Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 38

Loud tolled the bell, the priests prayed well,

The tapers they all burned bright,

The monk her son, and her daughter the nun,

They told their beads all night!

* * * *

The second night ————

* * * *

The monk and the nun they told their beads

As fast as they could tell,

And aye the louder grew the noise,

The faster went the bell!

* * * *

The third night came ————

* * * *

The monk and the nun forgot their beads,

They fell to the ground dismayed,

There was not a single saint in heaven

Whom they did not call to their aid!

SOUTHEY

Monçada here concluded the tale of the Indian, — the victim of Melmoth’s passion, no less than of his destiny, both alike unhallowed and unutterable. And he announced his intention of disclosing to him the fates of the other victims, whose skeletons were preserved in the vault of the Jew Adonijah in Madrid. He added, that the circumstances relating to them, were of a character still darker and more awful than those he had recited, as they were the result of impressions made on masculine minds, without any excitement but that of looking into futurity. He mentioned, too, that the circumstances of his residence in the house of the Jew, his escape from it, and the reasons of his subsequent arrival in Ireland, were scarcely less extraordinary than any thing he had hitherto related. Young Melmoth, (whose name perhaps the reader has forgot), did ‘seriously incline’ to the purpose of having his dangerous curiosity further gratified, nor was he perhaps altogether without the wild hope of seeing the original of that portrait he had destroyed, burst from the walls and take up the fearful tale himself.

The narrative of the Spaniard had occupied many days; at their termination, young Melmoth signified to his guest that he was prepared to hear the sequel.

A night was fixed for the continuation of the recital. Young Melmoth and his guest met in the usual apartment — it was a dreary, stormy night — the rain that had fallen all day, seemed now to have yielded to the wind, that came in strong and sudden bursts, suddenly hushed, as if collecting strength for the tempest of the night. Monçada and Melmoth drew their chairs closer to the fire, looking at each other with the aspect of men who wish to inspire each other with courage to listen, and to tell, and are the more eager to inspire it, because neither feels it himself.

At length Monçada collected his voice and resolution to proceed, but as he went on, he perceived he could not fix his hearer’s attention, and he paused.

‘I thought,’ said Melmoth, answering his silence, ‘I thought I heard a noise — as of a person walking in the passage.’ ‘Hush! and listen,’ said Monçada, ‘I would not wish to be overheard.’ They paused and held their breath — the sound was renewed — it was evidently that of steps approaching the door, and then retiring from it. ‘We are watched,’ said Melmoth, half-rising from his chair, but at that moment the door opened, and a figure appeared at it, which Monçada recognized for the subject of his narrative, and his mysterious visitor in the prison of the Inquisition, and Melmoth for the original of the picture, and the being whose unaccountable appearance had filled him with consternation, as he sat beside his dying uncle’s bed.

The figure stood at the door for some time, and then advancing slowly till it gained the centre of the room, it remained there fixed for some time, but without looking at them. It then approached the table where they sat, in a slow but distinctly heard step, and stood before them as a living being. The profound horror that was equally felt by both, was differently expressed by each. Monçada crossed himself repeatedly, and attempted to utter many prayers. Melmoth, nailed to his chair, fixed his sightless eyes on the form that stood before him — it was indeed Melmoth the Wanderer — the same as he was in the past century — the same as he may be in centuries to come, should the fearful terms of his existence be renewed. His ‘natural force was not abated,’ but ‘his eye was dim,’ — that appalling and supernatural lustre of the visual organ, that beacon lit by an infernal fire, to tempt or to warn the adventurers of despair from that coast on which many struck, and some sunk — that portentous light was no longer visible — the form and figure were those of a living man, of the age indicated in the portrait which the young Melmoth had destroyed, but the eyes were as the eyes of the dead.

As the Wanderer advanced still nearer till his figure touched the table, Monçada and Melmoth started up in irrepressible horror, and stood in attitudes of defence, though conscious at the moment that all defence was hopeless against a being that withered and mocked at human power. The Wanderer waved his arm with an action that spoke defiance without hostility — and the strange and solemn accents of the only human voice that had respired mortal air beyond the period of mortal life, and never spoken but to the ear of guilt or suffering, and never uttered to that ear aught but despair, rolled slowly on their hearing like a peal of distant thunder.

‘Mortals — you are here to talk of my destiny, and of the events which it has involved. That destiny is accomplished, I believe, and with it terminate those events that have stimulated your wild and wretched curiosity. I am here to tell you of both! — I— I— of whom you speak, am here! — Who can tell so well of Melmoth the Wanderer as himself, now that he is about to resign that existence which has been the object of terror and wonder to the world? — Melmoth, you behold your ancestor — the being on whose portrait is inscribed the date of a century and a half, is before you. — Monçada, you see an acquaintance of a later date.’ — (A grim smile of recognition wandered over his features as he spoke). — ‘Fear nothing,’ he added, observing the agony and terror of his involuntary hearers — ‘What have you to fear?’ he continued, while a flash of derisive malignity once more lit up the sockets of his dead eyes — ‘You, Senhor, are armed with your beads — and you, Melmoth, are fortified by that vain and desperate inquisitiveness, which might, at a former period, have made you my victim,’ — (and his features underwent a short but horrible convulsion) — ‘but now makes you only my mockery.

‘Have you aught to quench my thirst?’ he added, seating himself. The senses of Monçada and his companion reeled in delirious terror, and the former, in a kind of wild confidence, filled a glass of water, and offered it to the Wanderer with a hand as steady, but somewhat colder, as he would have presented it to one who sat beside him in human companionship. The Wanderer raised it to his lips, and tasted a few drops, then replacing it on the table, said with a laugh, wild indeed, but no longer ferocious — ‘Have you seen,’ said he to Monçada and Melmoth, who gazed with dim and troubled sight on this vision, and wist not what to think — ‘Have you seen the fate of Don Juan, not as he is pantomimed on your paltry stage, but as he is represented in the real horrors of his destiny by the Spanish writer?1 There the spectre returns the hospitality of his inviter, and summons him in turn to a feast. — The banquet-hall is a church — he arrives — it is illuminated with a mysterious light — invisible hands hold lamps fed by no earthly substance, to light the apostate to his doom! — He enters the church, and is greeted by a numerous company — the spirits of those whom he has wronged and murdered, uprisen from their charnel, and swathed in shrouds, stand there to welcome him! — As he passes among them, they call on him in hollow sounds to pledge them in goblets of blood which they present to him — and beneath the altar, by which stands the spirit of him whom the parricide has murdered, the gulph of perdition is yawning to receive him! — Through such a band I must soon prepare to pass! — Isidora! thy form will be the last I must encounter — and — the most terrible! Now for the last drop I must taste of earth’s produce — the last that shall wet my mortal lips!’ He slowly finished the draught of water. Neither of his companions had the power to speak. He sat down in a posture of heavy musing, and neither ventured to interrupt him.

1 Vide the original play, of which there is a curious and very obsolete translation.

They kept silence till the morning was dawning, and a faint light streamed through the closed shutters. Then the Wanderer raised his heavy eyes, and fixed them on Melmoth. ‘Your ancestor has come home,’ he said; ‘his wanderings are over! — What has been told or believed of me is now of light avail to me. The secret of my destiny rests with myself. If all that fear has invented, and credulity believed of me be true, to what does it amount? That if my crimes have exceeded those of mortality, so will my punishment. I have been on earth a terror, but not an evil to its inhabitants. None can participate in my destiny but with his own consent — none have consented — none can be involved in its tremendous penalties, but by participation. I alone must sustain the penalty. If I have put forth my hand, and eaten of the fruit of the interdicted tree, am I not driven from the presence of God and the region of paradise, and sent to wander amid worlds of barrenness and curse for ever and ever?

‘It has been reported of me, that I obtained from the enemy of souls a range of existence beyond the period allotted to mortality — a power to pass over space without disturbance or delay, and visit remote regions with the swiftness of thought — to encounter tempests without the hope of their blasting me, and penetrate into dungeons, whose bolts were as flax and tow at my touch. It has been said that this power was accorded to me, that I might be enabled to tempt wretches in their fearful hour of extremity, with the promise of deliverance and immunity, on condition of their exchanging situations with me. If this be true, it bears attestation to a truth uttered by the lips of one I may not name, and echoed by every human heart in the habitable world.

‘No one has ever exchanged destinies with Melmoth the Wanderer. I have traversed the world in the search, and no one, to gain that world, would lose his own soul! — Not Stanton in his cell — nor you, Monçada, in the prison of the Inquisition — nor Walberg, who saw his children perishing with want — nor — another’ —

He paused, and though on the verge of his dark and doubtful voyage, he seemed to cast one look of bitter and retrospective anguish on the receding shore of life, and see, through the mists of memory, one form that stood there to bid him farewell. He rose — ‘Let me, if possible, obtain an hour’s repose. Aye, repose — sleep!’ he repeated, answering the silent astonishment of his hearers’ looks, ‘my existence is still human!’ — and a ghastly and derisive smile wandered over his features for the last time, as he spoke. How often had that smile frozen the blood of his victims! Melmoth and Monçada quitted the apartment; and the Wanderer, sinking back in his chair, slept profoundly. He slept, but what were the visions of his last earthly slumber?

The Wanderer’s Dream

He dreamed that he stood on the summit of a precipice, whose downward height no eye could have measured, but for the fearful waves of a fiery ocean that lashed, and blazed, and roared at its bottom, sending its burning spray far up, so as to drench the dreamer with its sulphurous rain. The whole glowing ocean below was alive — every billow bore an agonizing soul, that rose like a wreck or a putrid corse on the waves of earth’s oceans — uttered a shriek as it burst against that adamantine precipice — sunk — and rose again to repeat the tremendous experiment! Every billow of fire was thus instinct with immortal and agonizing existence, — each was freighted with a soul, that rose on the burning wave in torturing hope, burst on the rock in despair, added its eternal shriek to the roar of that fiery ocean, and sunk to rise again — in vain, and — for ever!

Suddenly the Wanderer felt himself flung half-way down the precipice. He stood, in his dream, tottering on a crag midway down the precipice — he looked upward, but the upper air (for there was no heaven) showed only blackness unshadowed and impenetrable — but, blacker than that blackness, he could distinguish a gigantic outstretched arm, that held him as in sport on the ridge of that infernal precipice, while another, that seemed in its motions to hold fearful and invisible conjunction with the arm that grasped him, as if both belonged to some being too vast and horrible even for the imagery of a dream to shape, pointed upwards to a dial-plate fixed on the top of that precipice, and which the flashes of that ocean of fire made fearfully conspicuous. He saw the mysterious single hand revolve — he saw it reach the appointed period of 150 years — (for in this mystic plate centuries were marked, not hours) — he shrieked in his dream, and, with that strong impulse often felt in sleep, burst from the arm that held him, to arrest the motion of the hand.

In the effort he fell, and falling grasped at aught that might save him. His fall seemed perpendicular — there was nought to save him — the rock was as smooth as ice — the ocean of fire broke at its foot! Suddenly a groupe of figures appeared, ascending as he fell. He grasped at them successively; — first Stanton — then Walberg — Elinor Mortimer — Isidora — Monçada — all passed him, — to each he seemed in his slumber to cling in order to break his fall — all ascended the precipice. He caught at each in his downward flight, but all forsook him and ascended.

His last despairing reverted glance was fixed on the clock of eternity — the upraised black arm seemed to push forward the hand — it arrived at its period — he fell — he sunk — he blazed — he shrieked! The burning waves boomed over his sinking head, and the clock of eternity rung out its awful chime — ‘Room for the soul of the Wanderer!’ — and the waves of the burning ocean answered, as they lashed the adamantine rock — ‘There is room for more!’ — The Wanderer awoke.

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