Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 37

Fear not now the fever’s fire,

Fear not now the death-bed groan;

Pangs that torture, pains that tire

Bed-rid age with feeble moan.

MASON

‘The first examination of Isidora was conducted with the circumspective formality that has always been known to mark the proceedings of that tribunal. The second and the third were alike strict, penetrating and inoperative, and the holy office began to feel its highest functionaries were no match for the extraordinary prisoner who stood before them, who, combining the extremes of simplicity and magnanimity, uttered every thing that might criminate herself, but evaded with skill that baffled all the arts of inquisitorial examination, every question that referred to Melmoth.

‘In the course of the first examination, they hinted at the torture. Isidora, with something of the free and nature-taught dignity of her early existence, smiled as they spoke of it. An official whispered one of the inquisitors, as he observed the peculiar expression of her countenance, and the torture was mentioned no more.

‘A second — a third examination followed at long intervals — but it was observed, that every time the mode of examination was less severe, and the treatment of the prisoner more and more indulgent — her youth, her beauty, her profound simplicity of character and language, developed strongly on this singular emergency, and the affecting circumstance of her always appearing with her child in her arms, whose feeble cries she tried to hush, while she bent forward to hear and answer the questions addressed to her — all these seemed to have wrought powerfully on the minds of men not accustomed to yield to external impressions. There was also a docility, a submission, about this beautiful and unfortunate being — a contrite and bending spirit — a sense of wretchedness for the misfortunes of her family — a consciousness of her own, that touched the hearts even of inquisitors.

‘After repeated examinations, when nothing could be extorted from the prisoner, a skilful and profound artist in the school of mental anatomy, whispered to the inquisitor something about the infant whom she held in her arms. ‘She has defied the rack,’ was the answer. ‘Try her on that rack,’ was rejoined, and the hint was taken.

‘After the usual formalities were gone through, Isidora’s sentence was read to her. She was condemned, as a suspected heretic, to perpetual confinement in the prison of the Inquisition — her child was to be taken from her, and brought up in a convent, in order to —

‘Here the reading of the sentence was interrupted by the prisoner, who, uttering one dreadful shriek of maternal agony, louder than any other mode of torture had ever before extorted, fell prostrate on the floor. When she was restored to sensation, no authority or terror of the place or the judges, could prevent her pouring forth those wild and piercing supplications, which, from the energy with which they are uttered, appear to the speaker himself like commands, — that the latter part of her sentence might be remitted — the former appeared to make not the least impression on her — eternal solitude, passed in eternal darkness, seemed to give her neither fear or pain, but she wept, and pleaded, and raved, that she might not be separated from her infant.

‘The judges listened with fortified hearts, and in unbroken silence. When she found all was over, she rose from her posture of humiliation and agony — and there was something even of dignity about her as she demanded, in a calm and altered voice, that her child might not be removed from her till the following day. She had also self-possession enough to enforce her petition by the remark, that its life might be the sacrifice if it was too suddenly deprived of the nourishment it was accustomed to receive from her. To this request the judges acceded, and she was remanded to her cell.

‘The time elapsed. The person who brought her food departed without uttering a word; nor did she utter a word to him. It was about midnight that the door of her cell was unlocked, and two persons in official habits appeared at it. They seemed to pause, like the heralds at the tent of Achilles, and then, like them, forced themselves to enter. These men had haggard and livid faces — their attitudes were perfectly stony and automaton-like — their movements appeared the result of mere mechanism — yet these men were touched. The miserable light within hardly shewed the pallet on which the prisoner was seated; but a strong red light from the torch the attendant held, flared broadly on the arch of the door under which the figures appeared. They approached with a motion that seemed simultaneous and involuntary — and uttered together, in accents that seemed to issue from one mouth, ‘Deliver your child to us.’ In a voice as hoarse, dry, and natureless, the prisoner answered, ‘Take it!’

‘The men looked about the cell — it seemed as if they knew not where to find the offspring of humanity amid the cells of the Inquisition. The prisoner was silent and motionless during their search. It was not long — the narrow apartment, the scanty furniture, afforded little room for the investigation. When it was concluded, however, the prisoner, bursting into a wild laugh, exclaimed, ‘Where would you search for a child but in its mother’s bosom? Here — here it is — take it — take it!’ And she put it into their hands. ‘Oh what fools ye were to seek my child any where but on its mother’s bosom! It is your’s now!’ she shrieked in a voice that froze the officials. — ‘Take it — take it from me!’

‘The agents of the holy office advanced; and the technicality of their movements was somewhat suspended when Isidora placed in their hands the corse of her infant daughter. Around the throat of the miserable infant, born amid agony, and nursed in a dungeon, there was a black mark, which the officials made their use of in representing this extraordinary circumstance to the holy office. By some it was deemed as the sign impressed by the evil one at its birth — by others as the fearful effect of maternal despair.

‘It was determined that the prisoner should appear before them within four-and-twenty hours, and account for the death of her child.

‘Within less than half that number of hours, a mightier arm than that of the Inquisition was dealing with the prisoner — an arm that seemed to menace, but was indeed stretched out to save, and before whose touch the barriers of the dreaded Inquisition itself were as frail as the fortress of the spider who hung her web on its walls. Isidora was dying of a disease not the less mortal because it makes no appearance in an obituary — she was dying of that internal and incurable wound — a broken heart.

‘When the inquisitors were at last convinced that there was nothing more to be obtained by torture, bodily or mental torture, they suffered her to die unmolested, and granted her last request, that Fra Jose might be permitted to visit her.

‘It was midnight, but its approach was unknown in that place, where day and night are the same. A dim lamp was substituted for that weak and struggling beam that counterfeited day-light. The penitent was stretched on her bed of rest — the humane priest sat beside her; and if his presence gave no dignity to the scene, it at least softened it by the touches of humanity.

‘My father,’ said the dying Isidora, ‘you pronounced me forgiven.’ — ‘Yes, my daughter,’ said the priest, ‘you have assured me you are innocent of the death of your infant.’ — ‘You never could have believed me guilty,’ said Isidora, raising herself on her pallet at the appeal — ‘the consciousness of its existence alone would have kept me alive, even in my prison. Oh, my father, how was it possible it could live, buried with me in this dreadful place almost as soon as it respired? Even the morbid nourishment it received from me was dried up when my sentence was read. It moaned all night — towards morning its moans grew fainter, and I was glad — at last they ceased, and I was very — happy!’ But, as she talked of this fearful happiness, she wept.

‘My daughter, is your heart disengaged from that awful and disastrous tie that bound it to misfortune here, and to perdition hereafter?’ It was long before she could answer; at length she said in a broken voice, ‘My father, I have not now strength to search or to struggle with my heart. Death must very soon break every tie that was twined with it, and it is useless to anticipate my liberation; the effort would be agony — fruitless agony, for, while I live, I must love my destroyer! Alas! in being the enemy of mankind, was not his hostility to me inevitable and fatal? In rejecting his last terrible temptation — in resigning him to his destiny, and preferring submission to my own, I feel my triumph complete, and my salvation assured.’ — ‘Daughter, I do not comprehend you,’ — ‘Melmoth,’ said Isidora, with a strong effort, ‘Melmoth was here last night — within the walls of the Inquisition — within this very cell!’ The priest crossed himself with marks of the profoundest horror, and, as the wind swept hollowly through the long passage, almost expected the shaken door would burst open, and disclose the figure of the Wanderer.

‘My father, I have had many dreams,’ answered the penitent, shaking her head at a suggestion of the priest’s, ‘many — many wanderings, but this was no dream. I have dreamed of the garden-land where I beheld him first — I have dreamed of the nights when he stood at my casement, and trembled in sleep at the sound of my mother’s step — and I have had holy and hopeful visions, in which celestial forms appeared to me, and promised me his conversion — but this was no dream — I saw him last night. Father, he was here the whole night — he promised — he assured me — he adjured me to accept of liberation and safety, of life and of felicity. He told me, nor could I doubt him, that, by whatever means he effected his entrance, he could also effect my escape. He offered to live with me in that Indian isle — that paradise of ocean, far from human resort or human persecution. He offered to love me alone, and for ever — and then I listened to him. Oh, my father, I am very young, and life and love sounded sweetly in my ears, when I looked at my dungeon, and thought of dying on this floor of stone! But — when he whispered the terrible condition on which the fulfilment of his promise depended — when he told me that’ —

‘Her voice failed with her failing strength, and she could utter no more. ‘Daughter,’ said the priest, bending over her bed, ‘daughter, I adjure you, by the image represented on this cross I hold to your dying lips — by your hopes of that salvation which depends on the truth you utter to me, your priest and your friend — the conditions proposed by your tempter!’ ‘Promise me absolution for repeating the words, for I should wish that my last breath might not be exhaled in uttering — what I must.’ — ’Te absolvo,’ &c. said the priest, and bent his ear to catch the sounds. The moment they were uttered, he started as from the sting of a serpent, and, seating himself at the extremity of the cell, rocked in dumb horror. ‘My father, you promised me absolution,’ said the penitent, ‘Jam tibi dedi, moribunda,’ answered the priest, in the confusion of thoughts using the language appropriated to the service of religion. ‘Moribunda indeed!’ said the sufferer, falling back on her pallet, ‘Father, let me feel a human hand in mine as I part!’ — ‘Call upon God, daughter!’ said the priest, applying the crucifix to her cold lips. ‘I loved his religion,’ said the penitent, kissing it devoutly, ‘I loved it before I knew it, and God must have been my teacher, for I had no other! Oh!’ she exclaimed, with that deep conviction that must thrill every dying heart, and whose echo (would God) might pierce every living one — ‘Oh that I had loved none but God — how profound would have been my peace — how glorious my departure — now — his image pursues me even to the brink of the grave, into which I plunge to escape it!’

‘My daughter,’ said the priest, while the tears rolled fast down his cheeks — ‘my daughter, you are passing to bliss — the conflict was fierce and short, but the victory is sure — harps are tuned to a new song, even a song of welcome, and wreaths of palm are weaving for you in paradise!’

‘Paradise!’ uttered Isidora, with her last breath — ‘Will he be there!

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