the door of the inn. We cannot say that he there imagined himself to be feasted with trout and white bread, like Don Quixote, — and still less that he fancied he was ministered unto by damsels of rank; — on the contrary, Don Francisco was digesting a sorry meal with wretched wine, with a perfect internal consciousness of the mediocrity of both, when he beheld a person ride by, who paused, and looked as if he was inclined to stop at the inn. (The interval of this pause was not long enough to permit Don Francisco to observe particularly the figure or face of the horseman, or indeed to recognize him on any future occasion of meeting; nor was there any thing remarkable in his appearance to invite or arrest observation.) He made a sign to the host, who approached him with a slow and unwilling pace, — appeared to answer all his inquiries with sturdy negatives, — and finally, as the stranger rode on, returned to his station, crossing himself with every mark of terror and deprecation.

‘There was something more in this than the ordinary surliness of a Spanish innkeeper. Don Francisco’s curiosity was excited, and he asked the innkeeper, whether the stranger had proposed to pass the night at the inn, as the weather seemed to threaten a storm? ‘I know not what he proposes,’ answered the man, ‘but this I know, that I would not suffer him to pass an hour under my roof for the revenues of Toledo. If there be a storm coming on, I care not — those who can raise them are the fittest to meet them!’

‘Don Francisco inquired the cause of these extraordinary expressions of aversion and terror, but the innkeeper shook his head and remained silent, with, as it were, the circumspective fear of one who is inclosed within a sorcerer’s circle, and dreads to pass its verge, lest he become the prey of the spirits who are waiting beyond it to take advantage of his transgression.

‘At last, at Don Francisco’s repeated instances, he said, ‘Your worship must needs be a stranger in this part of Spain not to have heard of Melmoth the wanderer.’ — ‘I have never heard of the name before,’ said Don Francisco; ‘and I conjure you, brother, to tell me what you know of this person, whose character, if I may judge by the manner in which you speak of him, must have in it something extraordinary.’ — ‘Senhor,’ answered the man, ‘were I to relate what is told of that person, I should not be able to close an eye to-night; or if I did, it would be to dream of things so horrible, that I had rather lie awake for ever. But, if I am not mistaken, there is in the house one who can gratify your curiosity — it is a gentleman who is preparing for the press a collection of facts relative to that person, and who has been, for some time, in vain soliciting for a license to print them, they being such as the government, in its wisdom, thinks not fit to be perused by the eyes of Catholics, or circulated among a Christian community.’

‘As the innkeeper spoke, and spoke with an earnestness that at least made the hearer believe he felt the conviction he tried to impress, the person of whom he spoke was standing beside Don Francisco. He had apparently overheard their conversation, and seemed not indisposed to continue it. He was a man of a grave and composed aspect, and altogether so remote from any appearance of imposition, or theatrical and conjuror-like display, that Don Francisco, grave, suspicious, and deliberate as a Spaniard, and moreover a Spanish merchant, may be, could not avoid giving him his confidence at sight, though he forbore any external expression of it.

‘Senhor,’ said the stranger, ‘mine host has told you but the truth. The person whom you saw ride by, is one of those beings after whom human curiosity pants in vain, — whose life is doomed to be recorded in incredible legends that moulder in the libraries of the curious, and to be disbelieved and scorned even by those who exhaust sums on their collection, and ungratefully depreciate the contents of the volumes on whose aggregate its value depends. There has been, however, I believe, no other instance of a person still alive, and apparently exercising all the functions of a human agent, who has become already the subject of written memoirs, and the theme of traditional history. Several circumstances relating to this extraordinary being are even now in the hands of curious and eager collectors; and I have myself attained to the knowledge of one or two that are not among the least extraordinary. The marvellous period of life said to be assigned him, and the facility with which he has been observed to pass from region to region, (knowing all, and known to none), have been the principal causes why the adventures in which he is engaged, should be at once so numerous and so similar.’

‘As the stranger ceased to speak, the evening grew dark, and a few large and heavy drops of rain fell. ‘This night threatens a storm,’ said the stranger, looking abroad with some degree of anxiety — ‘we had better retire within doors; and if you, Senhor, are not otherwise occupied, I am willing to pass away some hours of this unpleasant night in relating to you some circumstances relating to the wanderer, which have come within my certain knowledge.’

‘Don Francisco assented to this proposal as much from curiosity, as from the impatience of solitude, which is never more insupportable than in an inn, and during stormy weather. Don Montilla, too, had left him on a visit to his father, who was in a declining state, and was not to join him again till his arrival in the neighbourhood of Madrid. He therefore bid his servants shew the way to his apartment, whither he courteously invited his new acquaintance.

‘Imagine them now seated in the wretched upper apartment of a Spanish inn, whose appearance, though dreary and comfortless, had in it, nevertheless, something picturesque, and not inappropriate, as the scene where a wild and wondrous tale was to be related and listened to. There was no luxury of inventive art to flatter the senses, or enervate the attention, — to enable the hearer to break the spell that binds him to the world of horrors, and recover to all the soothing realities and comforts of ordinary life, like one who starts from a dream of the rack, and finds himself waking on a bed of down. The walls were bare, and the roofs were raftered, and the only furniture was a table, beside which Don Francisco and his companion sat, the one on a huge high-backed chair, the other on a stool so low, that he seemed seated at the listener’s foot. A lamp stood on the table, whose light flickering in the wind, that sighed through many apertures of the jarring door, fell alternately on lips that quivered as they read, and cheeks that grew paler as the listener bent to catch the sounds to which fear gave a more broken and hollow tone, at the close of every page. The rising voice of the stormy night seemed to make wild and dreary harmony with the tones of the listener’s feelings. The storm came on, not with sudden violence, but with sullen and long-suspended wrath — often receding, as it were, to the verge of the horizon, and then returning and rolling its deepening and awful peals over the very roof. And as the stranger proceeded in his narrative, every pause, which emotion or weariness might cause, was meetly filled by the deep rushing of the rain that fell in torrents, — the sighs of the wind, — and now and then a faint, distant, but long-continued peal of thunder. ‘It sounds,’ said the stranger, raising his eyes from the manuscript, ‘like the chidings of the spirits, that their secrets are disclosed!’

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