Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 27

— Quæque ipsa miserrima vidi,

Et quorum pars magna fui.

VIRGIL.

‘The wife of Walberg, who was naturally of a cool sedate temper, and to whom misfortune had taught an anxious and jealous prevoyance, was not so intoxicated with the present prosperity of the family, as its young, or even its aged members. Her mind was full of thoughts which she would not communicate to her husband, and sometimes did not wish to acknowledge to herself; but to the priest, who visited them frequently with renewed marks of Guzman’s bounty, she spoke explicitly. She said, that however grateful for her brother’s kindness, for the enjoyment of present competence, and the hope of future wealth, she wished that her children might be permitted to acquire the means of independent subsistence for themselves, and that the money destined by Guzman’s liberality for their ornamental education, might be applied to the purpose of ensuring them the power of supporting themselves, and assisting their parents. She alluded slightly to the possible future change in her brother’s favourable feelings towards her, and dwelt much on the circumstance of her children being strangers in the country, wholly unacquainted with its language, and averse from its religion; and she mildly but strongly stated the difficulties to which a heretic family of strangers might be exposed in a Catholic country, and implored the priest to employ his mediation and influence with her brother, that her children might be enabled, through his bounty, to acquire the means of independent subsistence, as if — and she paused. The good and friendly priest (for he was truly both) listened to her with attention; and after satisfying his conscience, by adjuring her to renounce her heretical opinions, as the only means of obtaining a reconciliation with God and her brother, and receiving a calm, but firm negative, proceeded to give her his best lay advice, which was to comply with her brother’s wishes in every thing, to educate her children in the manner which he prescribed, and to the full extent of the means which he so amply furnished. He added, en confiance, that Guzman, though, during his long life, he had never been suspected of any passion but that of accumulating money, was now possessed with a spirit much harder to expel, and was resolved that the heirs of his wealth should be, in point of all that might embellish polished society, on a level with the descendants of the first nobility of Spain. Finally, he counselled submission to her brother’s wishes in all things, — and the wife of Walberg complied with tears, which she tried to conceal from the priest, and had completely effaced the traces of before she again met her husband.

‘In the mean time, the plan of Guzman was rapidly realized. A handsome house was taken for Walberg, — his sons and daughters were splendidly arrayed, and sumptuously lodged; and, though education was, and still is, on a very low level in Spain, they were taught all that was then supposed to qualify them as companions for the descendants of Hidalgoes. Any attempt, or even allusion to their being prepared for the ordinary occupations of life, was strictly forbidden by the orders of Guzman. The father triumphed in this, — the mother regretted it, but she kept her regret to herself, and consoled herself with thinking, that the ornamental education her children were receiving might ultimately be turned to account; for the wife of Walberg was a woman whom the experience of misfortune had taught to look to the future with an anxious eye, and that eye, with ominous accuracy, had seldom failed to detect a speck of evil in the brightest beam of sun-shine that had ever trembled on her chequered existence.

‘The injunctions of Guzman were obeyed, — the family lived in luxury. The young people plunged into their new life of enjoyment with an avidity proportioned to their youthful sensibility of pleasure, and to a taste for refinement and elegant pursuits, which their former obscurity had repressed, but never extinguished. The proud and happy father exulted in the personal beauty, and improving talents of his children. The anxious mother sighed sometimes, but took care the sigh should never reach her husband’s ear. The aged grandfather and grandmother, whose infirmities had been much increased by their journey to Spain, and possibly still more by that strong emotion which is a habit to youth, but a convulsion to age, sat in their ample chairs comfortably idle, dozing away life in intervals of unuttered though conscious satisfaction, and calm but venerable apathy; — they slept much, but when they awoke, they smiled at their grandchildren, and at each other.

‘The wife of Walberg, during this interval, which seemed one of undisturbed felicity to all but her, sometimes suggested a gentle caution, — a doubtful and anxious hint, — a possibility of future disappointment, but this was soon smiled away by the rosy, and laughing, and kissful lips of her children, till the mother at last began to smile at her apprehensions herself. At times, however, she led them anxiously in the direction of their uncle’s house. She walked up and down the street before his door with her children, and sometimes lifted up her veil, as if to try whether her eye could pierce through walls as hard as the miser’s heart, or windows barred like his coffers, — then glancing on her children’s costly dress, while her eye darted far into futurity, she sighed and returned slowly home. This state of suspence was soon to be terminated.

‘The priest, Guzman’s confessor, visited them often; first in quality of almoner or agent of his bounty, which was amply and punctually bestowed through his hands; and secondly, in quality of a professed chess-player, at which game he had met, even in Spain, no antagonist like Walberg. He also felt an interest in the family and their fortunes, which, though his orthodoxy disowned, his heart could not forbear to acknowledge, — so the good priest compromised matters by playing chess with the father, and praying for the conversion of his family on his return to Guzman’s house. It was while engaged in the former exercise, that a message arrived to summon him on the instant home, — the priest left his queen en prise, and hurried into the passage to speak with the messenger. The family of Walberg, with agitation unspeakable, half rose to follow him. They paused at the door, and then retreated with a mixed feeling of anxiety for the intelligence, and shame at the attitude in which they might be discovered. As they retreated, however, they could not help hearing the words of the messenger, — ‘He is at his last gasp, — he has sent for you, — you must not lose a moment.’ As the messenger spoke, the priest and he departed.

‘The family returned to their apartment, and for some hours sat in profound silence, interrupted only by the ticking of the clock, which was distinctly and solely heard, and which seemed too loud to their quickened ears, amid that deep stillness on which it broke incessantly, — or by the echoes of Walberg’s hurried step, as he started from his chair and traversed the apartment. At this sound they turned, as if expecting a messenger, then, glancing at the silent figure of Walberg, sunk on their seats again. The family sat up all that long night of unuttered, and indeed unutterable emotion. The lights burnt low, and were at length extinguished, but no one noticed them; — the pale light of the dawn broke feebly into the room, but no one observed it was morning. ‘God! — how long he lingers!’ exclaimed Walberg involuntarily; and these words, though uttered under his breath, made all the listeners start, as at the first sounds of a human voice, which they had not heard for many hours.

‘At this moment a knock was heard at the door, — a step trod slowly along the passage that led to the room, — the door opened, and the priest appeared. He advanced into the room without speaking, or being spoken to. And the contrast of strong emotion and unbroken silence, — this conflict of speech that strangled thought in the utterance, and of thought that in vain asked aid of speech, — the agony and the muteness, — formed a terrible momentary association. It was but momentary, — the priest, as he stood, uttered the words — ‘All is over!’ Walberg clasped his hands over his forehead, and in ecstatic agony exclaimed, — ‘Thank God!’ and wildly catching at the object nearest him, as if imagining it one of his children, he clasped and hugged it to his breast. His wife wept for a moment at the thought of her brother’s death, but roused herself for her children’s sake to hear all that was to be told. The Priest could tell no more but that Guzman was dead, — seals had been put on every chest, drawer, and coffer in the house, — not a cabinet had escaped the diligence of the persons employed, — and the will was to be read the following day.

‘For the following day the family remained in that intensity of expectation that precluded all thought. The servants prepared the usual meal, but it remained untasted. The family pressed each other to partake of it; but as the importunity was not enforced by the inviter setting any example of the lesson he tried to teach, the meal remained untasted. About noon a grave person, in the habit of a notary, was announced, and summoned Walberg to be present at the opening of Guzman’s will. As Walberg prepared to obey the summons, one of his children officiously offered him his hat, another his cloke, both of which he had forgot in the trepidation of his anxiety; and these instances of reminiscence and attention in his children, contrasted with his own abstraction, completely overcame him, and he sunk down on a seat to recover himself. ‘You had better not go, my love,’ said his wife mildly. ‘I believe I shall — I must take your advice,’ said Walberg, relapsing on the seat from which he had half risen. The notary, with a formal bow, was retiring. ‘I will go!’ said Walberg, swearing a German oath, whose gutteral sound made the notary start, — ‘I will go!’ and as he spoke he fell on the floor, exhausted by fatigue and want of refreshment, and emotion indescribable but to a father. The notary retired, and a few hours more were exhausted in torturing conjecture, expressed on the mother’s part only by clasped hands and smothered sighs, — on the father’s by profound silence, averted countenance, and hands that seemed to feel for those of his children, and then shrink from the touch, — and on the children’s by rapidly varying auguries of hope and of disappointment. The aged pair sat motionless among their family; — they knew not what was going on, but they knew if it was good they must partake of it, — and in the perception or expectation of the approach of evil, their faculties had latterly become very obtuse.

‘The day was far advanced, — it was noon. The servants, with whom the munificence of the deceased had amply supplied their establishment, announced that dinner was prepared; and Ines, who retained more presence of mind than the rest, gently suggested to her husband the necessity of not betraying their emotions to their servants. He obeyed her hint mechanically, and walked into the dining-hall, forgetting for the first time to offer his arm to his infirm father. His family followed, but, when seated at the table, they seemed not to know for what purpose they were collected there. Walberg, consumed by that thirst of anxiety which nothing seems sufficient to quench, called repeatedly for wine; and his wife, who found even the attempt to eat impossible in the presence of the gazing and unmoved attendants, dismissed them by a signal, but did not feel the desire of food restored by their absence. The old couple eat as usual, and sometimes looked up with an expression of vague and vacant wonder, and a kind of sluggish reluctance to admit the fear or belief of approaching calamity. Towards the end of their cheerless meal, Walberg was called out; he returned in a few minutes, and there was no appearance of change in his countenance. He seated himself, and only his wife perceived the traces of a wild smile stealing over the trembling lines of his face, as he filled a large glass of wine, and raised it to his lips, pronouncing — ‘A health to the heirs of Guzman.’ But instead of drinking the wine, he dashed the glass to the floor, and burying his head in the drapery of the table on which he flung himself, he exclaimed, ‘Not a ducat, — not a ducat, — all left to the church! — Not a ducat!’

‘In the evening the priest called, and found the family much more composed. The certainty of evil had given them a kind of courage. Suspence is the only evil against which it is impossible to set up a defence, — and, like young mariners in an untried sea, they almost felt ready to welcome the storm, as a relief from the deadly and loathsome sickness of anxiety. The honest resentment, and encouraging manner of the priest, were a cordial to their ears and hearts. He declared his belief, that nothing but the foulest means that might be resorted to by interested and bigotted monks, could have extorted such a will from the dying man, — his readiness to attest, in every court in Spain, the intentions of the testator (till within a few hours of his death) to have bequeathed his whole fortune to his family, — intentions which he had repeatedly expressed to him and others, and to whose effect he had seen a former will of no long date, — and, finally, gave his strenuous advice to Walberg to bring the matter to legal arbitration, in aid of which he promised his personal exertions, his influence with the ablest advocates in Seville, and every thing — but money.

‘The family that night went to bed with spirits exalted by hope, and slept in peace. One circumstance alone marked a change in their feelings and habits. As they were retiring, the old man laid his tremulous hand on the shoulder of Walberg, and said mildly, ‘My son, shall we pray before we retire?’ — ‘Not to-night, father,’ said Walberg, who perhaps feared the mention of their heretical worship might alienate the friendly priest, or who felt the agitation of his heart too great for the solemn exercise; ‘Not to-night, I am — too happy!’

‘The priest was as good as his word, — the ablest advocates in Seville undertook the cause of Walberg. Proofs of undue influence, of imposition, and of terror being exercised on the mind of the testator, were ingeniously made out by the diligence and spiritual authority of the priest, and skilfully arranged and ably pleaded by the advocates. Walberg’s spirits rose with every hour. The family, at the time of Guzman’s death, were in possession of a considerable sum of money, but this was soon expended, together with another sum which the frugality of Ines had enabled her to save, and which she now cheerfully produced in aid of her husband’s exigencies, and in confidence of eventual success. When all was gone, other resources still remained, — the spacious house was disposed of, the servants dismissed, the furniture sold (as usual) for about a fourth of its value, and, in their new and humble abode in the suburbs of Seville, Ines and her daughters contentedly resumed those domestic duties which they had been in the habit of performing in their quiet home in Germany. Amid these changes, the grandfather and grandmother experienced none but mere change of place, of which they hardly appeared conscious. The assiduous attention of Ines to their comforts was increased, not diminished, by the necessity of being herself the sole ministrant to them; and smiling she pleaded want of appetite, or trifling indisposition, as an excuse for her own and her children’s meal, while theirs was composed of every thing that could tempt the tasteless palate of age, or that she remembered was acceptable to theirs.

‘The cause had now come to a hearing, and for the two first days the advocates of Walberg carried all before them. On the third the ecclesiastical advocates made a firm and vigorous stand. Walberg returned much dispirited; — his wife saw it, and therefore assumed no airs of cheerfulness, which only increase the irritation of misfortune, but she was equable, and steadily and tranquilly occupied in domestic business the whole evening in his sight. As they were separating for the night, by a singular contingency, the old man again reminded his son of the forgotten hour of family prayer. ‘Not to-night, father,’ said Walberg impatiently; ‘not to-night; I am — too unhappy!’ — ‘Thus,’ said the old man, lifting up his withered hands, and speaking with an energy he had not showed for years, — ‘thus, O my God! prosperity and adversity alike furnish us with excuses for neglecting thee!’ As he tottered from the room, Walberg declined his head on the bosom of his wife, who sat beside him, and shed a few bitter tears. And Ines whispered to herself, ‘The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit, — a broken heart he will not despise.’

‘The cause had been carried on with a spirit and expedition that had no precedent in the courts of Spain, and the fourth day was fixed on for a final hearing and termination of the cause. The day dawned, and at the dawn of day Walberg arose, and walked for some hours before the gates of the hall of justice; and when they were opened, he entered, and sat down mechanically on a seat in the vacant hall, with the same look of profound attention, and anxious interest, that he would have assumed had the court been seated, and the cause about to be decided. After a few moment’s pause, he sighed, started, and appearing to awake from a dream, quitted his seat, and walked up and down the empty passages till the court was prepared to sit.

‘The court met early that day, and the cause was powerfully advocated. Walberg sat on one seat, without ever changing his place, till all was over; and it was then late in the evening, and he had taken no refreshment the entire day, and he had never changed his place, and he had never changed the close and corrupted atmosphere of the crowded court for a moment. Quid multis morer? The chance of a heretic stranger, against the interests of churchmen in Spain, may be calculated by the most shallow capacity.

‘The family had all that day sat in the innermost room of their humble dwelling. Everhard had wished to accompany his father to the court, — his mother withheld him. The sisters involuntarily dropt their work from time to time, and their mother gently reminded them of the necessity of renewing it. They did resume it, but their hands, at variance with their feelings, made such blunders, that their mother, δακρυοεν γελασασα, removed their work, and suggested to them some active employment in household affairs. While they were thus engaged, evening came on, — the family from time to time suspended their ordinary occupations, and crowded to the window to watch the return of their father. Their mother no longer interfered, — she sat in silence, and this silence formed a strong contrast to the restless impatience of her children. ‘That is my father,’ exclaimed the voices of the four at once, as a figure crossed the street. ‘That is not my father,’ they repeated, as the figure slowly retired. A knock was heard at the door, — Ines herself rushed forward to open it. A figure retreated, advanced again, and again retreated. Then it seemed to rush past her, and enter the house like a shadow. In terror she followed it, and with terror unutterable saw her husband kneeling among his children, who in vain attempted to raise him, while he continued to repeat, ‘No, let me kneel, — let me kneel, I have undone you all! The cause is lost, and I have made beggars of you all!’ — ‘Rise, — rise, dearest father,’ cried the children, gathering round him, ‘nothing is lost, if you are saved!’ — ‘Rise, my love, from that horrible and unnatural humiliation,’ cried Ines, grasping the arms of her husband; ‘help me, my children, — father, — mother, will you not help me?’ — and as she spoke, the tottering, helpless, and almost lifeless figures of the aged grandfather and grandmother arose from their chairs, and staggering forwards, added their feeble strength, — their vis impotentiæ, to sustain or succour the weight that dragged heavily on the arms of the children and their mother. By this sight, more than by any effort, Walberg was raised from the posture that agonized his family, and placed in a chair, around which hung the wife and children, while the aged father and mother, retreating torpidly to their seats, seemed to lose in a few moments the keen consciousness of evil that had inspired them for an instant with a force almost miraculous. Ines and her children hung round Walberg, and uttered all of consolation that helpless affection could suggest; but perhaps there is not a more barbed arrow can be sent through the heart, than by the thought that the hands that clasp ours so fondly cannot earn for us or themselves the means of another meal, — that the lips that are pressed to ours so warmly, may the next ask us for bread, and — ask in vain!

‘It was perhaps fortunate for this unhappy family, that the very extremity of their grief rendered its long indulgence impossible, — the voice of necessity made itself be heard distinctly and loudly amid all the cry and clamour of that hour of agony. Something must be done for the morrow, — and it was to be done immediately. ‘What money have you?’ was the first articulate sentence Walberg uttered to his wife; and when she whispered the small sum that the expences of their lost cause had left them, he shivered with a brief emphatic spasm of horror, — then bursting from their arms, and rising, he crossed the room, as if he wished to be alone for a moment. As he did so, he saw his youngest child playing with the long strings of his grandfather’s band, — a mode of sportive teazing in which the urchin delighted, and which was at once chid and smiled at. Walberg struck the poor child vehemently, and then catching him in his arms, bid him — ‘Smile as long as he could!’

‘They had means of subsistence at least for the following week; and that was such a source of comfort to them, as it is to men who are quitting a wreck, and drifting on a bare raft with a slender provision towards some coast, which they hope to reach before it is exhausted. They sat up all that night together in earnest counsel, after Ines had taken care to see the father and mother of her husband comfortably placed in their apartment. Amid their long and melancholy conference, hope sprung up insensibly in the hearts of the speakers, and a plan was gradually formed for obtaining the means of subsistence. Walberg was to offer his talents as a musical teacher, — Ines and her daughters were to undertake embroidery, — and Everhard, who possessed exquisite taste both in music and drawing, was to make an effort in both departments, and the friendly priest was to be applied to for his needful interest and recommendation for all. The morning broke on their long-protracted consultation, and found them unwearied in discussing its subject. ‘We shall not starve,’ said the children hopefully. — ‘I trust not,’ said Walberg sighingly. — His wife, who knew Spain, said not a word. — ’

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