Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 36

Nunc animum pietas, et materna nomina frangunt.

‘In less than half an hour, the superb apartments, the illuminated gardens of Aliaga, did not echo a footstep; all were gone, except a few who lingered, some from curiosity, some from humanity, to witness or condole with the sufferings of the wretched parents. The sumptuously decorated garden now presented a sight horrid from the contrasted figures and scenery. The domestics stood like statues, holding the torches still in their hands — Isidora lay beside the bloody corse of her brother, till an attempt was made to remove it, and then she clung to it with a strength that required strength to tear her from it — Aliaga, who had not uttered a word, and scarcely drawn a breath, sunk on his knees to curse his half-lifeless daughter — Donna Clara, who still retained a woman’s heart, lost all fear of her husband in this dreadful emergency, and, kneeling beside him, held his uplifted hands, and struggled hard for the suspension of the malediction — Fra Jose, the only one of the groupe who appeared to possess any power of recollection or of mental sanity, addressed repeatedly to Isidora the question, ‘Are you married, — and married to that fearful being?’ — ‘I am married!’ answered the victim, rising from beside the corse of her brother. ‘I am married!’ she added, glancing a look at her splendid habit, and displaying it with a frantic laugh. A loud knocking at the garden gate was heard at this moment. ‘I am married!’ shrieked Isidora, ‘and here comes the witness of my nuptials!’

‘As she spoke, some peasants from the neighbourhood, assisted by the domestics of Don Aliaga, brought in a corse, so altered from the fearful change that passes on the mortal frame, that the nearest relative could not have known it. Isidora recognized it in a moment for the body of the old domestic who had disappeared so mysteriously on the night of her frightful nuptials. The body had been discovered but that evening by the peasants; it was lacerated as by a fall from rocks, and so disfigured and decayed as to retain no resemblance to humanity. It was recognizable only by the livery of Aliaga, which, though much defaced, was still distinguishable by some peculiarities in the dress, that announced that those defaced garments covered the mortal remains of the old domestic. ‘There!’ cried Isidora with delirious energy — ‘There is the witness of my fatal marriage!’

‘Fra Jose hung over the illegible fragments of that whereon nature had once written — ‘This is a human being,’ and, turning his eyes on Isidora, with involuntary horror he exclaimed, ‘Your witness is dumb!’ As the wretched Isidora was dragged away by those who surrounded her, she felt the first throes of maternal suffering, and exclaimed, ‘Oh! there will be a living witness — if you permit it to live!’ Her words were soon realized; she was conveyed to her apartment, and in a few hours after, scarcely assisted and wholly unpitied by her attendants, gave birth to a daughter.

‘This event excited a sentiment in the family at once ludicrous and horrible. Aliaga, who had remained in a state of stupefaction since his son’s death, uttered but one exclamation — ‘Let the wife of the sorcerer, and their accursed offspring, be delivered into the hands of the merciful and holy tribunal, the Inquisition.’ He afterwards muttered something about his property being confiscated, but to this nobody paid attention. Donna Clara was almost distracted between compassion for her wretched daughter, and being grandmother to an infant demon, for such she deemed the child of ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ must be — and Fra Jose, while he baptized the infant with trembling hands, almost expected a fearful sponsor to appear and blast the rite with his horrible negative to the appeal made in the name of all that is holy among Christians. The baptismal ceremony was performed, however, with an omission which the good-natured priest overlooked — there was no sponsor — the lowest domestic in the house declined with horror the proposal of being sponsor for the child of that terrible union. The wretched mother heard them from her bed of pain, and loved her infant better for its utter destitution.

‘A few hours put an end to the consternation of the family, on the score of religion at least. The officers of the Inquisition arrived, armed with all the powers of their tribunal, and strongly excited by the report, that the Wanderer of whom they had been long in search, had lately perpetrated an act that brought him within the sphere of their jurisdiction, by involving the life of the only being his solitary existence held alliance with. ‘We hold him by the cords of a man,’ said the chief inquisitor, speaking more from what he read than what he felt — ‘if he burst these cords he is more than man. He has a wife and child, and if there be human elements in him, if there be any thing mortal clinging to his heart, we shall wind round the roots of it, and extract it.’

‘It was not till after some weeks, that Isidora recovered her perfect recollection. When she did, she was in a prison, a pallet of straw was her bed, a crucifix and a death’s head the only furniture of her cell; the light struggled through a narrow grate, and struggled in vain, to cast one gleam on the squalid apartment that it visited and shrunk from. Isidora looked round her — she had light enough to see her child — she clasped it to her bosom, from which it had unconsciously drawn its feverish nourishment, and wept in extasy. ‘It is my own,’ she sobbed, ‘and only mine! It has no father — he is at the ends of the earth — he has left me alone — but I am not alone while you are left to me!’

‘She was left in solitary confinement for many days, undisturbed and unvisited. The persons in whose hands she was had strong reasons for this mode of treatment. They were desirous that she should recover perfect sanity of intellect previous to her examination, and they also wished to give her time to form that profound attachment to the innocent companion of her solitude, that might be a powerful engine in their hands in discovering those circumstances relative to Melmoth that had hitherto baffled all the power and penetration of the Inquisition itself. All reports agreed that the Wanderer had never before been known to make a woman the object of his temptation, or to entrust her with the terrible secret of his destiny;1 and the Inquisitors were heard to say to each other, ‘Now that we have got the Delilah in our hands, we shall soon have the Sampson.’

1 From this it should seem that they were unacquainted with the story of Elinor Mortimer.

‘It was on the night previous to her examination, (of which she was unapprized), that Isidora saw the door of her cell opened, and a figure appear at it, whom, amid the dreary obscurity that surrounded her, she recognized in a moment, — it was Fra Jose. After a long pause of mutual horror, she knelt in silence to receive his benediction, which he gave with feeling solemnity; and then the good monk, whose propensities, though somewhat ‘earthly and sensual,’ were never ‘devilish,’ after vainly drawing his cowl over his face to stifle his sobs, lifted up his voice and ‘wept bitterly.’

‘Isidora was silent, but her silence was not that of sullen apathy, or of conscience-seared impenitence. At length Fra Jose seated himself on the foot of the pallet, at some distance from the prisoner, who was also sitting, and bending her cheek, down which a cold tear slowly flowed, over her infant. ‘Daughter,’ said the monk, collecting himself, ‘it is to the indulgence of the holy office I owe this permission to visit you.’ — ‘I thank them,’ said Isidora, and her tears flowed fast and relievingly. ‘I am permitted also to tell you that your examination will take place to-morrow, — to adjure you to prepare for it, — and, if there be any thing which’ — ‘My examination!’ repeated Isidora with surprise, but evidently without terror, ‘on what subject am I then to be examined?’ — ‘On that of your inconceivable union with a being devoted and accursed.’ His voice was choaked with horror, and he added, ‘Daughter, are you then indeed the wife of — of — that being, whose name makes the flesh creep, and the hair stand on end?’ — ‘I am.’ — ‘Who were the witnesses of your marriage, and what hand dared to bind yours with that unholy and unnatural bond?’ — ‘There were no witnesses — we were wedded in darkness. I saw no form, but I thought I heard words uttered — I know I felt a hand place mine in Melmoth’s — its touch was as cold as that of the dead.’ — ‘Oh complicated and mysterious horror!’ said the priest, turning pale, and crossing himself with marks of unfeigned terror; he bowed his head on his arm for some time, and remained silent from unutterable emotion. ‘Father,’ said Isidora at length, ‘you knew the hermit who lived amid the ruins of the monastery near our house, — he was a priest also, — he was a holy man, it was he who united us!’ Her voice trembled. — ‘Wretched victim!’ groaned the priest, without raising his head, ‘you know not what you utter — that holy man is known to have died the very night preceding that of your dreadful union.’

‘Another pause of mute horror followed, which the priest at length broke. — ‘Unhappy daughter,’ said he in a composed and solemn voice, ‘I am indulged with permission to give you the benefit of the sacrament of confession, previous to your examination. I adjure you to unburden your soul to me, — will you?’ — ‘I will, my father.’ — ‘Will you answer me, as you would answer at the tribunal of God?’ — ‘Yes, — as I would answer at the tribunal of God.’ As she spake, she prostrated herself before the priest in the attitude of confession.

‘And you have now disclosed the whole burden of your spirit?’ — ‘I have, my father.’ The priest sat thoughtfully for a considerable time. He then put to her several singular questions relative to Melmoth, which she was wholly unable to answer. They seemed chiefly the result of those impressions of supernatural power and terror, which were every where associated with his image. ‘My father,’ said Isidora, when he had ceased, in a faultering voice, ‘My father, may I inquire about my unhappy parents?’ The priest shook his head, and remained silent. At length, affected by the agony with which she urged her inquiry, he reluctantly said she might guess the effect which the death of their son, and the imprisonment of their daughter in the Inquisition, must have on parents, who were no less eminent for their zeal for the Catholic faith, than for their parental affection. ‘Are they alive?’ said Isidora. — ‘Spare yourself the pain of further inquiries, daughter,’ said the priest, ‘and be assured, that if the answer was such as could give you comfort, it would not be withheld.’

‘At this moment a bell was heard to sound in a distant part of the structure. ‘That bell,’ said the priest, ‘announces that the hour of your examination approaches — farewell, and may the saints be with you.’ — ‘Stay, father, — stay one moment, — but one moment!’ cried Isidora, rushing franticly between him and the door. Fra Jose paused. Isidora sunk before him, and, hiding her face with her hands, exclaimed in a voice choaked with agony, ‘Father, do you think — that I am — lost for ever?’ — ‘Daughter,’ said the priest in heavy accents, and in a troubled and doubting spirit, ‘Daughter, — I have given you what comfort I could — press for no more, lest what I have given (with many struggles of conscience) may be withdrawn. Perhaps you are in a state on which I can form no judgment, and pronounce no sentence. May God be merciful to you, and may the holy tribunal judge you in its mercy also.’ — ‘Yet stay, father — stay one moment — only one moment — only one question more.’ As she spoke, she caught her pale and innocent companion from the pallet where it slept, and held it up to the priest. ‘Father, tell me, can this be the child of a demon? — can it be, this creature that smiles on me — that smiles on you, while you are mustering curses against it? — Oh, holy drops have sprinkled it from your own hand! — Father, you have spoke holy words over it. Father, let them tear me with their pincers, let them roast me on their flames, but will not my child escape — my innocent child, that smiles on you? — Holy father, dear father, look back on your child.’ And she crawled after him on her knees, holding up the miserable infant in her arms, whose weak cry and wasted frame, pleaded against the dungeon-life to which its infancy had been doomed.

‘Fra Jose melted at the appeal, and he was about to bestow many a kiss and many a prayer on the wretched babe, when the bell again was sounded, and hasting away, he had but time to exclaim, ‘My daughter, may God protect you!’ — ‘God protect me,’ said Isidora, clasping her infant to her bosom. The bell sounded again, and Isidora knew that the hour of her trial approached.

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