Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 33

Cum mihi non tantum furesque feræque suëtæ,

Hunc vexare locum, curæ sunt atque labori;

Quantum carminibus quæ versant atque venenis,

Humanos animos.

HORACE

‘It is inconceivable to me,’ said Don Aliaga to himself, as he pursued his journey the next day — ‘it is inconceivable to me how this person forces himself on my company, harasses me with tales that have no more application to me than the legend of the Cid, and may be as apocryphal as the ballad of Roncesvalles — and now he has ridden by my side all day, and, as if to make amends for his former uninvited and unwelcome communicativeness, he has never once opened his lips.’

‘Senhor,’ said the stranger, then speaking for the first time, as if he read Aliaga’s thoughts — ‘I acknowledge myself in error for relating to you a narrative in which you must have felt there was little to interest you. Permit me to atone for it, by recounting to you a very brief one, in which I flatter myself you will be disposed to feel a very peculiar interest.’ — ‘You assure me it will be brief,’ said Aliaga. ‘Not only so, but the last I shall obtrude on your patience,’ replied the stranger. ‘On that condition,’ said Aliaga, ‘in God’s name, brother, proceed. And look you handle the matter discreetly, as you have said.’

‘There was,’ said the stranger, ‘a certain Spanish merchant, who set out prosperously in business; but, after a few years, finding his affairs assume an unfavourable aspect, and being tempted by an offer of partnership with a relative who was settled in the East Indies, had embarked for those countries with his wife and son, leaving behind him an infant daughter in Spain.’ — ‘That was exactly my case,’ said Aliaga, wholly unsuspicious of the tendency of this tale.

‘Two years of successful occupation restored him to opulence, and to the hope of vast and future accumulation. Thus encouraged, our Spanish merchant entertained ideas of settling in the East Indies, and sent over for his young daughter with her nurse, who embarked for the East Indies with the first opportunity, which was then very rare.’ — ‘This reminds me exactly of what occurred to myself,’ said Aliaga, whose faculties were somewhat obtuse.

‘The nurse and infant were supposed to have perished in a storm which wrecked the vessel on an isle near the mouth of a river, and in which the crew and passengers perished. It was said that the nurse and child alone escaped; that by some extraordinary chance they arrived at this isle, where the nurse died from fatigue and want of nourishment, and the child survived, and grew up a wild and beautiful daughter of nature, feeding on fruits, — and sleeping amid roses, — and drinking the pure element, — and inhaling the harmonies of heaven, — and repeating to herself the few Christian words her nurse had taught her, in answer to the melody of the birds that sung to her, and of the stream whose waves murmured in accordance to the pure and holy music of her unearthly heart.’ — ‘I never heard a word of this before,’ muttered Aliaga to himself. The stranger went on.

‘It was said that some vessel in distress arrived at the isle, — that the captain had rescued this lovely lonely being from the brutality of the sailors, — and, discovering from some remains of the Spanish tongue which she still spoke, and which he supposed must have been cultivated during the visits of some other wanderer to the isle, he undertook, like a man of honour, to conduct her to her parents, whose names she could tell, though not their residence, so acute and tenacious is the memory of infancy. He fulfilled his promise, and the pure and innocent being was restored to her family, who were then residing in the city of Benares.’ Aliaga, at these words, stared with a look of intelligence somewhat ghastly. He could not interrupt the stranger — he drew in his breath, and closed his teeth.

‘I have since heard,’ said the stranger, ‘that the family has returned to Spain, — that the beautiful inhabitant of the foreign isle is become the idol of your cavaliers of Madrid, — your loungers of the Prado, — your sacravienses, — your — by what other name of contempt shall I call them? But listen to me, — there is an eye fixed on her, and its fascination is more deadly than that fabled of the snake! — There is an arm extended to seize her, in whose grasp humanity withers! — That arm even now relaxes for a moment, — its fibres thrill with pity and horror, — it releases the victim for a moment, — it even beckons her father to her aid! — Don Francisco, do you understand me now? — Has this tale interest or application for you?’

‘He paused, but Aliaga, chilled with horror, was unable to answer him but by a feeble exclamation. ‘If it has,’ resumed the stranger, ‘lose not a moment to save your daughter!’ and, clapping spurs to his mule, he disappeared through a narrow passage among the rocks, apparently never intended to be trod by earthly traveller. Aliaga was not a man susceptible of strong impressions from nature; but, if he had been, the scene amid which this mysterious warning was uttered would have powerfully ministered to its effect. The time was evening, — a grey and misty twilight hung over every object; — the way lay through a rocky road, that wound among mountains, or rather stony hills, bleak and bare as those which the weary traveller through the western isle1 sees rising amid the moors, to which they form a contrast without giving a relief. Heavy rains had made deep gullies amid the hills, and here and there a mountain-stream brawled amid its stony channel, like a proud and noisy upstart, while the vast chasms that had been the beds of torrents which once swept through them in thunder, now stood gaping and ghastly like the deserted abodes of ruined nobility. Not a sound broke on the stillness, except the monotonous echo of the hoofs of the mules answered from the hollows of the hill, and the screams of the birds, which, after a few short circles in the damp and cloudy air, fled back to their retreats amid the cliffs.

1 Ireland, — forsan.

‘It is almost incredible, that after this warning, enforced as it was by the perfect acquaintance which the stranger displayed of Aliaga’s former life and family-circumstances, it should not have had the effect of making him hurry homewards immediately, particularly as it seems he thought it of sufficient importance to make it the subject of correspondence with his wife. So it was however.

‘At the moment of the stranger’s departure, it was his resolution not to lose a moment in hastening homewards; but at the next stage he arrived at, there were letters of business awaiting him. A mercantile correspondent gave him the information of the probable failure of a house in a distant part of Spain, where his speedy presence might be of vital consequence. There were also letters from Montilla, his intended son-in-law, informing him that the state of his father’s health was so precarious, it was impossible to leave him till his fate was decided. As the decisions of fate involved equally the wealth of the son, and the life of the father, Aliaga could not help thinking there was as much prudence as affection in this resolution.

‘After reading these letters, Aliaga’s mind began to flow in its usual channel. There is no breaking through the inveterate habitudes of a thorough-paced mercantile mind, ‘though one rose from the dead.’ Besides, by this time the mysterious image of the stranger’s presence and communications were fading fast from a mind not at all habituated to visionary impressions. He shook off the terrors of this visitation by the aid of time, and gave his courage the credit due to that aid. Thus we all deal with the illusions of the imagination, — with this difference only, that the impassioned recal them with the tear of regret, and the unimaginative with the blush of shame. Aliaga set out for the distant part of Spain where his presence was to save this tottering house in which he had an extensive concern, and wrote to Donna Clara, that it might be some months before he returned to the neighbourhood of Madrid.

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