Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 4

Haste with your weapons, cut the shrouds and stay,

And hew at once the mizen-mast away.

FALCONER

The following evening Melmoth retired early. The restlessness of the preceding night inclined him to repose, and the gloom of the day left him nothing to wish for but its speedy conclusion. It was now the latter end of Autumn; heavy clouds had all day been passing laggingly and gloomily along the atmosphere, as the hours of such a day pass over the human mind and life. Not a drop of rain fell; the clouds went portentously off, like ships of war after reconnoitering a strong fort, to return with added strength and fury. The threat was soon fulfilled; the evening came on, prematurely darkened by clouds that seemed surcharged with a deluge. Loud and sudden squalls of wind shook the house from time to time, and then as suddenly ceased. Towards night the storm came on in all its strength; Melmoth’s bed was shaken so as to render it impossible to sleep. He ‘liked the rocking of the battlements,’ but by no means liked the expected fall of the chimneys, the crashing in of the roof, and the splinters of the broken windows that were already scattered about his room. He rose and went down to the kitchen, where he knew a fire was burning, and there the terrified servants were all assembled, all agreeing, as the blast came roaring down the chimney, they never had witnessed such a storm, and between the gusts, breathing shuddering prayers for those who were ‘out at sea that night.’ The vicinity of Melmoth’s house to what seamen called an iron-bound coast, gave a dreadful sincerity to their prayers and their fears.

In a short time, however, Melmoth perceived that their minds were occupied with terrors beside those of the storm. The recent death of his uncle, and the supposed visit of that extraordinary being in whose existence they all firmly believed, were connected in their minds inseparably with the causes or consequences of this tempest, and they whispered their fearful suggestions to each other, till the sound reached Melmoth’s ears at every step that he measured across the broken floor of the kitchen. Terror is very fond of associations; we love to connect the agitation of the elements with the agitated life of man; and never did a blast roar, or a gleam of lightning flash, that was not connected in the imagination of some one, with a calamity that was to be dreaded, deprecated, or endured, — with the fate of the living, or the destination of the dead. The tremendous storm that shook all England on the night of Cromwell’s death, gave the hint to his puritanic chaplains to declare, that the Lord had caught him up in the whirlwind and chariot of fire, even thereafter, as he caught the prophet Elijah; while all the cavalier party, putting their own construction on the matter, proclaimed their confidence, that the Prince of the power of the air was vindicating his right, and carrying off the body of his victim (whose soul had long been his purchase) in a tempest, whose wild howl and triumphant ravage might have been variously, and with equal justice, interpreted by each party as giving testimony to their mutual denunciations. Just such a party (mutatis mutandis) were collected round the bickering fire and rocking chimney in Melmoth’s kitchen. ‘He is going in that blast,’ said one of the hags, taking the pipe from her mouth, and trying vainly to rekindle it among the embers that the storm scattered about like dust; ‘he is going in that blast.’ — ‘He’ll come again,’ cried another Sybil, ‘he’ll come again, — he’s not at rest! He roams and wails about till something is told that he never could tell in his life-time. — G-d save us!’ she added, howling up the chimney, as if addressing the troubled spirit; ‘tell us what you want, and stop the blast, will ye?’ — The wind came like thunder down the chimney; the hag shuddered and retreated. ‘If it’s this you want — and this — and this,’ cried a young female whom Melmoth had not noticed before, ‘take them;’ and she eagerly tore the papers out of her hair, and flung them into the fire. Then Melmoth recollected a ridiculous story told him the day before of this girl, who had had the ‘bad luck,’ as she called it, to curl her hair with some of the old and useless law-papers of the family, and who now imagined that they ‘who kept this dreadful pudder o’er her head,’ were particularly provoked by her still retaining about her whatever belonged to the deceased; and as she flung the fragments of paper into the fire, she cried aloud, ‘There stop for the holy J— -s’ sake, and let us have no more about it! — You have what you wanted, and will you have done?’ The laugh that Melmoth could hardly resist, was checked by a sound which he heard distinctly amid the storm. ‘Hush — silence! that was a signal gun! — there is a vessel in distress.’ They all paused and listened. We have already mentioned the closeness of Melmoth’s abode to the sea-shore. This had well accustomed its inmates to all the terrors of shipwrecked vessels and drowning passengers. To their honour be it spoken, they never heard those sounds but as a claim, a piteous, irresistible claim on their humanity. They knew nothing of the barbarous practice on the English coast, of fastening a lanthorn to the limbs of a spanselled horse, whose plungings were to misdirect the wrecked and sinking wretches, in the vain hope that the light they saw was a beacon, and thus to double the horrors of death by the baffled expectation of relief.

The party in the kitchen all watched Melmoth’s countenance intently, as if its expression could have told them ‘the secrets of the hoary deep.’ The storm ceased for a moment, and there was a deep and dreary silence of fearful expectation. The sound was heard again, — it could not be mistaken. ‘It is a gun,’ cried Melmoth; ‘there is a vessel in distress!’ and he hurried out of the kitchen, calling on the men to follow him.

The men partook eagerly of the excitement of enterprise and danger. A storm without doors is, after all, better than a storm within; without we have something to struggle with, within we have only to suffer; and the severest storm, by exciting the energy of its victim, gives at once a stimulus to action, and a solace to pride, which those must want who sit shuddering between rocking walls, and almost driven to wish they had only to suffer, not to fear.

While the men were in search of a hundred coats, boots, and hats of their old master, to be sought for in every part of the house, — while one was dragging a great coat from the window, before which it had long hung as a blind, in total default of glass or shutters, — another was snatching a wig from the jack, where it had been suspended for a duster, — and a third was battling with a cat and her brood of kittens for a pair of old boots which she had been pleased to make the seat of her accouchement, — Melmoth had gone up to the highest room in the house. The window was driven in; — had there been light, this window commanded a view of the sea and the coast. He leaned far out of it, and listened with fearful and breathless anxiety. The night was dark, but far off, his sight, sharpened by intense solicitude, descried a light at sea. The gust drove him from the window for a moment; at returning the next, he saw a faint flash, and then the report of a gun followed.

There needed no more; and in a few moments after, Melmoth was on the shore. Their way was short, and they walked with their utmost speed; but the violence of the storm made their progress very slow, and their anxiety made it seem still slower. From time to time they said to each other, in choaked and breathless accents, ‘Call up the people in those cabins — there is a light in that house — they are all up — no wonder — who could sleep in such a night — hold the lanthorn low — it is impossible to keep footing on the strand.’ ‘Another gun!’ they exclaimed, as the flash faintly broke through the darkness, and the heavy sound rolled round the shore, as if fired over the grave of the sufferers. ‘Here’s the rock, hold fast, and cling together.’ They scaled it. ‘Great God!’ cried Melmoth, who was among the first, ‘what a night! and what a spectacle! — Hold up your lanthorns — do you hear cries? — shout to them — tell them there is help and hope near them. — Stay,’ he added, ‘let me scramble up that crag — they will hear my voice from that.’ He dashed desperately through the water, while the foam of the breakers from a distant rock almost choaked him, gained the point, and, elated by his success, shouted aloud with his utmost strength. But his voice, baffled and drowned by the tempest, was lost even to his own hearing. Its sound was faint and querulous, more like the wail of grief, than the encouraging cry of hope. At this moment, the racking clouds flying rapidly across the sky, like the scattered fugitives of a routed army, the moon burst forth with the sudden and appalling effulgence of lightning. Melmoth caught a full view of the vessel, and of her danger. She lay beating against a rock, over which the breakers dashed their foam to the height of thirty feet. She was half in the water, a mere hulk, her rigging torn to shreds, her main mast cut away, and every sea she shipped, Melmoth could hear distinctly the dying cries of those who were swept away, or perhaps of those whose mind and body, alike exhausted, relaxed their benumbed hold of hope and life together, — knew that the next shriek that was uttered must be their own and their last. There is something so very horrible in the sight of human beings perishing so near us, that we feel one firm step rightly planted, one arm steadily held out, might save at least one, — yet feel we know not where to fix that step, and cannot stretch that arm, that Melmoth’s senses reeled under the shock, and for a moment he echoed the storm with yells of actual insanity. By this time the country, having been alarmed by the news of a vessel going to pieces on the shore, had poured down in multitudes; and those who, from experience or confidence, or even ignorance, repeated incessantly, ‘it is impossible to save her, — every soul on board must perish,’ involuntarily quickened their steps as they uttered the words, as if they were anxious to behold the fulfilment of their own prediction, while they appeared hurrying to avert it.

Of one man, in particular, it was observed, that during their hurried rush to the shore, he was, with what breath his haste allowed him, assuring the rest every moment, ‘she would be down before they could get there,’ and heard the ejaculations of ‘Christ save us! don’t say that,’ ‘No, please God, we’ll do some good,’ with a laugh almost of triumph. When they arrived, this man scaled a rock at the risk of his life, caught a view of the vessel, pointed out her desperate situation to those below, and shouted, ‘Didn’t I tell you so? wasn’t I right?’ And as the storm increased, his voice was still heard, ‘wasn’t I right?’ And when the cries of the perishing crew were distinctly wafted to their ears, he was still heard in the interval repeating, ‘But wasn’t I right?’ Singular sentiment of pride, that can erect its trophies amid the grave. ’Tis in this spirit we give advice to those who suffer from life, as well as from the elements; and when the heart of the victim breaks, console ourselves by exclaiming, ‘Didn’t I foretell it all?did I not tell you how it would be?’ It is remarkable that this man lost his life that very night in the most desperate and fruitless attempt to save the life of one of the crew who was swimming within six yards of him. The whole shore was now crowded with helpless gazers, every crag and cliff was manned; it seemed like a battle fought at once by sea and land, between hope and despair. No effectual assistance could be rendered, — not a boat could live in that gale, — yet still, and to the last, cheers were heard from rock to rock, — terrible cheers, that announced safety was near and — impossible; — lanthorns held aloft in all directions, that displayed to the sufferers the shore all peopled with life, and the roaring and impassable waves between; — ropes flung out, with loud cries of help and encouragement, and caught at by some chilled, nerveless, and despairing hand, that only grasped the wave, — relaxed its hold, — was tossed once over the sinking head, — and then seen no more. It was at this moment that Melmoth, starting from his trance of terror, and looking round him, saw all, to the number of hundreds, anxious, restless, and occupied; and, though obviously in vain, the sight cheered his heart. ‘How much good there is in man,’ he cried, ‘when it is called forth by the sufferings of his fellows!’ He had no leisure or inclination, then, to analyse the compound he called good, and resolve it into its component parts of curiosity, strong excitement, the pride of physical strength, or the comparative consciousness of safety. He had, indeed, no leisure, for just then he descried, standing a few yards above him on the rock, a figure that shewed neither sympathy or terror, — uttered no sound, — offered no help. Melmoth could hardly keep his footing on the slippery and rocking crag on which he stood; the figure, who stood still higher, appeared alike unmoved by the storm, as by the spectacle. Melmoth’s surtout, in spite of his efforts to wrap it round him, was fluttering in rags, — not a thread of the stranger’s garments seemed ruffled by the blast. But this did not strike him so much as his obvious insensibility to the distress and terror around him, and he exclaimed aloud, ‘Good God! is it possible that any thing bearing the human form should stand there without making an effort, without expressing a feeling, for those perishing wretches!’ A pause ensued, or the blast carried away the sound; but a few moments after, Melmoth distinctly heard the words, ‘Let them perish.’ He looked up, the figure still stood unmoved, the arms folded across the breast, the foot advanced, and fixed as in defiance of the white and climbing spray of the wave, and the stern profile caught in the glimpses of the stormy and doubtful moon-light, seeming to watch the scene with an expression formidable, revolting, and unnatural. At this moment, a tremendous wave breaking over the deck of the hulk, extorted a cry of horror from the spectators; they felt as if they were echoing that of the victims whose corses were in a few moments to be dashed against their feet, mangled and lifeless.

When the cry had ceased, Melmoth heard a laugh that chilled his blood. It was from the figure that stood above him. Like lightning then glanced on his memory the recollection of that night in Spain, when Stanton first encountered that extraordinary being, whose charmed life, ‘defying space and time,’ held such fatal influence over his, and when he first recognised his supposed demoniac character by the laugh with which he hailed the spectacle of the blasted lovers. The echo of that laugh rung in Melmoth’s ears; he believed it was indeed that mysterious being who was standing so near him. His mind, by its late intense and bewildering pursuits, at once heated and darkened, like the atmosphere under an incumbent thunder-cloud, had now no power of inquiry, of conjecture, or of calculation. He instantly began to climb the rock, — the figure was but a few feet above him, — the object of his daily and nightly dreams was at last within the reach of his mind and his arm, — was almost tangible. Fang and Snare1 themselves, in all the enthusiasm of professional zeal, never uttered, ‘if I but once get him within my vice,’ with more eagerness than did Melmoth, as he scrambled up his steep and perilous path, to the ledge of the rock where the figure stood so calm and dark. Panting from the fury of the storm, the vehemence of his own exertions, and the difficulty of the task, he was now almost foot to foot, and face to face, with the object of his pursuit, when, grasping at the loosened fragment of a stone whose fall could not have hurt a child, though on its tottering insecurity hung the life-grasp of a man, his hold failed — he fell backwards, — the roaring deep was beneath, seeming to toss its ten thousand arms to receive and devour him. He did not feel the instantaneous giddiness of his fall, but as he sunk he felt the splash, he heard the roar. He was engulphed, then for a moment thrown to the surface. He struggled with nothing to grasp at. He sunk with a vague thought, that if he could reach the bottom, if he could arrive at any thing solid, he was safe. Ten thousand trumpets then seemed to ring in his ears; lights flashed from his eyes. ‘He seemed to go through fire and water,’ and remembered no more till several days afterwards, when he found himself in bed, the old gouvernante beside him, and uttered faintly, ‘What a horrid dream!’ then sinking back as he felt his exhaustion, ‘and how weak it has left me!’

1 See Henry IV. Second Part.

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