Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 39

And in he came with eyes of flame,

The fiend to fetch the dead.

SOUTHEY’S Old Woman of Berkeley

Melmoth and Monçada did not dare to approach the door till about noon. They then knocked gently at the door, and finding the summons unanswered, they entered slowly and irresolutely. The apartment was in the same state in which they had left it the preceding night, or rather morning; it was dusky and silent, the shutters had not been opened, and the Wanderer still seemed sleeping in his chair.

At the sound of their approach he half-started up, and demanded what was the hour. They told him. ‘My hour is come,’ said the Wanderer, ‘it is an hour you must neither partake or witness — the clock of eternity is about to strike, but its knell must be unheard by mortal ears!’ As he spoke they approached nearer, and saw with horror the change the last few hours had wrought on him. The fearful lustre of his eyes had been deadened before their late interview, but now the lines of extreme age were visible in every feature. His hairs were as white as snow, his mouth had fallen in, the muscles of his face were relaxed and withered — he was the very image of hoary decrepid debility. He started himself at the impression which his appearance visibly made on the intruders. ‘You see what I feel,’ he exclaimed, ‘the hour then is come. I am summoned, and I must obey the summons — my master has other work for me! When a meteor blazes in your atmosphere — when a comet pursues its burning path towards the sun — look up, and perhaps you may think of the spirit condemned to guide the blazing and erratic orb.’

The spirits, that had risen to a kind of wild elation, as suddenly subsided, and he added, ‘Leave me, I must be alone for the few last hours of my mortal existence — if indeed they are to be the last.’ He spoke this with an inward shuddering, that was felt by his hearers. ‘In this apartment,’ he continued, ‘I first drew breath, in this I must perhaps resign it, — would — would I had never been born!

‘Men — retire — leave me alone. Whatever noises you hear in the course of the awful night that is approaching, come not near this apartment, at peril of your lives. Remember,’ raising his voice, which still retained all its powers, ‘remember your lives will be the forfeit of your desperate curiosity. For the same stake I risked more than life — and lost it! — Be warned — retire!’

They retired, and passed the remainder of that day without even thinking of food, from that intense and burning anxiety that seemed to prey on their very vitals. At night they retired, and though each lay down, it was without a thought of repose. Repose indeed would have been impossible. The sounds that soon after midnight began to issue from the apartment of the Wanderer, were at first of a description not to alarm, but they were soon exchanged for others of such indescribable horror, that Melmoth, though he had taken the precaution of dismissing the servants to sleep in the adjacent offices, began to fear that those sounds might reach them, and, restless himself from insupportable inquietude, rose and walked up and down the passage that led to that room of horror. As he was thus occupied, he thought he saw a figure at the lower end of the passage. So disturbed was his vision, that he did not at first recognize Monçada. Neither asked the other the reason of his being there — they walked up and down together silently.

In a short time the sounds became so terrible, that scarcely had the awful warning of the Wanderer power to withhold them from attempting to burst into the room. These noises were of the most mixed and indescribable kind. They could not distinguish whether they were the shrieks of supplication, or the yell of blasphemy — they hoped inwardly they might be the former.

Towards morning the sounds suddenly ceased — they were stilled as in a moment. The silence that succeeded seemed to them for a few moments more terrible than all that preceded. After consulting each other by a glance, they hastened together to the apartment. They entered — it was empty — not a vestige of its last inhabitant was to be traced within.

After looking around in fruitless amazement, they perceived a small door opposite to that by which they had entered. It communicated with a back staircase, and was open. As they approached it, they discovered the traces of footsteps that appeared to be those of a person who had been walking in damp sand or clay. These traces were exceedingly plain — they followed them to a door that opened on the garden — that door was open also. They traced the foot-marks distinctly through the narrow gravel walk, which was terminated by a broken fence, and opened on a heathy field which spread half-way up a rock whose summit overlooked the sea. The weather had been rainy, and they could trace the steps distinctly through that heathy field. They ascended the rock together.

Early as it was, the cottagers, who were poor fishermen residing on the shore, were all up, and assuring Melmoth and his companion that they had been disturbed and terrified the preceding night by sounds which they could not describe. It was singular that these men, accustomed by nature and habit alike to exaggeration and superstition, used not the language of either on this occasion.

There is an overwhelming mass of conviction that falls on the mind, that annihilates idiom and peculiarities, and crushes out truth from the heart. Melmoth waved back all who offered to accompany him to the precipice which over-hung the sea. Monçada alone followed him.

Through the furze that clothed this rock, almost to its summit, there was a kind of tract as if a person had dragged, or been dragged, his way through it — a down-trodden track, over which no footsteps but those of one impelled by force had ever passed. Melmoth and Monçada gained at last the summit of the rock. The ocean was beneath — the wide, waste, engulphing ocean! On a crag beneath them, something hung as floating to the blast. Melmoth clambered down and caught it. It was the handkerchief which the Wanderer had worn about his neck the preceding night — that was the last trace of the Wanderer!

Melmoth and Monçada exchanged looks of silent and unutterable horror, and returned slowly home.

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

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