Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 9

‘Though life and liberty seemed so near, our situation was still very critical. The morning light that aided our escape, might open many an eye to mark it. There was not a moment to be lost. My companion proposed to ascend first, and I did not venture to oppose him. I was too much in his power to resist; and in early youth superiority of depravity always seems like a superiority of power. We reverence, with a prostituted idolatry, those who have passed through the degrees of vice before us. This man was criminal, and crime gave him a kind of heroic immunity in my eyes. Premature knowledge in life is always to be purchased by guilt. He knew more than I did, — he was my all in this desperate attempt. I dreaded him as a demon, yet I invoked him as a god.

‘In the end I submitted to his proposal. I was very tall, but he was much stronger than I. He rose on my shoulders, I trembled under his weight, but he succeeded in raising the trap-door, — the full light of day broke on us both. In a moment he dropt his hold of the door, — he fell to the ground with a force that struck me down. He exclaimed, ‘The workmen are there, they have come about the repairs, we are lost if we are discovered. They are there, the garden is full of them already, they will be there the whole day. That cursed lamp, it has undone us! Had it but kept in for a few moments, we might have been in the garden, might have crossed the wall, might have been at liberty, and now — ‘ He fell to the ground convulsed with rage and disappointment, as he spoke. To me there was nothing so terrible in this intelligence. That we were disappointed for a time was evident, but we had been relieved from the most horrible of all fears, that of wandering in famine and darkness till we perished, — we had found the way to the trap-door. I had unfailing confidence in Juan’s patience and zeal. I was sure that if he was watching for us on that night, he would watch for many a successive night. Finally, I felt we had but twenty-four hours or less to wait, and what was that to the eternity of hours that must otherwise be wasted in a convent. I suggested all this to my companion as I closed the trap-door; but I found in his complaints, imprecations, and tossing restlessness of impatience and despair, the difference between man and man in the hour of trial. He possessed active, and I passive fortitude. Give him something to do, and he would do it at the risk of limb, and life, and soul, — he never murmured. Give me something to suffer, to undergo, to submit, and I became at once the hero of submission. While this man, with all his physical strength, and all his mental hardihood, was tossing on the earth with the imbecility of an infant, in a paroxysm of unappeasable passion, I was his consoler, adviser, and supporter. At last he suffered himself to hear reason; he agreed that we must remain twenty-four hours more in the passage, on which he bestowed a whole litany of curses. So we determined to stand in stillness and darkness till night; but such is the restlessness of the human heart, that this arrangement, which a few hours before we would have embraced as the offer of a benignant angel for our emancipation, began to display, as we were compelled to examine its aspect more closely, certain features that were repulsive almost to hideousness. We were exhausted nearly to death. Our physical exertions had been, for the last few hours, almost incredible; in fact, I am convinced that nothing but the consciousness that we were engaged in a struggle for life or death, could have enabled us to support it, and now that the struggle was over, we began to feel our weakness. Our mental sufferings had not been less, — we had been excruciated body and soul alike. Could our mental struggles have operated like our bodily ones, we would have been seen to weep drops of blood, as we felt we were doing at every step of our progress. Recollect too, Sir, the unnatural atmosphere we had breathed so long, amid darkness and danger, and which now began to show its anti-vital and pestilent effect, in producing alternately on our bodies deluges of perspiration, succeeded by a chill that seemed to freeze the very marrow. In this state of mental fever, and bodily exhaustion, we had now to wait many hours, in darkness, without food, till Heaven pleased to send us night. But how were those hours to be passed? The preceding day had been one of strict abstinence, — we began already to feel the gnawings of hunger, a hunger not to be appeased. We must fast till the moment of liberation, and we must fast amid stone walls, and damp seats on floors of stone, which diminished every moment the strength necessary to contend with their impenetrable hardness, — their withering chillness.

‘The last thought that occurred to me was, — with what a companion those hours must be passed. With a being whom I abhorred from my very soul, while I felt that his presence was at once an irrepealable curse, and an invincible necessity. So we stood, shivering under the trap-door, not daring to whisper our thoughts to each other, but feeling that despair of incommunication which is perhaps the severest curse that can be inflicted on those who are compelled to be together, and compelled, by the same necessity that imposes their ungenial union, not even to communicate their fears to each other. We hear the throb of each others hearts, and yet dare not say, ‘My heart beats in unison with yours.’

‘As we stood thus, the light became suddenly eclipsed. I knew not from what this arose, till I felt a shower, the most violent perhaps that ever was precipitated on the earth, make its way even through the trap-door, and drench me in five minutes to the skin. I retreated from the spot, but not before I had received it in every pore of my body. You, Sir, who live in happy Ireland, blessed by God with an exemption from those vicissitudes of the atmosphere, can have no idea of their violence in continental countries. This rain was followed by peals of thunder, that made me fear God was pursuing me into the abysses where I had shrunk to escape from his vengeance, and drew from my companion blasphemies more loud than thunder, as he felt himself drenched by the shower, that now, flooding the vault, rose almost to our ancles. At last he proposed our retiring to a place which he said he was acquainted with, and which would shelter us. He added, that it was but a few steps from where we stood, and that we could easily find our way back. I did not dare to oppose him, and followed to a dark recess, only distinguished from the rest of the vault by the remains of what had once been a door. It was now light, and I could distinguish objects plainly. By the deep hollows framed for the shooting of the bolt, and the size of the iron hinges that still remained, though covered with rust, I saw it must have been of no common strength, and probably intended to secure the entrance to a dungeon, — there was no longer a door, yet I shuddered to enter it. As we did so, both of us, exhausted in body and mind, sunk on the hard floor. We did not say a word to each other, an inclination to sleep irresistibly overcame us; and whether that sleep was to be my last or not, I felt a profound indifference. Yet I was now on the verge of liberty, and though drenched, famishing, and comfortless, was, in any rational estimate, an object much more enviable than in the heart-withering safety of my cell. Alas! it is too true that our souls always contract themselves on the approach of a blessing, and seem as if their powers, exhausted in the effort to obtain it, had no longer energy to embrace the object. Thus we are always compelled to substitute the pleasure of the pursuit for that of the attainment, — to reverse the means for the end, or confound them, in order to extract any enjoyment from either, and at last fruition becomes only another name for lassitude. These reflections certainly did not occur to me, when, worn out with toil, terror, and famine, I fell on the stone floor in a sleep that was not sleep, — it seemed the suspension both of my mortal and immortal nature. I ceased from animal and intellectual life at once. There are cases, Sir, where the thinking power appears to accompany us to the very verge of slumber, where we sleep full of delightful thoughts, and sleep only to review them in our dreams: But there are also cases when we feel that our sleep is a ‘sleep for ever,’ — when we resign the hope of immortality for the hope of a profound repose, — when we demand from the harassings of fate, ‘Rest, rest,’ and no more, — when the soul and body faint together, and all we ask of God or man is to let us sleep.

‘In such a state I fell to the ground; and, at that moment, would have bartered all my hopes of liberation for twelve hours profound repose, as Esau sold his birth-right for a small but indispensible refreshment. I was not to enjoy even this repose long. My companion was sleeping too. Sleeping! great God! what was his sleep? — that in whose neighbourhood no one could close an eye, or, worse, an ear. He talked as loudly and incessantly as if he had been employed in all the active offices of life. I heard involuntarily the secret of his dreams. I knew he had murdered his father, but I did not know that the vision of parricide haunted him in his broken visions. My sleep was first broken by sounds as horrible as any I ever had heard at my bed-side in the convent. I heard sounds that disturbed me, but I was not yet fully awake. They increased, they redoubled, — the terrors of my habitual associations awoke me. I imagined the Superior and the whole community pursuing us with lighted torches. I felt the blaze of the lights in contact with my very eye-balls. I shrieked. I said, ‘Spare my sight, do not blind me, do not drive me mad, and I will confess all.’ A deep voice near me muttered, ‘Confess.’ I started up fully awake, — it was only the voice of my sleeping companion. I stood on my feet, I viewed him as he lay. He heaved and wallowed on his bed of stone, as if it had been down. He seemed to have a frame of adamant. The jagged points of stone, the hardness of the floor, the ruts and rudenesses of his inhospitable bed, produced no effect on him. He could have slept, but his dreams were from within. I have heard, I have read, of the horrors attending the dying beds of the guilty. They often told us of such in the convent. One monk in particular, who was a priest, was fond of dwelling on a death-bed scene he had witnessed, and of describing its horrors. He related that he had urged a person, who was sitting calmly in his chair, though evidently dying, to intrust him with his confession. The dying person answered, ‘I will, when those leave the room.’ The monk, conceiving that this referred to the relatives and friends, motioned them to retire. They did so, and again the monk renewed his demands on the conscience of the penitent. The room was now empty. The monk renewed his adjuration to the dying man to disclose the secrets of his conscience. The answer was the same, — ‘I will, when those are gone.’ — ‘Those!’ — ‘Yes, those whom you cannot see, and cannot banish, — send them away, and I will tell you the truth.’ — ‘Tell it now, then; there are none here but you and me.’ — ‘There are,’ answered the dying man. ‘There are none that I can see,’ said the monk, gazing round the room. ‘But there are those that I do see,’ replied the dying wretch; ‘and that see me; that are watching, waiting for me, the moment the breath is out of my body. I see them, I feel them, — stand on my right side.’ The monk changed his position. ‘Now they are on the left.’ The monk shifted again. ‘Now they are on my right.’ The monk commanded the children and relatives of the dying wretch to enter the room, and surround the bed. They obeyed the command. ‘Now they are every where,’ exclaimed the sufferer, and expired.1

1 Fact, — me ipso teste.

‘This terrible story came freshly to my recollection, accompanied by many others. I had heard much of the terrors that surrounded the dying bed of the guilty, but, from what I was compelled to hear, I almost believe them to be less than the terrors of a guilty sleep. I have said my companion began at first with low mutterings, but among them I could distinguish sounds that reminded me too soon of all I wished to forget, at least while we were together. He murmured, ‘An old man? — yes, — well, the less blood in him. Grey hairs? — no matter, my crimes have helped to turn them grey, — he ought to have rent them from the roots long ago. They are white, you say? — well, to-night they shall be dyed in blood, then they will be white no longer. Aye, — he will hold them up at the day of judgment, like a banner of condemnation against me. He will stand at the head of an army stronger than the army of martyrs, — the host of those whose murderers have been their own children. What matter whether they cut their parents hearts or their throats. I have cut one through and through, to the very core, — now for the other, it will give him less pain, I feel that,’ — and he laughed, shuddered, and writhed on his stony bed. Trembling with horror ineffable, I tried to awake him. I shook his muscular arms, I rolled him on his back, on his face, — nothing could awake him. It seemed as if I was only rocking him on his cradle of stone. He went on, ‘Secure the purse, I know the drawer of the cabinet where it lies, but secure him first. Well, then, you cannot, — you shudder at his white hairs, at his calm sleep! — ha! ha! that villains should be fools. Well, then, I must be the man, it is but a short struggle with him or me, — he may be damned, and I must. Hush, — how the stairs creak, they will not tell him it is his son’s foot that is ascending? — They dare not, the stones of the wall would give them the lie. Why did you not oil the hinges of the door? — now for it. He sleeps intensely, — aye, how calm he looks! — the calmer the fitter for heaven. Now, — now, my knee is on his breast, — where is the knife? — where is the knife? — if he looks at me I am lost. The knife, — I am a coward; the knife, — if he opens his eyes I am gone; the knife, ye cursed cravens, — who dare shrink when I have griped my father’s throat? There, — there, — there, — blood to the hilt, — the old man’s blood; look for the money, while I wipe the blade. I cannot wipe it, the grey hairs are mingled with the blood, — those hairs brushed my lips the last time he kissed me. I was a child then. I would not have taken a world to murder him then, now, — now, what am I? Ha! ha! ha! Let Judas shake his bag of silver against mine, — he betrayed his Saviour, and I have murdered my father. Silver against silver, and soul against soul. I have got more for mine, — he was a fool to sell his for thirty. But for which of us will the last fire burn hotter? — no matter, I am going to try.’ At these horrible expressions, repeated over and over, I called, I shrieked to my companion to awake. He did so, with a laugh almost as wild as the chattering of his dreams. ‘Well, what have you heard? I murdered him, — you knew that long before. You trusted me in this cursed adventure, which will risk the life of both, and can you not bear to hear me speak to myself, though I am only telling what you knew before?’ — ‘No, I cannot bear it,’ I answered, in an agony of horror; ‘not even to effect my escape, could I undertake to sustain another hour like the past, — the prospect of seclusion here for a whole day amid famine, damps, and darkness, listening to the ravings of a — . Look not at me with that glare of mockery, I know it all, I shudder at your sight. Nothing but the iron link of necessity could have bound me to you even for a moment. I am bound to you, — I must bear it while it continues, but do not make those moments insupportable. My life and liberty are in your hands, — I must add my reason, too, in the circumstances in which we are plunged, — I cannot sustain your horrible eloquence of sleep. If I am forced to listen to it again, you may bear me alive from these walls, but you will bear me away an ideot, stupified by terrors which my brain is unable to support. Do not sleep, I adjure you. Let me watch beside you during this wretched day, — this day which is to be measured by darkness and suffering, instead of light and enjoyment. I am willing to famish with hunger, to shudder with cold, to couch on these hard stones, but I cannot bear your dreams, — if you sleep, I must rouse you in defence of my reason. All physical strength is failing me fast, and I am become more jealous of the preservation of my intellect. Do not cast at me those looks of defiance, I am your inferior in strength, but despair makes us equal.’ As I spoke, my voice sounded like thunder in my own ears, my eyes flashed visibly to myself. I felt the power that passion gives us, and I saw that my companion felt it too. I went on, in a tone that made myself start, ‘If you dare to sleep, I will wake you, — if you dose even, you shall not have a moment undisturbed, — you shall wake with me. For this long day we must starve and shiver together, I have wound myself up to it. I can bear every thing, — every thing but the dreams of him whose sleep reveals to him the vision of a murdered parent. Wake, — rave, — blaspheme, — but sleep you shall not!’

‘The man stared at me for some time, almost incredulous of my being capable of such energy of passion and command. But when he had, by the help of his dilated eyes, and gaping mouth, appeared to satisfy himself fully of the fact, his expression suddenly changed. He appeared to feel a community of nature with me for the first time. Any thing of ferocity appeared congenial and balsamic to him; and, with oaths, that froze my blood, swore he liked me the better for my resolution. ‘I will keep awake,’ he added, with a yawn that distended like the jaws of an Ogre preparing for his cannibal feast. Then suddenly relaxing, ‘But how shall we keep awake? We have nothing to eat, nothing to drink, what shall we do to keep awake?’ And incontinently he uttered a volley of curses. Then he began to sing. But what songs? — full of such ribaldry and looseness, that, bred as I was first in domestic privacy, and then in the strictness of a convent, made me believe it was an incarnate demon that was howling beside me. I implored him to cease, but this man could pass so instantaneously from the extremes of atrocity to those of levity, — from the ravings of guilt and horror ineffable, to songs that would insult a brothel, that I knew not what to make of him. This union of antipodes, this unnatural alliance of the extremes of guilt and light-mindedness, I had never met or imagined before. He started from the visions of a parricide, and sung songs that would have made a harlot blush. How ignorant of life I must have been, not to know that guilt and insensibility often join to tenant and deface the same mansion, and that there is not a more strong and indissoluble alliance on earth, than that between the hand that dare do any thing, and the heart that can feel nothing.

‘It was in the midst of one of his most licentious songs, that my companion suddenly paused. He gazed about him for some time; and faint and dismal as the light was by which we beheld each other, I thought I could observe an extraordinary expression overshadow his countenance. I did not venture to notice it. ‘Do you know where we are?’ he whispered. ‘Too well; — in the vault of a convent, beyond the help or reach of man, — without food, without light, and almost without hope.’ — ‘Aye, so its last inhabitants might well say.’ — ‘Its last inhabitants! — who were they?’ — ‘I can tell you, if you can bear it.’ — ‘I cannot bear it,’ I cried, stopping my ears, ‘I will not listen to it. I feel by the narrator it must be something horrid.’ — -‘It was indeed a horrid night,’ said he, unconsciously adverting to some circumstance in the narrative; and his voice sunk into mutterings, and he forbore to mention the subject further. I retired as far from him as the limits of the vault admitted; and, burying my head between my knees, tried to forbear to think. What a state of mind must that be, in which we are driven to wish we no longer had one! — when we would willingly become ‘as the beasts that perish,’ to forget that privilege of humanity, which only seems an undisputed title to superlative misery! To sleep was impossible. Though sleep seems to be only a necessity of nature, it always requires an act of the mind to concur in it. And if I had been willing to rest, the gnawings of hunger, which now began to be exchanged for the most deadly sickness, would have rendered it impossible. Amid this complication of physical and mental suffering, it is hardly credible, Sir, but it is not the less true, that my principal one arose from the inanity, the want of occupation, inevitably attached to my dreary situation. To inflict a suspension of the action on a being conscious of possessing the powers of action, and burning for their employment, — to forbid all interchange of mutual ideas, or acquirement of new ones to an intellectual being, — to do this, is to invent a torture that might make Phalaris blush for his impotence of cruelty.

‘I had felt other sufferings almost intolerable, but I felt this impossible to sustain; and, will you believe it, Sir, after wrestling with it during an hour (as I counted hours) of unimaginable misery, I rose, and supplicated my companion to relate the circumstance he had alluded to, as connected with our dreadful abode. His ferocious good nature took part with this request in a moment; and though I could see that his strong frame had suffered more than my comparatively feeble one, from the struggles of the night and the privations of the day, he prepared himself with a kind of grim alacrity for the effort. He was now in his element. He was enabled to daunt a feeble mind by the narration of horrors, and to amaze an ignorant one with a display of crimes; — and he needed no more to make him commence. ‘I remember,’ said he, ‘an extraordinary circumstance connected with this vault. I wondered how I felt so familiar with this door, this arch, at first. — I did not recollect immediately, so many strange thoughts have crossed my mind every day, that events which would make a life-lasting impression on others, pass like shadows before me, while thoughts appear like substances. Emotions are my events — you know what brought me to this cursed convent — well, don’t shiver or look paler — you were pale before. However it was, I found myself in the convent, and I was obliged to subscribe to its discipline. A part of it was, that extraordinary criminals should undergo what they called extraordinary penance; that is, not only submit to every ignominy and rigour of conventual life, (which, fortunately for its penitents, is never wanting in such amusing resources), but act the part of executioner whenever any distinguished punishment was to be inflicted or witnessed. They did me the honour to believe me particularly qualified for this species of recreation, and perhaps they did not flatter me. I had all the humility of a saint on trial; but still I had a kind of confidence in my talents of this description, provided they were put to a proper test; and the monks had the goodness to assure me, that I never could long be without one in a convent. This was a very tempting picture of my situation, but I found these worthy people had not in the least exaggerated. An instance occurred a few days after I had the happiness to become a member of this amiable community, of whose merits you are doubtless sensible. I was desired to attach myself to a young monk of distinguished family, who had lately taken the vows, and who performed his duties with that heartless punctuality that intimated to the community that his heart was elsewhere. I was soon put in possession of the business; from their ordering me to attach myself to him, I instantly conceived I was bound to the most deadly hostility against him. The friendship of convents is always a treacherous league — we watch, suspect, and torment each other, for the love of God. This young monk’s only crime was, that he was suspected of cherishing an earthly passion. He was, in fact, as I have stated, the son of a distinguished family, who (from the fear of his contracting what is called a degrading marriage, i.e. of marrying a woman of inferior rank whom he loved, and who would have made him happy, as fools, that is, half mankind, estimate happiness) forced him to take the vows. He appeared at times broken-hearted, but at times there was a light of hope in his eye, that looked somewhat ominous in the eyes of the community. It is certain, that hope not being an indigenous plant in the parterre of a convent, must excite suspicion with regard both to its origin and its growth.

‘Some time after, a young novice entered the convent. From the moment he did so, a change the most striking took place in the young monk. He and the novice became inseparable companions — there was something suspicious in that. My eyes were on the watch in a moment. Eyes are particularly sharpened in discovering misery when they can hope to aggravate it. The attachment between the young monk and the novice went on. They were for ever in the garden together — they inhaled the odours of the flowers — they cultivated the same cluster of carnations — they entwined themselves as they walked together — when they were in the choir, their voices were like mixed incense. Friendship is often carried to excess in conventual life, but this friendship was too like love. For instance, the psalms sung in the choir sometimes breathe a certain language; at these words, the young monk and the novice would direct their voices to each other in sounds that could not be misunderstood. If the least correction was inflicted, one would intreat to undergo it for the other. If a day of relaxation was allowed, whatever presents were sent to the cell of one, were sure to be found in the cell of the other. This was enough for me. I saw that secret of mysterious happiness, which is the greatest misery to those who never can share it. My vigilance was redoubled, and it was rewarded by the discovery of a secret — a secret that I had to communicate and raise my consequence by. You cannot guess the importance attached to the discovery of a secret in a convent, (particularly when the remission of our own offences depends on the discovery of those of others.)

‘One evening as the young monk and his darling novice were in the garden, the former plucked a peach, which he immediately offered to his favourite; the latter accepted it with a movement I thought rather awkward — it seemed like what I imagined would be the reverence of a female. The young monk divided the peach with a knife; in doing so, the knife grazed the finger of the novice and the monk, in agitation inexpressible, tore his habit to bind up the wound. I saw it all — my mind was made up on the business — I went to the Superior that very night. The result may be conceived. They were watched, but cautiously at first. They were probably on their guard; for, for some time it defied even my vigilance to make the slightest discovery. It is a situation incomparably tantalizing, when suspicion is satisfied of her own suggestions, as of the truth of the gospel, but still wants the little fact to make them credible to others. One night that I had, by direction of the Superior, taken my station in the gallery, (where I was contented to remain hour after hour, and night after night, amid solitude, darkness, and cold, for the chance of the power of retaliating on others the misery inflicted on myself) — One night, I thought I heard a step in the gallery — I have told you that I was in the dark — a light step passed me. I could hear the broken and palpitating respiration of the person. A few moments after, I heard a door open, and knew it to be the door of the young monk. I knew it; for by long watching in the dark, and accustoming myself to number the cells, by the groan from one, the prayer from another, the faint shriek of restless dreams from a third, my ear had become so finely graduated, that I could instantly distinguish the opening of that door, from which (to my sorrow) no sound had ever before issued. I was provided with a small chain, by which I fastened the handle of the door to a contiguous one, in such a manner, that it was impossible to open either of them from the inside. I then hastened to the Superior, with a pride of which none but the successful tracer of a guilty secret in convents, can have any conception. I believe the Superior was himself agitated by the luxury of the same feelings, for he was awake and up in his apartment, attended by four monks, whom you may remember.’ I shuddered at the remembrance. ‘I communicated my intelligence with a voluble eagerness, not only unsuited to the respect I owed these persons, but which must have rendered me almost unintelligible, yet they were good enough not only to overlook this violation of decorum, which would in any other case have been severely punished, but even to supply certain pauses in my narrative, with a condescension and facility truly miraculous. I felt what it was to acquire importance in the eyes of a Superior, and gloried in all the dignified depravity of an informer. We set out without losing a moment, — we arrived at the door of the cell, and I pointed out with triumph the chain unremoved, though a slight vibration, perceptible at our approach, showed the wretches within were already apprised of their danger. I unfastened the door, — how they must have shuddered! The Superior and his satellites burst into the cell, and I held the light. You tremble, — why? I was guilty, and I wished to witness guilt that palliated mine, at least in the opinion of the convent. I had only violated the laws of nature, but they had outraged the decorum of a convent, and, of course, in the creed of a convent, there was no proportion between our offences. Besides, I was anxious to witness misery that might perhaps equal or exceed my own, and this is a curiosity not easily satisfied. It is actually possible to become amateurs in suffering. I have heard of men who have travelled into countries where horrible executions were to be daily witnessed, for the sake of that excitement which the sight of suffering never fails to give, from the spectacle of a tragedy, or an auto da fe, down to the writhings of the meanest reptile on whom you can inflict torture, and feel that torture is the result of your own power. It is a species of feeling of which we never can divest ourselves, — a triumph over those whose sufferings have placed them below us, and no wonder, — suffering is always an indication of weakness, — we glory in our impenetrability. I did, as we burst into the cell. The wretched husband and wife were locked in each others arms. You may imagine the scene that followed. Here I must do the Superior reluctant justice. He was a man (of course from his conventual feelings) who had no more idea of the intercourse between the sexes, than between two beings of a different species. The scene that he beheld could not have revolted him more, than if he had seen the horrible loves of the baboons and the Hottentot women, at the Cape of Good Hope; or those still more loathsome unions between the serpents of South America and their human victims,1 when they can catch them, and twine round them in folds of unnatural and ineffable union. He really stood as much astonished and appalled, to see two human beings of different sexes, who dared to love each other in spite of monastic ties, as if he had witnessed the horrible conjunctions I have alluded to. Had he seen vipers engendering in that frightful knot which seems the pledge of mortal hostility, instead of love, he could not have testified more horror, — and I do him the justice to believe he felt all he testified. Whatever affectation he might employ on points of conventual austerity, there was none here. Love was a thing he always believed connected with sin, even though consecrated by the name of a sacrament, and called marriage, as it is in our church. But, love in a convent! — Oh, there is no conceiving his rage; still less is it possible to conceive the majestic and overwhelming extent of that rage, when strengthened by principle, and sanctified by religion. I enjoyed the scene beyond all power of description. I saw those wretches, who had triumphed over me, reduced to my level in a moment, — their passions all displayed, and the display placing me a hero triumphant above all. I had crawled to the shelter of their walls, a wretched degraded outcast, and what was my crime? Well, — you shudder, I have done with that. I can only say want drove me to it. And here were beings whom, a few months before, I would have knelt to as to the images round the shrine, — to whom, in the moments of my desperate penitence, I would have clung as to the ‘horns of the altar,’ all brought as low, and lower than myself. ‘Sons of the morning,’ as I deemed them in the agonies of my humiliation, ‘how were they fallen!’ I feasted on the degradation of the apostate monk and novice, — I enjoyed, to the core of my ulcerated heart, the passion of the Superior, — I felt that they were all men like myself. Angels, as I had thought them, they had all proved themselves mortal; and, by watching their motions, and flattering their passions, and promoting their interest, or setting up my own in opposition to them all, while I made them believe it was only theirs I was intent on, I might make shift to contrive as much misery to others, and to carve out as much occupation to myself, as if I were actually living in the world. Cutting my father’s throat was a noble feat certainly, (I ask your pardon, I did not mean to extort that groan from you), but here were hearts to be cut, — and to the core, every day, and all day long, so I never could want employment.’

1 Vide Charlevoix’s History of Paraguay.

‘Here he wiped his hard brow, drew his breath for a moment, and then said, ‘I do not quite like to go through the details by which this wretched pair were deluded into the hope of effecting their escape from the convent. It is enough that I was the principal agent, — that the Superior connived at it, — that I led them through the very passages you have traversed to-night, they trembling and blessing me at every step, — that — ‘ ‘Stop,’ I cried; ‘wretch! you are tracing my course this night step by step.’ — ‘What?’ he retorted, with a ferocious laugh, ‘you think I am betraying you, then; and if it were true, what good would your suspicions do you, — you are in my power? My voice might summon half the convent to seize you this moment, — my arm might fasten you to that wall, till those dogs of death, that wait but my whistle, plunged their fangs into your very vitals. I fancy you would not find their bite less keen, from their tusks being so long sharpened by an immersion in holy water.’ Another laugh, that seemed to issue from the lungs of a demon, concluded this sentence. ‘I know I am in your power,’ I answered; ‘and were I to trust to that, or to your heart, I had better dash out my brains at once against these walls of rock, which I believe are not harder than the latter. But I know your interests to be some way or other connected with my escape, and therefore I trust you, — because I must. Though my blood, chilled as it is by famine and fatigue, seems frozen in every drop while I listen to you, yet listen I must, and trust my life and liberation to you. I speak to you with the horrid confidence our situation has taught me, — I hate, — I dread you. If we were to meet in life, I would shrink from you with loathings of unspeakable abhorrence, but here mutual misery has mixed the most repugnant substances in unnatural coalition. The force of that alchemy must cease at the moment of my escape from the convent and from you; yet, for these miserable hours, my life is as much dependent on your exertions and presence, as my power of supporting them is on the continuance of your horrible tale, — go on, then. Let us struggle through this dreadful day. Day! a name unknown here, where noon and night shake hands that never unlock. Let us struggle through it, ‘hateful and hating one another,’ and when it has passed, let us curse and part.’

‘As I uttered these words, Sir, I felt that terrible confidence of hostility which the worst beings are driven to in the worst of circumstances, and I question whether there is a more horrible situation than that in which we cling to each other’s hate, instead of each other’s love, — in which, at every step of our progress, we hold a dagger to our companion’s breast, and say, ‘If you faulter for a moment, this is in your heart. I hate, — I fear, but I must bear with you.’ It was singular to me, though it would not be so to those who investigate human nature, that, in proportion as my situation inspired me with a ferocity quite unsuited to our comparative situations, and which must have been the result of the madness of despair and famine, my companion’s respect for me appeared to increase. After a long pause, he asked, might he continue his story? I could not speak, for, after the slightest exertion, the sickness of deadly hunger returned on me, and I could only signify, by a feeble motion of my hand, that he might go on.

‘They were conducted here,’ he continued; ‘I had suggested the plan, and the Superior consented to it. He would not be present, but his dumb nod was enough. I was the conductor of their (intended) escape; they believed they were departing with the connivance of the Superior. I led them through those very passages that you and I have trod. I had a map of this subterranean region, but my blood ran cold as I traversed it; and it was not at all inclined to resume its usual temperament, as I felt what was to be the destination of my attendants. Once I turned the lamp, on pretence of trimming it, to catch a glimpse of the devoted wretches. They were embracing each other, — the light of joy trembled in their eyes. They were whispering to each other hopes of liberation and happiness, and blending my name in the interval they could spare from their prayers for each other. That sight extinguished the last remains of compunction with which my horrible task had inspired me. They dared to be happy in the sight of one who must be for ever miserable, — could there be a greater insult? I resolved to punish it on the spot. This very apartment was near, — I knew it, and the map of their wanderings no longer trembled in my hand. I urged them to enter this recess, (the door was then entire), while I went to examine the passage. They entered it, thanking me for my precaution, — they knew not they were never to quit it alive. But what were their lives for the agony their happiness cost me? The moment they were inclosed, and clasping each other, (a sight that made me grind my teeth), I closed and locked the door. This movement gave them no immediate uneasiness, — they thought it a friendly precaution. The moment they were secured, I hastened to the Superior, who was on fire at the insult offered to the sanctity of his convent, and still more to the purity of his penetration, on which the worthy Superior piqued himself as much as if it had ever been possible for him to acquire the smallest share of it. He descended with me to the passage, — the monks followed with eyes on fire. In the agitation of their rage, it was with difficulty they could discover the door after I had repeatedly pointed it out to them. The Superior, with his own hands, drove several nails, which the monks eagerly supplied, into the door, that effectually joined it to the staple, never to be disjoined; and every blow he gave, doubtless he felt as if it was a reminiscence to the accusing angel, to strike out a sin from the catalogue of his accusations. The work was soon done, — the work never to be undone. At the first sound of steps in the passage, and blows on the door, the victims uttered a shriek of terror. They imagined they were detected, and that an incensed party of monks were breaking open the door. These terrors were soon exchanged for others, — and worse, — as they heard the door nailed up, and listened to our departing steps.

They uttered another shriek, but O how different was the accent of its despair! — they knew their doom. * * * * *

It was my penance (no, — my delight) to watch at the door, under the pretence of precluding the possibility of their escape, (of which they knew there was no possibility); but, in reality, not only to inflict on me the indignity of being the convent gaoler, but of teaching me that callosity of heart, and induration of nerve, and stubbornness of eye, and apathy of ear, that were best suited to my office. But they might have saved themselves the trouble, — I had them all before ever I entered the convent. Had I been the Superior of the community, I should have undertaken the office of watching the door. You will call this cruelty, I call it curiosity, — that curiosity that brings thousands to witness a tragedy, and makes the most delicate female feast on groans and agonies. I had an advantage over them, — the groan, the agony I feasted on, were real. I took my station at the door — that door which, like that of Dante’s hell, might have borne the inscription, ‘Here is no hope,’ — with a face of mock penitence, and genuine — cordial delectation. I could hear every word that transpired. For the first hours they tried to comfort each other, — they suggested to each other hopes of liberation, — and as my shadow, crossing the threshold, darkened or restored the light, they said, ‘That is he;’ — then, when this occurred repeatedly, without any effect, they said, ‘No, — no, it is not he,’ and swallowed down the sick sob of despair, to hide it from each other. Towards night a monk came to take my place, and to offer me food. I would not have quitted my place for worlds; but I talked to the monk in his own language, and told him I would make a merit with God of my sacrifices, and was resolved to remain there all night, with the permission of the Superior. The monk was glad of having a substitute on such easy terms, and I was glad of the food he left me, for I was hungry now, but I reserved the appetite of my soul for richer luxuries. I heard them talking within. While I was eating, I actually lived on the famine that was devouring them, but of which they did not dare to say a word to each other. They debated, deliberated, and, as misery grows ingenious in its own defence, they at last assured each other that it was impossible the Superior had locked them in there to perish by hunger. At these words I could not help laughing. This laugh reached their ears, and they became silent in a moment. All that night, however, I heard their groans, — those groans of physical suffering, that laugh to scorn all the sentimental sighs that are exhaled from the hearts of the most intoxicated lovers that ever breathed. I heard them all that night. I had read French romances, and all their unimaginable nonsense. Madame Sevignè herself says she would have been tired of her daughter in a long tete-a-tete journey, but clap me two lovers into a dungeon, without food, light, or hope, and I will be damned (that I am already, by the bye) if they do not grow sick of each other within the first twelve hours. The second day hunger and darkness had their usual influence. They shrieked for liberation, and knocked loud and long at their dungeon door. They exclaimed they were ready to submit to any punishment; and the approach of the monks, which they would have dreaded so much the preceding night, they now solicited on their knees. What a jest, after all, are the most awful vicissitudes of human life! — they supplicated now for what they would have sacrificed their souls to avert four-and-twenty hours before. Then the agony of hunger increased, they shrunk from the door, and grovelled apart from each other. Apart! — how I watched that. They were rapidly becoming objects of hostility to each other, — oh what a feast to me! They could not disguise from each other the revolting circumstances of their mutual sufferings. It is one thing for lovers to sit down to a feast magnificently spread, and another for lovers to couch in darkness and famine, — to exchange that appetite which cannot be supported without dainties and flattery, for that which would barter a descended Venus for a morsel of food. The second night they raved and groaned, (as occurred); and, amid their agonies, (I must do justice to women, whom I hate as well as men), the man often accused the female as the cause of all his sufferings, but the woman never, — never reproached him. Her groans might indeed have reproached him bitterly, but she never uttered a word that could have caused him pain. There was a change which I well could mark, however, in their physical feelings. The first day they clung together, and every movement I felt was like that of one person. The next the man alone struggled, and the woman moaned in helplessness. The third night, — how shall I tell it? — but you have bid me go on. All the horrible and loathsome excruciations of famine had been undergone; the disunion of every tie of the heart, of passion, of nature, had commenced. In the agonies of their famished sickness they loathed each other, — they could have cursed each other, if they had had breath to curse. It was on the fourth night that I heard the shriek of the wretched female, — her lover, in the agony of hunger, had fastened his teeth in her shoulder; — that bosom on which he had so often luxuriated, became a meal to him now.’ * * * * *

‘Monster! and you laugh?’ — ‘Yes, I laugh at all mankind, and the imposition they dare to practise when they talk of hearts. I laugh at human passions and human cares, — vice and virtue, religion and impiety; they are all the result of petty localities, and artificial situation. One physical want, one severe and abrupt lesson from the tintless and shrivelled lip of necessity, is worth all the logic of the empty wretches who have presumed to prate it, from Zeno down to Burgersdicius. Oh! it silences in a second all the feeble sophistry of conventional life, and ascititious passion. Here were a pair who would not have believed all the world on their knees, even though angels had descended to join in the attestation, that it was possible for them to exist without each other. They had risked every thing, trampled on every thing human and divine, to be in each others sight and arms. One hour of hunger undeceived them. A trivial and ordinary want, whose claims at another time they would have regarded as a vulgar interruption of their spiritualised intercourse, not only, by its natural operation, sundered it for ever, but, before it ceased, converted that intercourse into a source of torment and hostility inconceivable, except among cannibals. The bitterest enemies on earth could not have regarded each other with more abhorrence than these lovers. Deluded wretches! you boasted of having hearts, I boast I have none, and which of us gained most by the vaunt, let life decide. My story is nearly finished, and so I hope is the day. When I was last here I had something to excite me; — talking of those things is poor employment to one who has been a witness to them. On the sixth day all was still. The door was unnailed, we entered, — they were no more. They lay far from each other, farther than on that voluptuous couch into which their passion had converted the mat of a convent bed. She lay contracted in a heap, a lock of her long hair in her mouth. There was a slight scar on her shoulder, — the rabid despair of famine had produced no farther outrage. He lay extended at his length, — his hand was between his lips; it seemed as if he had not strength to execute the purpose for which he had brought it there. The bodies were brought out for interment. As we removed them into the light, the long hair of the female, falling over a face no longer disguised by the novice’s dress, recalled a likeness I thought I could remember. I looked closer, she was my own sister, — my only one, — and I had heard her voice grow fainter and fainter. I had heard — ‘ and his own voice grew fainter — it ceased.

‘Trembling for a life with which my own was linked, I staggered towards him. I raised him half up in my arms, and recollecting there must be a current of air through the trap-door, I attempted to trail him along thither. I succeeded, and, as the breeze played over him, I saw with delight unutterable the diminution of the light that streamed through it. It was evening, — there was no longer any necessity, no longer any time for delay. He recovered, for his swoon arose not from exhausted sensibility, but from mere inanition. However it was, I found my interest in watching his recovery; and, had I been adequate to the task of observing extraordinary vicissitudes of the human mind, I would have been indeed amazed at the change that he manifested on his recovery. Without the least reference to his late story, or late feelings, he started from my arms at the discovery that the light had diminished, and prepared for our escape through the trap-door, with a restored energy of strength, and sanity of intellect, that might have been deemed miraculous if it had occurred in a convent:— Happening to occur full thirty feet below the proper surface for a miracle, it must be put to the account of strong excitement merely. I could not indeed dare to believe a miracle was wrought in favour of my profane attempt, and so I was glad to put up with second causes. With incredible dexterity he climbed up the wall, with the help of the rugged stones and my shoulders, — threw open the trap-door, pronounced that all was safe, assisted me to ascend after him, — and, with gasping delight, I once more breathed the breath of heaven. The night was perfectly dark. I could not distinguish the buildings from the trees, except when a faint breeze gave motion to the latter. To this darkness, I am convinced, I owe the preservation of my reason under such vicissitudes, — the glory of a resplendent night would have driven me mad, emerging from darkness, famine, and cold. I would have wept, and laughed, and knelt, and turned idolater. I would have ‘worshipped the host of heaven, and the moon walking in her brightness.’ Darkness was my best security, in every sense of the word. We traversed the garden, without feeling the ground under our feet. As we approached the wall, I became again deadly sick, — my senses grew giddy, I reeled. I whispered to my companion, ‘Are there not lights gleaming from the convent windows?’ — ‘No, the lights are flashing from your own eyes, — it is only the effect of darkness, famine, and fear, — come on.’ — ‘But I hear a sound of bells.’ — ‘The bells are ringing only in your ears, — an empty stomach is your sexton, and you fancy you hear bells. Is this a time to faulter? — come on, come on. Don’t hang such a dead weight on my arm, — don’t fall, if you can help it. Oh God, he has swooned!’

‘These were the last words I heard. I had fallen, I believe, into his arms. With that instinct that acts most auspiciously in the absence of both thought and feeling, he dragged me in his brawny arms to the wall, and twisted my cold fingers in the ropes of the ladder. The touch restored me in a moment; and, almost before my hand had touched the ropes, my feet began to ascend them. My companion followed extempore. We reached the summit, — I tottered from weakness and terror. I felt a sickly dread, that, though the ladder was there, Juan was not. A moment after a lanthorn flashed in my eyes, — I saw a figure below. I sprung down, careless, in that wild moment, whether I met the dagger of an assassin, or the embrace of a brother. ‘Alonzo, dear Alonzo,’ murmured a voice. ‘Juan, dear Juan,’ was all I could utter, as I felt my shivering breast held close to that of the most generous and affectionate of brothers. ‘How much you must have suffered, — how much I have suffered,’ he whispered; ‘during the last horrible twenty-four hours, I almost gave you up. Make haste, the carriage is not twenty paces off.’ And, as he spoke, the shifting of a lanthorn shewed me those imperious and beautiful features, which I had once dreaded as the pledge of eternal emulation, but which I now regarded as the smile of the proud but benignant god of my liberation. I pointed to my companion, I could not speak, — hunger was consuming my vitals. Juan supported me, consoled me, encouraged me; did all, and more, than man ever did for man, — than man ever did, perhaps, for the most shrinking and delicate of the other sex under his protection. Oh, with what agony of heart I retrace his manly tenderness! We waited for my companion, — he descended the wall. ‘Make haste, make haste,’ Juan whispered; ‘I am famishing too. I have not tasted food for four-and-twenty hours, watching for you.’ We hurried on. It was a waste place, — I could only distinguish a carriage by the light of a dim lanthorn, but that was enough for me. I sprung lightly into it. ‘He is safe,’ cried Juan, following me. ‘But are you? answered a voice of thunder. Juan staggered back from the step of the carriage, — he fell. I sprung out, I fell too — on his body. I was bathed in his blood, — he was no more.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/maturin/charles/melmoth_the_wanderer/chapter9.html

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