Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 35

— Oh, spare me, Grimbald!

I will tempt hermits for thee in their cells,

And virgins in their dreams.

DRYDEN’S KING ARTHUR

‘It is a singular, but well-attested fact, that women who are compelled to undergo all the inconveniences and uneasiness of clandestine pregnancy, often fare better than those whose situation is watched over by tender and anxious relatives; and that concealed or illegitimate births are actually attended with less danger and suffering than those which have all the aid that skill and affection can give. So it appeared likely to fare with Isidora. The retirement in which her family lived — the temper of Donna Clara, as slow to suspect from want of penetration, as she was eager in pursuing an object once discovered, from the natural cupidity of a vacant mind — these circumstances, combined with the dress of the day, the enormous and enveloping fardingale, gave safety to her secret, at least till the arrival of its crisis. As this crisis approached, one may easily imagine the secret and trembling preparation — the important nurse, proud of the trust reposed in her — the confidential maid — the faithful and discreet medical attendant — to obtain all these Melmoth supplied her amply with money — a circumstance that would have surprised Isidora, as his appearance was always remarkably plain and private, if, at this moment of anxiety, any thought but that of the hour could have found room in her mind.

‘On the evening supposed to be that preceding the dreaded event, Melmoth had thrown an unusual degree of tenderness into his manner — he gazed on her frequently with anxious and silent fondness — he seemed to have something to communicate which he had not courage to disclose. Isidora, well versed in the language of the countenance, which is often, more than that of words, the language of the heart, intreated him to tell her what he looked. ‘Your father is returning,’ said Melmoth reluctantly. ‘He will certainly be here in a few days, perhaps in a few hours.’ Isidora heard him in silent horror. ‘My father!’ she cried — ‘I have never seen my father. — Oh, how shall I meet him now! And is my mother ignorant of this? — would she not have apprized me?’ — ‘She is ignorant at present; but she will not long be so.’ — ‘And from whence could you have obtained intelligence that she is ignorant of?’ Melmoth paused some time, — his features assumed a more contracted and gloomy character than they had done laterally — he answered with slow and stern reluctance — ‘Never again ask me that question — the intelligence that I can give you must be of more importance to you than the means by which I obtain it — enough for you that it is true.’ — ‘Pardon me, love,’ said Isidora; ‘it is probable that I may never again offend you — will you not, then, forgive my last offence?’

‘Melmoth seemed too intently occupied with his own thoughts to answer even her tears. He added, after a short and sullen pause, ‘Your betrothed bridegroom is coming with your father — Montilla’s father is dead — the arrangements are all concluded for your nuptials — your bridegroom is coming to wed the wife of another — with him comes your fiery, foolish brother, who has set out to meet his father and his future relative. There will be a feast prepared in the house on the occasion of your future nuptials — you may hear of a strange guest appearing at your festival — I will be there!’

‘Isidora stood stupified with horror. ‘Festival!’ she repeated — ‘a bridal festival! — and I already wedded to you, and about to become a mother!’

‘At this moment the trampling of many horsemen was heard as they approached the villa — the tumult of the domestics hurrying to admit and receive them, resounded through the apartments and Melmoth, with a gesture that seemed to Isidora rather like a menace than a farewell, instantly disappeared; and within an hour, Isidora knelt to the father she had never till then beheld — suffered herself to be saluted by Montilla — and accepted the embrace of her brother, who, in the petulance of his spirit, half rejected the chill and altered form that advanced to greet him.

‘Every thing at the family meeting was conducted in true Spanish formality. Aliaga kissed the cold hand of his withered wife — the numerous domestics exhibited a grave joy at the return of their master — Fra Jose assumed increased importance, and called for dinner in a louder tone. Montilla, the lover, a cold and quiet character, took things as they occurred.

‘Every thing lay hushed under a brief and treacherous calm. Isidora, who trembled at the approaching danger, felt her terrors on a sudden suspended. It was not so very near as she apprehended — and she bore with tolerable patience the daily mention of her approaching nuptials, while she was momently harassed by her confidential servants with hints of the impossibility of the event of which they were in expectation, being much longer delayed. Isidora heard, felt, endured all with courage — the grave congratulation of her father and mother — the self-complacent attentions of Montilla, sure of the bride and of her dower — the sullen compliance of the brother, who, unable to refuse his consent, was for ever hinting that his sister might have formed a higher connection. All these passed over her mind like a dream — the reality of her existence seemed internal, and she said to herself, — ‘Were I at the altar, were my hand locked in that of Montilla, Melmoth would rend me from him.’ A wild but deeply-fixed conviction — a wandering image of preternatural power, overshadowed her mind while she thought of Melmoth; — and this image, which had caused her so much terror and inquietude in her early hours of love, now formed her only resource against the hour of inconceivable suffering; as those unfortunate females in the Eastern Tales, whose beauty has attracted the fearful passion of some evil genie, are supposed to depend, at their nuptial hour, on the presence of the seducing spirit, to tear from the arms of the agonised parent, and the distracted bridegroom, the victim whom he has reserved for himself, and whose wild devotion to him gives a dignity to the union so unhallowed and unnatural.1

1 Vide the beautiful tale of Auheta the Princess of Egypt, and Maugraby the Sorcerer, in the Arabian Tales.

‘Aliaga’s heart expanded amid the approaching completion of the felicitous plans he had formed, and with his heart, his purse, which was its depositary, opened also, and he resolved to give a splendid fete in honour of his daughter’s nuptials. Isidora remembered Melmoth’s prediction of a fatal festival; and his words, ‘I will be there,’ gave her for a time a kind of trembling confidence. But as the preparations were carried on under her very eye, — as she was hourly consulted about the disposal of the ornaments, and the decorations of the apartments, — her resolution failed, and while she uttered a few incoherent words, her eye was glazed with horror.

‘The entertainment was to be a masked ball; and Isidora, who imagined that this might suggest to Melmoth some auspicious expedient for her escape, watched in vain for some hint of hope, — some allusion to the probability of this event facilitating her extrication from those snares of death that seemed compassing her about. He never uttered a word, and her dependence on him was at one moment confirmed, at another shaken to its foundation, by this terrible silence. In one of these latter moments, the anguish of which was increased beyond expression by a conviction that her hour of danger was not far distant, she exclaimed to Melmoth — ‘Take me — take me from this place! My existence is nothing — it is a vapour that soon must be exhaled — but my reason is threatened every moment! I cannot sustain the horrors to which I am exposed! All this day I have been dragged through rooms decorated for my impossible nuptials! — Oh, Melmoth, if you no longer love me, at least commiserate me! Save me from a situation of horror unspeakable! — have mercy on your child, if not on me! I have hung on your looks, — I have watched for a word of hope — you have not uttered a sound — you have not cast a glance of hope on me! I am wild! — I am reckless of all but the imminent and present horrors of tomorrow — you have talked of your power to approach, to enter these walls without suspicion or discovery — you boasted of that cloud of mystery in which you could envelope yourself. Oh! in this last moment of my extremity, wrap me in its tremendous folds, and let me escape in them, though they prove my shroud! — Think of the terrible night of our marriage! I followed you then in fear and confidence — your touch dissolved every earthly barrier — your steps trod an unknown path, yet I followed you! — Oh! If you really possess that mysterious and inscrutable power, which I dare not either question or believe, exert it for me in this terrible emergency — aid my escape — and though I feel I shall never live to thank you, the silent suppliant will remind you by its smiles of the tears that I now shed; and if they are shed in vain, its smile will have a bitter eloquence as it plays with the flowers on its mother’s grave!’

‘Melmoth, as she spoke, was profoundly silent, and deeply attentive. He said at last, ‘Do you then resign yourself to me?’ — ‘Alas! have I not?’ — ‘A question is not an answer. Will you, renouncing all other engagements, all other hopes, depend on me solely for your extrication from this fearful emergency?’ — ‘I will — I do!’ — ‘Will you promise, that if I render you the service you require, if I employ the power you say I have alluded to, you will be mine?’ — ‘Yours! — Alas! am I not yours already?’ — ‘You embrace my protection, then? You voluntarily seek the shelter of that power which I can promise? You yourself will me to employ that power in effecting your escape? — Speak — do I interpret your sentiments aright? — I am unable to exercise those powers you invest me with, unless you yourself require me to do so. I have waited — I have watched for the demand — it has been made — would that it never had!’ An expression of the fiercest agony corrugated his stern features as he spoke. — ‘But it may yet be withdrawn — reflect!’ — ‘And you will not then save me from shame and danger? Is this the proof of your love — is this the boast of your power?’ said Isidora, half frantic at this delay. ‘If I adjure you to pause — if I myself hesitate and tremble — it is to give time for the salutary whisper of your better angel.’ — ‘Oh! save me, and you shall be my angel!’ said Isidora, falling at his feet. Melmoth shook through his whole frame as he heard these words. He raised and soothed her, however, with promises of safety, though in a voice that seemed to announce despair — and then turning from her, burst into a passionate soliloquy. ‘Immortal Heaven! what is man? — A being with the ignorance, but not the instinct, of the feeblest animals! — They are like birds — when thy hand, O Thou whom I dare not call Father, is on them, they scream and quiver, though the gentle pressure is intended only to convey the wanderer back to his cage — while, to shun the light fear that scares their senses, they rush into the snare that is spread in their sight, and where their captivity is hopeless!’ As he spoke, hastily traversing the room, his foot struck against a chair on which a gorgeous dress was spread. ‘What is this?’ he exclaimed — ‘What ideot trumpery, what May-queen foolery is this?’ — ‘It is the habit I am to wear at the feast to-night,’ said Isidora — ‘My attendants are coming — I hear them at the door — oh, with what a throbbing heart I shall put on this glittering mockery! — But you will not desert me then?’ she added, with wild and breathless anxiety. ‘Fear not,’ said Melmoth, solemnly — ‘You have demanded my aid, and it shall be accorded. May your heart tremble no more when you throw off that habit, than now when you are about to put it on!’

‘The hour approached, and the guests were arriving. Isidora, arrayed in a splendid and fanciful garb, and rejoicing in the shelter which her mask afforded to the expression of her pale features, mingled among the groupe. She walked one measure with Montilla, and then declined dancing on the pretence of assisting her mother in receiving and entertaining her guests.

‘After a sumptuous banquet, dancing was renewed in the spacious hall, and Isidora followed the company thither with a beating heart. Twelve was the hour at which Melmoth had promised to meet her, and by the clock, which was placed over the door of the hall, she saw it wanted but a quarter to twelve. The hand moved on — it arrived at the hour — the clock struck! Isidora, whose eyes had been rivetted on its movements, now withdrew them in despair. At that moment she felt her arm gently touched, and one of the maskers, bending towards her, whispered, ‘I am here!’ and he added the sign which Melmoth and she had agreed on as the signal of their meeting. Isidora, unable to reply, could only return the sign. ‘Make haste,’ he added — ‘All is arranged for your flight — there is not a moment to be lost — I will leave you now, but meet me in a few moments in the western portico — the lamps are extinguished there, and the servants have neglected to relight them — be silent and be swift!’ He disappeared as he spoke, and Isidora, after a few moments, followed him. Though the portico was dark, a faint gleam from the splendidly illuminated rooms disclosed to her the figure of Melmoth. He drew her arm under his in silence, and proceeded to hurry her from the spot. ‘Stop, villain, stop!’ exclaimed the voice of her brother, who, followed by Montilla, sprung from the balcony — ‘Where do you drag my sister? — and you, degraded wretch, where are you about to fly, and with whom?’ Melmoth attempted to pass him, supporting Isidora with one arm, while the other was extended to repel his approach; but Fernan, drawing his sword, placed himself directly in their way, at the same time calling on Montilla to raise the household, and tear Isidora from his arms. ‘Off, fool — off!’ exclaimed Melmoth ‘Rush not on destruction! — I seek not your life — one victim of your house is enough — let us pass ere you perish!’ — ‘Boaster, prove your words!’ said Fernan, making a desperate thrust at him, which Melmoth coolly put by with his hand. ‘Draw, coward!’ cried Fernan, rendered furious by this action — ‘My next will be more successful!’ Melmoth slowly drew his sword. ‘Boy!’ said he in an awful voice — ‘If I turn this point against you, your life is not worth a moment’s purchase — be wise and let us pass.’ Fernan made no answer but by a fierce attack, which was instantly met by his antagonist.

‘The shrieks of Isidora had now reached the ears of the revellers, who rushed in crowds to the garden — the servants followed them with flambeaux snatched from the walls adorned for this ill-omened festival, and the scene of the combat was in a moment as light as day, and surrounded by a hundred spectators.

‘Part them — part them — save them!’ shrieked Isidora, writhing at the feet of her father and mother, who, with the rest, were gazing in stupid horror at the scene — ‘Save my brother — save my husband!’ The whole dreadful truth rushed on Donna Clara’s mind at these words, and casting a conscious look at the terrified priest, she fell to the ground. The combat was short as it was unequal, — in two moments Melmoth passed his sword twice through the body of Fernan, who sunk beside Isidora, and expired! There was a universal pause of horror for some moments — at length a cry of — ‘Seize the murderer!’ burst from every lip, and the crowd began to close around Melmoth. He attempted no defence. He retreated a few paces, and sheathing his sword, waved them back only with his arm; and this movement, that seemed to announce an internal power above all physical force, had the effect of nailing every spectator to the spot where he stood.

‘The light of the torches, which the trembling servants held up to gaze on him, fell full on his countenance, and the voices of a few shuddering speakers exclaimed, ‘MELMOTH THE WANDERER!’ — ‘I am — I am!’ said that unfortunate being — ‘and who now will oppose my passing — who will become my companion? — I seek not to injure now — but I will not be detained. Would that breathless fool had yielded to my bidding, not to my sword — there was but one human chord that vibrated in my heart — it is broken to-night, and for ever! I will never tempt woman more! Why should the whirlwind, that can shake mountains, and overwhelm cities with its breath, descend to scatter the leaves of the rose-bud?’ As he spoke, his eyes fell on the form of Isidora, which lay at his feet extended beside that of Fernan. He bent over it for a moment — a pulsation like returning life agitated her frame. He bent nearer — he whispered, unheard by the rest, — ‘Isadora, will you fly with me — this is the moment — every arm is paralyzed — every mind is frozen to its centre! — Isidora, rise and fly with me — this is your hour of safety!’ Isidora, who recognized the voice but not the speaker, raised herself for a moment — looked on Melmoth — cast a glance on the bleeding bosom of Fernan, and fell on it dyed in that blood. Melmoth started up — there was a slight movement of hostility among some of the guests — he turned one brief and withering glance on them — they stood every man his hand on his sword, without the power to draw them, and the very domestics held up the torches in their trembling hands, as if with involuntary awe they were lighting him out. So he passed on unmolested amid the groupe, till he reached the spot where Aliaga, stupified with horror, stood beside the bodies of his son and daughter. ‘Wretched old man!’ he exclaimed, looking on him as the unhappy father strained his glazing and dilated eyes to see who spoke to him, and at length with difficulty recognized the form of the stranger — the companion of his fearful journey some months past — ‘Wretched old man — you were warned — but you neglected the warning — I adjured you to save your daughter — I best knew her danger — you saved your gold — now estimate the value of the dross you grasped, and the precious ore you dropt! I stood between myself and her — I warned — I menaced — it was not for me to intreat. Wretched old man — see the result!’ — and he turned slowly to depart. An involuntary sound of execration and horror, half a howl and half a hiss, pursued his parting steps, and the priest, with a dignity that more became his profession than his character, exclaimed aloud, ‘Depart accursed, and trouble us not — go, cursing and to curse.’ — ‘I go conquering and to conquer,’ answered Melmoth with wild and fierce triumph — ‘wretches! your vices, your passions, and your weaknesses, make you my victims. Upbraid yourselves, and not me. Heroes in your guilt, but cowards in your despair, you would kneel at my feet for the terrible immunity with which I pass through you at this moment. — I go accursed of every human heart, yet untouched by one human hand!’ — As he retired slowly, the murmur of suppressed but instinctive and irrepressible horror and hatred burst from the groupe. He past on scowling at them like a lion on a pack of bayed hounds, and departed unmolested — unassayed — no weapon was drawn — no arm was lifted — the mark was on his brow, — and those who could read it knew that all human power was alike forceless and needless, — and those who could not succumbed in passive horror. Every sword was in its sheath as Melmoth quitted the garden. ‘Leave him to God!’ — was the universal exclamation. ‘You could not leave him in worse hands,’ exclaimed Fra Jose — ‘He will certainly be damned — and — that is some comfort to this afflicted family.’

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