Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 8

Ye monks and nuns throughout the land,

    Who go to church at night in pairs,

Never take bell-ropes in your hands,

    To raise you up again from prayers.

COLMAN

‘I am not superstitious, but, as I entered the church, I felt a chill of body and soul inexpressible. I approached the altar, and attempted to kneel, — an invisible hand repelled me. A voice seemed to address me from the recesses of the altar, and demand what brought me there? I reflected that those who had just quitted that spot had been absorbed in prayer, that those who were to succeed me would be engaged in the same profound homage, while I sought the church with a purpose of imposture and deception, and abused the hour allotted to the divine worship in contriving the means to escape from it. I felt I was a deceiver, shrouding my fraud in the very veils of the temple. I trembled at my purpose and at myself. I knelt, however, though I did not dare to pray. The steps of the altar felt unusually cold, — I shuddered at the silence I was compelled to observe. Alas! how can we expect that object to succeed, which we dare not entrust to God. Prayer, Sir, when we are deeply engaged in it, not only makes us eloquent, but communicates a kind of answering eloquence to the objects around us. At former times, while I poured out my heart before God, I felt as if the lamps burnt brighter, and the images smiled, — the silent midnight air was filled with forms and voices, and every breeze that sighed by the casement bore to my ear the harpings of a thousand angels. Now all was stilled, — the lamps, the images, the altar, the roof, seemed to behold me in silence. They surrounded me like witnesses, whose presence alone is enough to condemn you, without their uttering a word. I dared not look up, — I dared not speak, — I dared not pray, lest it would unfold a thought I could not supplicate a blessing on; and this kind of keeping a secret, which God must know, is at once so vain and impious.

‘I had not remained long in this state of agitation, when I heard a step approach, — it was that of him I expected. ‘Rise,’ said he, for I was on my knees; ‘rise, — we have no time to lose. You have but an hour to remain in the church, and I have much to tell you in that hour.’ I rose. ‘To-morrow night is fixed for your escape.’ — ‘To-morrow night, — merciful God!’ — ‘Yes; in desperate steps there is always more danger from delay than from precipitation. A thousand eyes and ears are on the watch already, — a single sinister or ambiguous movement would render it impossible to escape their vigilance. There may be some danger in hastening matters thus, but it is unavoidable. To-morrow night, after midnight, descend to the church, it is probable no one will then be here. If any one should, (engaged in recollection or in penance), retire to avoid suspicion. Return as soon as the church is empty, — I will be here. Do you observe that door?’ and he pointed to a low door which I had often observed before, but never remembered to have seen opened; ‘I have obtained the key of that door, — no matter by what means. It formerly led to the vaults of the convent, but, for some extraordinary reasons, which I have not time to relate, another passage has been opened, and the former has not been employed or frequented for many years. From thence branches another passage, which, I have heard, opens by a trap-door into the garden.’ — ‘Heard,’ I repeated; ‘Good God! is it on report, then, you depend in a matter so momentous? If you are not certain that such a passage exists, and that you will be able to trace its windings, may we not be wandering amid them all night? Or perhaps — ‘ ‘Interrupt me no more with those faint objections; I have no time to listen to fears which I can neither sympathise with or obviate. When we get through the trap-door into the garden, (if ever we do), another danger awaits us.’ He paused, I thought, like a man who is watching the effect of the terrors he excites, not from malignity but vanity, merely to magnify his own courage in encountering them. I was silent; and, as he heard neither flattery nor fear, he went on. ‘Two fierce dogs are let loose in the garden every night, — but they must be taken care of. The wall is sixteen feet high, — but your brother has provided a ladder of ropes, which he will fling over, and by which you may descend on the other side in safety.’ — ‘Safety! but then Juan will be in danger.’ — ‘Interrupt me no more, — the danger within the walls is the least you have to dread, beyond them, where can you seek for refuge or secrecy? Your brother’s money will enable you possibly to escape from Madrid. He will bribe high, and every inch of your way must be paved with his gold. But, after that, so many dangers present themselves, that the enterprise and the danger seem but just begun. How will you cross the Pyrennees? How — ‘ and he passed his hand over his forehead, with the air of a man engaged in an effort beyond his powers, and sorely perplexed about the means to effect it. This expression, so full of sincerity, struck me forcibly. It operated as a balance against all my former prepossessions. But still the more confidence I felt in him, the more I was impressed by his fears. I repeated after him, ‘How is it possible for me to escape ultimately? I may, by your assistance, traverse those intricate passages, whose cold dews I feel already distilling on me. I may emerge into light, ascend and descend the wall, but, after that, how am I to escape? — how am I even to live? All Spain is but one great monastery, — I must be a prisoner every step that I take.’ — ‘Your brother must look to that,’ said he abruptly; ‘I have done what I have undertaken.’ I then pressed him with several questions relating to the details of my escape. His answer was monotonous, unsatisfactory, and evasive, to a degree that again filled me first with suspicion, and then with terror. I asked, ‘But how have you obtained possession of the keys?’ — ‘It is not your business to inquire.’ It was singular that he returned the same answer to every question I put to him, relative to his becoming possessed of the means to facilitate my escape, so that I was compelled to desist unsatisfied, and revert to what he had told me. — ‘But, then, that terrible passage near the vaults, — the chance, the fear that we may never emerge to light! Think of wandering amid sepulchral ruins, of stumbling over the bones of the dead, of encountering what I cannot describe, — the horror of being among those who are neither the living or the dead; — those dark and shadowless things that sport themselves with the reliques of the dead, and feast and love amid corruption, — ghastly, mocking, and terrific. Must we pass near the vaults?’ — ‘What matter? perhaps I have more reason to dread them than you. Do you expect the spirit of your father to start from the earth to blast you?’ At these words, which he uttered in a tone intended to inspire me with confidence, I shuddered with horror. They were uttered by a parricide, boasting of his crime in a church at midnight, amid saints, whose images were silent, but seemed to tremble. For relief I reverted to the unscaleable wall, and the difficulty of managing the ladder of ropes without detection. The same answer was on his lips, — ‘Leave that to me, — all that is settled.’ While he answered thus, he always turned his face away, and broke his words into monosyllables. At last I felt that the case was desperate, — that I must trust every thing to him. To him! Oh, my God! what I felt when I said this to myself! The conviction thrilled on my soul, — I am in his power. And yet, even under the impression, I could not help recurring to the impracticable difficulties that appeared to obstruct my escape. He then lost patience, — reproached me with timidity and ingratitude; and, while resuming his naturally ferocious and menacing tone, I actually felt more confidence in him than when he had attempted to disguise it. Half-remonstrance, half-invective as it was, what he said displayed so much ability, intrepidity, and art, that I began to feel a kind of doubtful security. I conceived, at least, that if any being on earth could effect my liberation, this was the man. He had no conception of fear, — no idea of conscience. When he hinted at his having murdered his father, it was done to impress me with an idea of his hardihood. I saw this from his expression, for I had involuntarily looked up at him. His eye had neither the hollowness of remorse, or the wandering of fear, — it glared on me bold, challenging, and prominent. He had but one idea annexed to the word danger, — that of strong excitement. He undertook a perilous attempt as a gamester would sit down to encounter an antagonist worthy of him; and, if life and death were the stake, he only felt as if he were playing at a higher rate, and the increased demands on his courage and talent actually supplied him with the means of meeting them. Our conference was now nearly at an end, when it occurred to me that this man was exposing himself to a degree of danger which it was almost incredible he should brave on my account; and this mystery, at least, I was resolved to penetrate. I said, ‘But how will you provide for your own safety? What will become of you when my escape is discovered? Would not the most dreadful punishments attend even the suspicion of your having been an agent in it, and what must be the result when that suspicion is exchanged for the most undeniable certainty?’ It is impossible for me to describe the change his expression underwent while I uttered these words. He looked at me for some time without speaking, with an indefinable mixture of sarcasm, contempt, doubt, and curiosity in his countenance, and then attempted to laugh, but the muscles of his face were too stubborn and harsh to admit of this modulation. To features like his, frowns were a habit, and smiles a convulsion. He could produce nothing but a rictus Sardonicus, the terrors of which there is no describing. It is very frightful to behold crime in its merriment, — its smile must be purchased by many groans. My blood ran cold as I looked at him. I waited for the sound of his voice as a kind of relief. At length he said, ‘Do you imagine me such an ideot as to promote your escape at the risk of imprisonment for life, — perhaps of immurement, — perhaps of the Inquisition?’ and again he laughed. ‘No, we must escape together. Could you suppose I would have so much anxiety about an event, in which I had no part but that of an assistant? It was of my own danger I was thinking, — it was of my own safety I was doubtful. Our situation has happened to unite very opposite characters in the same adventure, but it is an union inevitable and inseparable. Your destiny is now bound to mine by a tie which no human force can break, — we part no more for ever. The secret that each is in possession of, must be watched by the other. Our lives are in each other’s hands, and a moment of absence might be that of treachery. We must pass life in each watching every breath the other draws, every glance the other gives, — in dreading sleep as an involuntary betrayer, and watching the broken murmurs of each other’s restless dreams. We may hate each other, torment each other, — worst of all, we may be weary of each other, (for hatred itself would be a relief, compared to the tedium of our inseparability), but separate we must never.’ At this picture of the liberty for which I had risked so much, my very soul recoiled. I gazed on the formidable being with whom my existence was thus incorporated. He was now retiring, when he paused at some distance to repeat his last words, or perhaps to observe their effect. I was sitting on the altar, — it was late, — the lamps in the church burned very dimly, and, as he stood in the aisle, he was placed in such a position, with regard to that which hung from the roof, that the light fell only on his face and one hand, which he extended towards me. The rest of his figure, enveloped in darkness, gave to this bodyless and spectre head an effect truly appalling. The ferocity of his features, too, was softened into a heavy and death-like gloom, as he repeated, ‘We part never, — I must be near you for ever,’ and the deep tones of his voice rolled like subterranean thunder round the church. A long pause followed. He continued to stand in the same posture, nor had I power to change mine. The clock struck three, its sound reminded me that my hour had expired. We separated, each taking different directions; and the two monks who succeeded me luckily came a few minutes late, (both of them yawning most fearfully), so our departure was unobserved.

‘The day that followed I have no more power of describing, than of analysing a dream to its component parts of sanity, delirium, defeated memory, and triumphant imagination. The sultan in the eastern tale who plunged his head in a bason of water, and, before he raised it again, passed through adventures the most vicissitudinous and incredible — was a monarch, a slave, a husband, a widower, a father, childless, — in five minutes, never underwent the changes of mind that I did during that memorable day. I was a prisoner, — free, — a happy being, surrounded by smiling infants, — a victim of the Inquisition, writhing amid flames and execrations. I was a maniac, oscillating between hope and despair. I seemed to myself all that day to be pulling the rope of a bell, whose alternate knell was heaven — hell, and this rung in my ears with all the dreary and ceaseless monotony of the bell of the convent. Night came at last. I might almost say day came, for that day had been my night. Every thing was propitious to me, — the convent was all hushed. I put my head several times out of my cell, to be assured of this, — all was hushed. There was not a step in the corridor, — not a voice, not a whisper to be heard under a roof containing so many souls. I stole from my cell, I descended to the church. This was not unusual for those whose consciences or nerves were disturbed, during the sleepless gloom of a conventual night. As I advanced to the door of the church, where the lamps were always kept burning, I heard a human voice. I retreated in terror; — then I ventured to give a glance. An old monk was at prayers before one of the images of the saints, and the object of his prayers was to be relieved, not from the anguish of conscience, or the annihilation of monasticism, but from the pains of a toothache, for which he had been desired to apply his gums to the image of a saint quite notorious for her efficacy in such cases.1 The poor, old, tortured wretch, prayed with all the fervency of agony, and then rubbed his gums over and over again on the cold marble, which increased his complaint, his suffering, and his devotion. I watched, listened, — there was something at once ludicrous and frightful in my situation. I felt inclined to laugh at my own distress, while it was rising almost to agony every moment. I dreaded, too, the approach of another intruder, and feeling my fear about to be realized by the approach of some one, I turned round, and, to my inexpressible relief, saw my companion. I made him comprehend, by a sign, how I was prevented from entering the church; he answered me in the same way, and retreated a few steps, but not without shewing me a bunch of huge keys under his habit. This revived my spirits, and I waited for another half-hour in a state of mental excruciation, which, were it inflicted on the bitterest enemy I have on earth, I think I would have cried, ‘Hold, — hold, spare him.’ The clock struck two, — I writhed and stamped with my feet, as loud as I dared, on the floor of the passage. I was not at all tranquillized by the visible impatience of my companion, who started, from time to time, from his hiding-place behind a pillar of the cloister, flung on me a glance — no, a glare — of wild and restless inquiry, (which I answered with one of despondency), and retired, grinding curses between his teeth, whose horrible grating I could hear distinctly in the intervals of my long-withheld breath. At last I took a desperate step. I walked into the church, and, going straight up to the altar, prostrated myself on the steps. The old monk observed me. He believed that I had come there with the same purpose, if not with the same feelings, as himself; and he approached me, to announce his intention of joining in my aspirations, and intreating an interest in them, as the pain had now reached from the lower jaw to the upper. There is something that one can hardly describe in this union of the lowest with the highest interests of life. I was a prisoner, panting for emancipation, and staking my existence on the step I was compelled to take, — my whole interest for time, and perhaps for eternity, hung on a moment; and beside me knelt a being whose destiny was decided already, who could be nothing but a monk for the few years of his worthless existence, and who was supplicating a short remission from a temporary pain, that I would have endured my whole life for an hour’s liberty. As he drew near me, and supplicated an interest in my prayers, I shrunk away. I felt a difference in the object of our addresses to God, that I dared not search my heart for the motive of. I knew not, at the moment, which of us was right, — he, whose prayer did no dishonour to the place, — or I, who was to struggle against a disorganized and unnatural state of life, whose vows I was about to violate. I knelt with him, however, and prayed for the removal of his pain with a sincerity that cannot be questioned, as the success of my petitions might be the means of procuring his absence. As I knelt, I trembled at my own hypocrisy. I was profaning the altar of God, — I was mocking the sufferings of the being I supplicated for, — I was the worst of all hypocrites, a hypocrite on my knees, and at the altar. Yet, was I not compelled to be so? If I was a hypocrite, who had made me one? If I profaned the altar, who had dragged me there, to insult it by vows my soul belied and reversed faster than my lips could utter them? But this was no time for self-examination. I knelt, prayed, and trembled, till the poor sufferer, weary of his ineffectual and unanswered supplications, rose, and began to crawl away. For a few minutes I shivered in horrible anxiety, lest some other intruder might approach, but the quick decisive step that trod the aisle restored my confidence in a moment, — it was my companion. He stood beside me. He uttered a few curses, which sounded very shocking in my ears, more from the force of habit, and influence of the place, than from the meaning attached to them, and then hurried on to the door. A large bunch of keys was in his hand, and I followed instinctively this pledge of my liberation.

1 Vide Moore’s View of France and Italy.

‘The door was very low — we descended to it by four steps. He applied his key, muffling it in the sleeve of his habit to suppress the sound. At every application he recoiled, gnashed his teeth, stamped — then applied both hands. The lock did not give way — I clasped my hands in agony — I tossed them over my head. ‘Fetch a light,’ he said in a whisper; ‘take a lamp from before one of those figures.’ The levity with which he spoke of the holy images appalled me, and the act appeared to me nothing short of sacrilege; yet I went and took a lamp, which, with a shuddering hand, I held to him as he again tried the key. During this second attempt, we communicated in whispers those fears that left us scarce breath even for whispers. ‘Was not that a noise?’ — ‘No, it was the echo of this jarring, stubborn lock. Is there no one coming?’ — ‘Not one.’ — ‘Look out into the passage.’ — ‘Then I cannot hold the light to you.’ — ‘No matter — any thing but detection.’ — ‘Any thing for escape,’ I retorted with a courage that made him start, as I set down the lamp, and joined my strength to his to turn the key. It grated, resisted; the lock seemed invincible. Again we tried, with cranched teeth, indrawn breath, and fingers stripped almost to the bone, — in vain. — Again — in vain. — Whether the natural ferocity of his temper bore disappointment worse than mine, or that, like many men of undoubted courage, he was impatient of a slight degree of physical pain, in a struggle where he would have risked and lost life without a murmur, — or how it was, I know not, — but he sunk down on the steps leading to the door, wiped away the big drops of toil and terror from his forehead with the sleeve of his habit, and cast on me a look that was at once the pledge of sincerity and of despair. The clock struck three. The sound rung in my ears like the trumpet of the day of doom — the trumpet that will sound. He clasped his hands with a fierce and convulsive agony, that might have pictured the last struggles of the impenitent malefactor, — that agony without remorse, that suffering without requital or consolation, that, if I may say so, arrays crime in the dazzling robe of magnanimity, and makes us admire the fallen spirit, with whom we dare not sympathize. ‘We are undone,’ he cried; ‘you are undone. At the hour of three another monk is to enter on his hour of recollection.’ And he added, in a lower tone of horror inexpressible, ‘I hear his steps in the passage.’ At the moment he uttered these words, the key, that I had never ceased to struggle with, turned in the lock. The door opened, the passage lay free to us. My companion recovered himself at the sight, and in the next moment we were both in the passage. Our first care was to remove the key, and lock the door on the inside; and during this, we had the satisfaction to discover, that there was no one in the church, no one approaching it. Our fears had deceived us; we retired from the door, looked at each other with a kind of breathless, half-revived confidence, and began our progress through the vault in silence and in safety. In safety! my God! I yet tremble at the thought of that subterranean journey, amid the vaults of a convent, with a parricide for my companion. But what is there that danger will not familiarize us with? Had I been told such a story of another, I would have denounced him as the most reckless and desperate being on earth — yet I was the man. I had secured the lamp, (whose light appeared to reproach me with sacrilege at every gleam it shed on our progress), and followed my companion in silence. Romances have made your country, Sir, familiar with tales of subterranean passages, and supernatural horrors. All these, painted by the most eloquent pen, must fall short of the breathless horror felt by a being engaged in an enterprise beyond his powers, experience, or calculation, driven to trust his life and liberation to hands that reeked with a father’s blood. It was in vain that I tried to make up my mind, — that I said to myself, ‘This is to last but for a short time,’ — that I struggled to force on myself the conviction that it was necessary to have such associates in desperate enterprises; — it was all in vain. I trembled at my situation, — at myself, and that is a terror we can never overcome. I stumbled over the stones, — I was chilled with horror at every step. A blue mist gathered before my eyes, — it furred the edges of the lamp with a dim and hazy light. My imagination began to operate, and when I heard the curses with which my companion reproached my involuntary delay, I began almost to fear that I was following the steps of a demon, who had lured me there for purposes beyond the reach of imagination to picture. Tales of superstition crowded on me like images of terror on those who are in the dark. I had heard of infernal beings who deluded monks with the hopes of liberation, seduced them into the vaults of the convent, and then proposed conditions which it is almost as horrible to relate as to undergo the performance of. I thought of being forced to witness the unnatural revels of a diabolical feast, — of seeing the rotting flesh distributed, — of drinking the dead corrupted blood, — of hearing the anthems of fiends howled in insult, on that awful verge where life and eternity mingle, — of hearing the hallelujahs of the choir, echoed even through the vaults, where demons were yelling the black mass of their infernal Sabbath. — I thought of all that the interminable passages, the livid light, and the diabolical companion, might suggest.

‘Our wanderings in the passage seemed to be endless. My companion turned to right, to left, — advanced, retreated, paused, — (the pause was dreadful)! — Then advanced again, tried another direction, where the passage was so low that I was obliged to crawl on my hands and knees to follow him, and even in this posture my head struck against the ragged roof. When we had proceeded for a considerable time, (at least so it appeared to me, for minutes are hours in the noctuary of terror, — terror has no diary), this passage became so narrow and so low, that I could proceed no farther, and wondered how my companion could have advanced beyond me. I called to him, but received no answer; and, in the darkness of the passage, or rather hole, it was impossible to see ten inches before me. I had the lamp, too, to watch, which I had held with a careful trembling hand, but which began to burn dim in the condensed and narrow atmosphere. A gush of terror rose in my throat. Surrounded as I was by damps and dews, my whole body felt in a fever. I called again, but no voice answered. In situations of peril, the imagination is unhappily fertile, and I could not help recollecting and applying a story I had once read of some travellers who attempted to explore the vaults of the Egyptian pyramids. One of them, who was advancing, as I was, on his hands and knees, stuck in the passage, and, whether from terror, or from the natural consequences of his situation, swelled so that it was impossible for him to retreat, advance, or allow a passage for his companions. The party were on their return, and finding their passage stopped by this irremoveable obstruction, their lights trembling on the verge of extinction, and their guide terrified beyond the power of direction or advice, proposed, in the selfishness to which the feeling of vital danger reduces all, to cut off the limbs of the wretched being who obstructed their passage. He heard this proposal, and, contracting himself with agony at the sound, was reduced, by that strong muscular spasm, to his usual dimensions, dragged out, and afforded room for the party to advance. He was suffocated, however, in the effort, and left behind a corse. All this detail, that takes many words to tell, rushed on my soul in a moment; — on my soul? — no, on my body. I was all physical feeling, — all intense corporeal agony, and God only knows, and man only can feel, how that agony can absorb and annihilate all other feeling within us, — how we could, in such a moment, feed on a parent, to gnaw out our passage into life and liberty, as sufferers in a wreck have been known to gnaw their own flesh, for the support of that existence which the unnatural morsel was diminishing at every agonizing bite.

‘I tried to crawl backwards, — I succeeded. I believe the story I recollected had an effect on me, I felt a contraction of muscles corresponding to what I had read of. I felt myself almost liberated by the sensation, and the next moment I was actually so; — I had got out of the passage I knew not how. I must have made one of those extraordinary exertions, whose energy is perhaps not only increased by, but dependent on, our unconsciousness of them. However it was, I was extricated, and stood breathless and exhausted, with the dying lamp in my hand, staring around me, and seeing nothing but the black and dripping walls, and the low arches of the vault, that seemed to lower over me like the frown of an eternal hostility, — a frown that forbids hope or escape. The lamp was rapidly extinguishing in my hand, — I gazed on it with a fixed eye. I knew that my life, and, what was dearer than my life, my liberation, depended on my watching its last glimpse, yet I gazed on it with the eye of an ideot, — a stupified stare. The lamp glimmered more faintly, — its dying gleams awoke me to recollection. I roused myself, — I looked around. A strong flash discovered an object near me. I shuddered, — I uttered cries, though I was unconscious of doing so, for a voice said to me, — ‘Hush, be silent; I left you only to reconnoitre the passages. I have made out the way to the trap-door, — be silent, and all is well.’ I advanced trembling, my companion appeared trembling too. He whispered, ‘Is the lamp so nearly extinguished?’ — ‘You see.’ — ‘Try to keep it in for a few moments.’ — ‘I will; but, if I cannot, what then?’ — ‘Then we must perish,’ he added, with an execration that I thought would have brought down the vaults over our heads. It is certain, Sir, however, that desperate sentiments are best suited to desperate emergencies, and this wretch’s blasphemies gave me a kind of horrible confidence in his courage. On he went, muttering curses before me; and I followed, watching the last light of the lamp with agony increased by my fear of further provoking my horrible guide. I have before mentioned how our feelings, even in the most fearful exigencies, dwindle into petty and wretched details. With all my care, however, the lamp declined, — quivered, — flashed a pale light, like the smile of despair on me, and was extinguished. I shall never forget the look my guide threw on me by its sinking light. I had watched it like the last beatings of an expiring heart, like the shiverings of a spirit about to part for eternity. I saw it extinguished and believed myself already among those for ‘whom the blackness of darkness is reserved for ever.’

‘It was at this moment that a faint sound reached our frozen ears; — it was the chaunt of matins, performed by candlelight at this season of the year, which was begun in the chapel now far above us. This voice of heaven thrilled us, — we seemed the pioneers of darkness, on the very frontiers of hell. This superb insult of celestial triumph, that amid the strains of hope spoke despair to us, announced a God to those who were stopping their ears against the sound of his name, had an effect indescribably awful. I fell to the ground, whether from stumbling from the darkness, or shrinking from emotion, I know not. I was roused by the rough arm, and rougher voice of my companion. Amid execrations that froze my blood, he told me this was no time for failing or for fear. I asked him, trembling, what I was to do? He answered, ‘Follow me, and feel your way in darkness.’ Dreadful sounds! — Those who tell us the whole of our calamity always appear malignant, for our hearts, or our imaginations, always flatter us that it is not so great as reality proves it to be. Truth is told us by any mouth sooner than our own.

‘In darkness, total darkness, and on my hands and knees, for I could no longer stand, I followed him. This motion soon affected my head; I grew giddy first, then stupified. I paused. He growled a curse, and I instinctively quickened my movements, like a dog who hears the voice of a chiding master. My habit was now in rags from my struggles, my knees and hands stript of skin. I had received several severe bruises on my head, from striking against the jagged and unhewn stones which formed the irregular sides and roof of this eternal passage. And, above all, the unnatural atmosphere, combined with the intensity of my emotion, had produced a thirst, the agony of which I can compare to nothing but that of a burning coal dropt into my throat, which I seemed to suck for moisture, but which left only drops of fire on my tongue. Such was my state, when I called out to my companion that I could proceed no farther. ‘Stay there and rot, then,’ was the answer; and perhaps the most soothing words of encouragement could not have produced so strong an effect on me. This confidence of despair, this bravado against danger, that menaced the power in his very citadel, gave me a temporary courage, — but what is courage amid darkness and doubt? From the faultering steps, the suffocated breath, the muttered curses, I guessed what was going on. I was right. The final — hopeless stop followed instantly, announced by the last wild sob, the cranching of despairing teeth, the clasping, or rather clap, of the locked hands, in the terrible extacy of utter agony. I was kneeling behind him at that moment, and I echoed every cry and gesture with a violence that started my guide. He silenced me with curses. Then he attempted to pray; but his prayers sounded so like curses, and his curses were so like prayers to the evil one, that, choaking with horror, I implored him to cease. He did cease, and for nearly half an hour neither of us uttered a word. We lay beside each other like two panting dogs that I have read of, who lay down to die close to the animal they pursued, whose fur they fanned with their dying breath, while unable to mouthe her.

‘Such appeared emancipation to us, — so near, and yet so hopeless. We lay thus, not daring to speak to each other, for who could speak but of despair, and which of us dared to aggravate the despair of the other. This kind of fear which we know already felt by others, and which we dread to aggravate by uttering, even to those who know it, is perhaps the most horrible sensation ever experienced. The very thirst of my body seemed to vanish in this fiery thirst of the soul for communication, where all communication was unutterable, impossible, hopeless. Perhaps the condemned spirits will feel thus at their final sentence, when they know all that is to be suffered, and dare not disclose to each other that horrible truth which is no longer a secret, but which the profound silence of their despair would seem to make one. The secret of silence is the only secret. Words are a blasphemy against that taciturn and invisible God, whose presence enshrouds us in our last extremity. These moments that appeared to me endless, were soon to cease. My companion sprung up, — he uttered a cry of joy. I imagined him deranged, — he was not. He exclaimed, ‘Light, light, — the light of heaven; we are near the trap-door, I see the light through it.’ Amid all the horrors of our situation, he had kept his eye constantly turned upwards, for he knew that, if we were near it, the smallest glimmering of light would be visible in the intense darkness that enveloped us. He was right. I started up, — I saw it too. With locked hands, with dropt and wordless lips, with dilated and thirsting eyes, we gazed upwards. A thin line of grey light appeared above our heads. It broadened, it grew brighter, — it was the light of heaven, and its breezes too came fluttering to us through the chinks of the trap-door that opened into the garden.’

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