Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 26

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— And the twain were playing dice.

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The game is done, I’ve won, I’ve won,

Quoth she, and whistled thrice.

COLERIDGE— Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

The Tale of Guzman’s Family

‘Of what I am about to read to you,’ said the stranger, ‘I have witnessed part myself, and the remainder is established on a basis as strong as human evidence can make it.

‘In the city of Seville, where I lived many years, I knew a wealthy merchant, far advanced in years, who was known by the name of Guzman the rich. He was of obscure birth, — and those who honoured his wealth sufficiently to borrow from him frequently, never honoured his name so far as to prefix Don to it, or to add his surname, of which, indeed, most were ignorant, and among the number, it is said, the wealthy merchant himself. He was well respected, however; and when Guzman was seen, as regularly as the bell tolled for vespers, to issue from the narrow door of his house, — lock it carefully, — view it twice or thrice with a wistful eye, — then deposit the key in his bosom, and move slowly to church, feeling for the key in his vest the whole way, — the proudest heads in Seville were uncovered as he passed, — and the children who were playing in the streets, desisted from their sports till he had halted by them.

‘Guzman had neither wife or child, — relative or friend. An old female domestic constituted his whole household, and his personal expences were calculated on a scale of the most pinching frugality; it was therefore matter of anxious conjecture to many, how his enormous wealth would be bestowed after his death. This anxiety gave rise to inquiries about the possibility of Guzman having relatives, though in remoteness and obscurity; and the diligence of inquiry, when stimulated at once by avarice and curiosity, is indefatigable. Thus it was at length discovered that Guzman had formerly a sister, many years younger than himself, who, at a very early age, had married a German musician, a Protestant, and had shortly after quitted Spain. It was remembered, or reported, that she had made many efforts to soften the heart and open the hand of her brother, who was even then very wealthy, and to induce him to be reconciled to their union, and to enable her and her husband to remain in Spain. Guzman was inflexible. Wealthy, and proud of his wealth as he was, he might have digested the unpalatable morsel of her union with a poor man, whom he could have made rich; but he could not even swallow the intelligence that she had married a Protestant. Ines, for that was her name, and her husband, went to Germany, partly in dependence on his musical talents, which were highly appreciated in that country, — partly in the vague hope of emigrants, that change of place will be attended with change of circumstances, — and partly, also, from the feeling, that misfortune is better tolerated any where than in the presence of those who inflict it. Such was the tale told by the old, who affected to remember the facts, — and believed by the young, whose imagination supplied all the defects of memory, and pictured to them an interesting beauty, with her children hanging about her, embarking, with a heretic husband, for a distant country, and sadly bidding farewell to the land and the religion of her fathers.

‘Now, while these things were talked of at Seville, Guzman fell sick, and was given over by the physicians, whom with considerable reluctance he had suffered to be called in.

‘In the progress of his illness, whether nature revisited a heart she long appeared to have deserted, — or whether he conceived that the hand of a relative might be a more grateful support to his dying head than that of a rapacious and mercenary menial, — or whether his resentful feelings burnt faintly at the expected approach of death, as artificial fires wax dim at the appearance of morning; — so it was, that Guzman in his illness bethought himself of his sister and her family, — sent off, at a considerable expence, an express to that part of Germany where she resided, to invite her to return and be reconciled to him, — and prayed devoutly that he might be permitted to survive till he could breathe his last amid the arms of her and her children. Moreover, there was a report at this time, in which the hearers probably took more interest than in any thing that related merely to the life or death of Guzman, — and this was, that he had rescinded his former will, and sent for a notary, with whom, in spite of his apparent debility, he remained locked up for some hours, dictating in a tone which, however clear to the notary, did not leave one distinct impression of sound on the ears that were strained, even to an agony of listening, at the double-locked door of his chamber.

‘All Guzman’s friends had endeavoured to dissuade him from making this exertion, which, they assured him, would only hasten his dissolution. But to their surprise, and doubtless their delight, from the moment his will was made, Guzman’s health began to amend, — and in less than a week he began to walk about his chamber, and calculate what time it might take an express to reach Germany, and how soon he might expect intelligence from his family.

‘Some months had passed away, and the priests took advantage of the interval to get about Guzman. But after exhausting every effort of ingenuity, — after plying him powerfully but unavailingly on the side of conscience, of duty, of fear, and of religion, — they began to understand their interest, and change their battery. And finding that the settled purpose of Guzman’s soul was not to be changed, and that he was determined on recalling his sister and her family to Spain, they contented themselves with requiring that he should have no communication with the heretic family, except through them, — and never see his sister or her children unless they were witnesses to the interview.

‘This condition was easily complied with, for Guzman felt no decided inclination for seeing his sister, whose presence might have reminded him of feelings alienated, and duties forgot. Besides, he was a man of fixed habits; and the presence of the most interesting being on earth, that threatened the slightest interruption or suspension of those habits, would have been to him insupportable.

‘Thus we are all indurated by age and habit, — and feel ultimately, that the dearest connexions of nature or passion may be sacrificed to those petty indulgences which the presence or influence of a stranger may disturb. So Guzman compromised between his conscience and his feelings. He determined, in spite of all the priests in Seville, to invite his sister and her family to Spain, and to leave the mass of his immense fortune to them; (and to that effect he wrote, and wrote repeatedly and explicitly). But, on the other hand, he promised and swore to his spiritual counsellors, that he never would see one individual of the family; and that, though his sister might inherit his fortune, she never — never should see his face. The priests were satisfied, or appeared to be so, with this declaration; and Guzman, having propitiated them with ample offerings to the shrines of various saints, to each of whom his recovery was exclusively attributed, sat down to calculate the probable expence of his sister’s return to Spain, and the necessity of providing for her family, whom he had, as it were, rooted from their native bed; and therefore felt bound, in all honesty, to make them flourish in the soil into which he had transplanted them.

‘Within the year, his sister, her husband, and four children, returned to Spain. Her name was Ines, her husband’s was Walberg. He was an industrious man, and an excellent musician. His talents had obtained for him the place of Maestro di Capella to the Duke of Saxony; and his children were educated (according to his means) to supply his place when vacated by death or accident, or to employ themselves as musical teachers in the courts of German princes. He and his wife had lived with the utmost frugality, and looked to their children for the means of increasing, by the exercise of their talents, that subsistence which it was their daily labour to provide.

‘The eldest son, who was called Everhard, inherited his father’s musical talents. The daughters, Julia and Ines, were musical also, and very skilful in embroidery. The youngest child, Maurice, was by turns the delight and the torment of the family.

‘They had struggled on for many years in difficulties too petty to be made the subject of detail, yet too severe not to be painfully felt by those whose lot is to encounter them every day, and every hour of the day, — when the sudden intelligence, brought by an express from Spain, of their wealthy relative Guzman inviting them to return thither, and proclaiming them heirs to all his vast riches, burst on them like the first dawn of his half-year’s summer on the crouching and squalid inmate of a Lapland hut. All trouble was forgot, — all cares postponed, — their few debts paid off, — and their preparations made for an instant departure to Spain.

‘So to Spain they went, and journeyed on to the city of Seville, where, on their arrival, they were waited on by a grave ecclesiastic, who acquainted them with Guzman’s resolution of never seeing his offending sister or her family, while at the same time he assured them of his intention of supporting and supplying them with every comfort, till his decease put them in possession of his wealth. The family were somewhat disturbed at this intelligence, and the mother wept at being denied the sight of her brother, for whom she still cherished the affection of memory; while the priest, by way of softening the discharge of his commission, dropt some words of a change of their heretical opinions being most likely to open a channel of communication between them and their relative. The silence with which this hint was received spoke more than many words, and the priest departed.

‘This was the first cloud that had intercepted their view of felicity since the express arrived in Germany, and they sat gloomily enough under its shadow for the remainder of the evening. Walberg, in the confidence of expected wealth, had not only brought over his children to Spain, but had written to his father and mother, who were very old, and wretchedly poor, to join him in Seville; and by the sale of his house and furniture, had been enabled to remit them money for the heavy expences of so long a journey. They were now hourly expected, and the children, who had a faint but grateful recollection of the blessing bestowed on their infant heads by quivering lips and withered hands, looked out with joy for the arrival of the ancient pair. Ines had often said to her husband, ‘Would it not be better to let your father and mother remain in Germany, and remit them money for their support, than put them to the fatigue of so long a journey at their far advanced age?’ — And he had always answered, ‘Let them rather die under my roof, than live under that of strangers.’

‘This night he perhaps began to feel the prudence of his wife’s advice; — she saw it, and with cautious gentleness forbore, for that very reason, to remind him of it.

‘The weather was gloomy and cold that evening, — it was unlike a night in Spain. Its chill appeared to extend to the party. Ines sat and worked in silence — the children, collected at the window, communicated in whispers their hopes and conjectures about the arrival of the aged travellers, and Walberg, who was restlessly traversing the room, sometimes sighed as he overheard them.

‘The next day was sunny and cloudless. The priest again called on them, and, after regretting that Guzman’s resolution was inflexible, informed them, that he was directed to pay them an annual sum for their support, which he named, and which appeared to them enormous; and to appropriate another for the education of the children, which seemed to be calculated on a scale of princely munificence. He put deeds, properly drawn and attested for this purpose, into their hands, and then withdrew, after repeating the assurance, that they would be the undoubted heirs of Guzman’s wealth at his decease, and that, as the interval would be passed in affluence, it might well be passed without repining. The priest had scarcely retired, when the aged parents of Walberg arrived, feeble from joy and fatigue, but not exhausted, and the whole family sat down to a meal that appeared to them luxurious, in that placid contemplation of future felicity, which is often more exquisite than its actual enjoyment.

‘I saw them,’ said the stranger, interrupting himself, — ‘I saw them on the evening of that day of union, and a painter, who wished to embody the image of domestic felicity in a group of living figures, need have gone no further than the mansion of Walberg. He and his wife were seated at the head of the table, smiling on their children, and seeing them smile in return, without the intervention of one anxious thought, — one present harassing of petty difficulty, or heavy presage of future mischance, — one fear of the morrow, or aching remembrance of the past. Their children formed indeed a groupe on which the eye of painter or of parent, the gaze of taste or of affection, might have hung with equal delight. Everhard their eldest son, now sixteen, possessed too much beauty for his sex, and his delicate and brilliant complexion, his slender and exquisitely moulded form, and the modulation of his tender and tremulous voice, inspired that mingled interest, with which we watch, in youth, over the strife of present debility with the promise of future strength, and infused into his parent’s hearts that fond anxiety with which we mark the progress of a mild but cloudy morning in spring, rejoicing in the mild and balmy glories of its dawn, but fearing lest clouds may overshade them before noon. The daughters, Ines and Julia, had all the loveliness of their colder climate — the luxuriant ringlets of golden hair, the large bright blue eyes, the snow-like whiteness of their bosoms, and slender arms, and the rose-leaf tint and peachiness of their delicate cheeks, made them, as they attended their parents with graceful and fond officiousness, resemble two young Hebes ministering cups, which their touch alone was enough to turn into nectar.

‘The spirits of these young persons had been early depressed by the difficulties in which their parents were involved; and even in childhood they had acquired the timid tread, the whispered tone, the anxious and inquiring look, that the constant sense of domestic distress painfully teaches even to children, and which it is the most exquisite pain to a parent to witness. But now there was nothing to restrain their young hearts, — that stranger, a smile, fled back rejoicing to the lovely home of their lips, — and the timidity of their former habits only lent a grateful shade to the brilliant exuberance of youthful happiness. Just opposite this picture, whose hues were so bright, and whose shades were so tender, were seated the figures of the aged grandfather and grandmother. The contrast was very strong; there was no connecting link, no graduated medium, — you passed at once from the first and fairest flowers of spring, to the withered and rootless barrenness of winter.

‘These very aged persons, however, had something in their looks to soothe the eye, and Teniers or Wouverman would perhaps have valued their figures and costume far beyond those of their young and lovely grandchildren. They were stiffly and quaintly habited in their German garb — the old man in his doublet and cap, and the old woman in her ruff, stomacher, and head-gear resembling a skullcap, with long depending pinners, through which a few white, but very long hairs, appeared on her wrinkled cheeks; but on the countenances of both there was a gleam of joy, like the cold smile of a setting sun on a wintry landscape. They did not distinctly hear the kind importunities of their son and daughter, to partake more amply of the most plentiful meal they had ever witnessed in their frugal lives, — but they bowed and smiled with that thankfulness which is at once wounding and grateful to the hearts of affectionate children. They smiled also at the beauty of Everhard and their elder grandchildren, — at the wild pranks of Maurice, who was as wild in the hour of trouble as in the hour of prosperity; — and finally, they smiled at all that was said, though they did not hear half of it, and at all they saw, though they could enjoy very little — and that smile of age, that placid submission to the pleasures of the young, mingled with undoubted anticipations of a more pure and perfect felicity, gave an almost heavenly expression to features, that would otherwise have borne only the withering look of debility and decay.

‘Some circumstances occurred during this family feast, which were sufficiently characteristic of the partakers. Walberg (himself a very temperate man) pressed his father repeatedly to take more wine than he was accustomed to, — the old man gently declined it. The son still pressed it heartfully, and the old man complied with a wish to gratify his son, not himself.

‘The younger children, too, caressed their grandmother with the boisterous fondness of children. Their mother reproached them. — ‘Nay, let be,’ said the gentle old woman. ‘They trouble you, mother,’ said the wife of Walberg. — ‘They cannot trouble me long,’ said the grandmother, with an emphatic smile. ‘Father,’ said Walberg, ‘is not Everhard grown very tall?’ — ‘The last time I saw him,’ said the grandfather, ‘I stooped to kiss him; now I think he must stoop to kiss me.’ And, at the word, Everhard darted like an arrow into the trembling arms that were opened to receive him, and his red and hairless lips were pressed to the snowy beard of his grandfather. ‘Cling there, my child,’ said the exulting father. — ‘God grant your kiss may never be applied to lips less pure.’ — ‘They never shall, my father!’ said the susceptible boy, blushing at his own emotions — ‘I never wish to press any lips but those that will bless me like those of my grandfather.’ — ‘And do you wish,’ said the old man jocularly, ‘that the blessing should always issue from lips as rough and hoary as mine?’ Everhard stood blushing behind the old man’s chair at this question, and Walberg, who heard the clock strike the hour at which he had been always accustomed, in prosperity or adversity, to summon his family to prayer, made a signal which his children well understood, and which was communicated in whispers to their aged relatives. — ‘Thank God,’ said the aged grandmother to the young whisperer, and as she spoke, she sunk on her knees. Her grandchildren assisted her. ‘Thank God,’ echoed the old man, bending his stiffened knees, and doffing his cap — ‘Thank God for this ‘shadow of a great rock in a weary land!” — and he knelt, while Walberg, after reading a chapter or two from a German Bible which he held in his hands, pronounced an extempore prayer, imploring God to fill their hearts with gratitude for the temporal blessings they enjoyed, and to enable them ‘so to pass through things temporal, that they might not finally lose the things eternal.’ At the close of the prayer, the family rose and saluted each other with that affection which has not its root in earth, and whose blossoms, however diminutive and colourless to the eye of man in this wretched soil, shall yet bear glorious fruit in the garden of God. It was a lovely sight to behold the young people assisting their aged relatives to arise from their knees, — and it was a lovelier hearing, to listen to the happy good-nights exchanged among the parting family. The wife of Walberg was most assiduous in preparing the comforts of her husband’s parents, and Walberg yielded to her with that proud gratitude, that feels more exaltation in a benefit conferred by those we love, than if we conferred it ourselves. He loved his parents, but he was proud of his wife loving them because they were his. To the repeated offers of his children to assist or attend their ancient relatives, he answered, ‘No, dear children, your mother will do better, — your mother always does best.’ As he spoke, his children, according to a custom now forgot, kneeled before him to ask his blessing. His hand, tremulous with affection, rested first on the curling locks of the darling Everhard, whose head towered proudly above those of his kneeling sisters, and of Maurice, who, with the irrepressible and venial levity of joyous childhood, laughed as he knelt. ‘God bless you!’ said Walberg — ‘God bless you all, — and may he make you as good as your mother, and as happy as — your father is this night;’ and as he spoke, the happy father turned aside and wept.

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