Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 10

Men who with mankind were foes.

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Or who, in desperate doubt of grace. —

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‘One wild moment of yelling agony, — one flash of a fierce and fiery light, that seemed to envelope and wither me soul and body, — one sound, that swept through my ears and brain like the last trumpet, as it will thrill on the senses of those who slept in guilt, and awake in despair, — one such moment, that condenses and crowds all imaginable sufferings in one brief and intense pang, and appears exhausted itself by the blow it has struck, — one such moment I remember, and no more. Many a month of gloomy unconsciousness rolled over me, without date or notice. One thousand waves may welter over a sunk wreck, and be felt as one. I have a dim recollection of refusing food, of resisting change of place, &c. but they were like the faint and successless attempts we make under the burden of the night-mare; and those with whom I had to do, probably regarded any opposition I could make no more than the tossings of a restless sleeper.

‘From dates that I have since been enabled to collect, I must have been four months at least in this state; and ordinary persecutors would have given me up as a hopeless subject for any further sufferings; but religious malignity is too industrious, and too ingenious, to resign the hope of a victim but with life. If the fire is extinguished, it sits and watches the embers. If the strings of the heart crack in its hearing, it listens if it be the last that has broken. It is a spirit that delights to ride on the tenth wave, and view it whelm and bury the sufferer for ever. * * * * *

‘Many changes had taken place, without any consciousness on my part of them. Perhaps the profound tranquillity of my last abode contributed more than any thing else to the recovery of my reason. I distinctly remember awaking at once to the full exercise of my senses and reason, and finding myself in a place which I examined with the most amazed and jealous curiosity. My memory did not molest me in the least. Why I was there? or what I had suffered before I was brought there? it never occurred to me to inquire. The return of the intellectual powers came slowly in, like the waves of an advancing tide, and happily for me memory was the last, — the occupation of my senses was at first quite enough for me. You must expect no romance-horrors, Sir, from my narrative. Perhaps a life like mine may revolt the taste that has feasted to fastidiousness; but truth sometimes gives full and dreadful compensation, in presenting us facts instead of images.

‘I found myself lying on a bed, not very different from that in my cell, but the apartment was wholly unlike the latter. It was somewhat larger, and covered with matting. There was neither crucifix, painting, or vessel for holy water; — the bed, a coarse table which supported a lighted lamp, and a vessel containing water for the purpose, were all the furniture. There was no window; and some iron knobs in the door, to which the light of the lamp gave a kind of dismal distinctness and prominence, proved that it was strongly secured. I raised myself on my arm, and gazed round me with the apprehensiveness of one who fears that the slightest motion may dissolve the spell, and plunge him again in darkness. At that moment the recollection of all the past struck me like a thunder-bolt. I uttered a cry, that seemed to drain me of breath and being at once, and fell back on the bed, not senseless but exhausted. I remembered every event in a moment, with an intenseness that could only be equalled by actual and present agency in them, — my escape, — my safety, — my despair. I felt Juan’s embrace, — then I felt his blood stream over me. I saw his eyes turn in despair, before they closed for ever, and I uttered another cry, such as had never before been heard within those walls. At the repetition of this sound the door opened, and a person, in a habit I had never seen before, approached, and signified to me by signs, that I must observe the most profound silence. Nothing, indeed, could be more expressive of this meaning, than his denying himself the use of his voice to convey it. I gazed on this apparition in silence, — my amazement had all the effect of an apparent submission to his injunctions. He retired, and I began to wonder where I was. Was it among the dead? or some subterranean world of the mute and voiceless, where there was no air to convey sounds, and no echo to repeat them, and the famished ear waited in vain for its sweetest banquet, — the voice of man? These wanderings were dispelled by the re-entrance of the person. He placed bread, water, and a small portion of meat on the table, motioned me to approach, (which I did mechanically), and, when I was seated, whispered me, That my unhappy situation having hitherto rendered me incapable of understanding the regulations of the place where I was, he had been compelled to postpone acquainting me with them; but now he was obliged to warn me, that my voice must never be raised beyond the key in which he addressed me, and which was sufficient for all proper purposes of communication; finally, he assured me that cries, exclamations of any kind, or even coughing too loud,1 (which might be interpreted as a signal), would be considered as an attempt on the inviolable habits of the place, and punished with the utmost severity. To my repeated questions of ‘Where am I? what is this place, with its mysterious regulations?’ he replied in a whisper, that his business was to issue orders, not to answer questions; and so saying he departed. However extraordinary these injunctions appeared, the manner in which they were issued was so imposing, peremptory, and habitual, — it seemed so little a thing of local contrivance and temporary display, — so much like the established language of an absolute and long-fixed system, that obedience to it seemed inevitable. I threw myself on the bed, and murmured to myself, ‘Where am I?’ till sleep overcame me.

1 This is a fact well established.

‘I have heard that the first sleep of a recovered maniac is intensely profound. Mine was not so, it was broken by many troubled dreams. One, in particular, brought me back to the convent. I thought I was a boarder in it, and studying Virgil. I was reading that passage in the second book, where the vision of Hector appears to Æneas in his dream, and his ghastly and dishonoured form suggests the mournful exclamation,

‘ — Heu quantum mutatus ab illo, —

— Quibus ab oris, Hector expectate venis?

Then I thought Juan was Hector, — that the same pale and bloody phantom stood calling me to fly — ‘Heu fuge,’ while I vainly tried to obey him. Oh that dreary mixture of truth and delirium, of the real and visionary, of the conscious and unconscious parts of existence, that visits the dreams of the unhappy! He was Pantheus, and murmured,

‘Venit summa dies, et ineluctabile tempus.’

I appeared to weep and struggle in my dream. I addressed the figure that stood before me sometimes as Juan, and sometimes as the image of the Trojan vision. At last the figure uttered, with a kind of querulous shriek, — that vox stridula which we hear only in dreams,

‘Proximus ardet Ucalegon,’

and I started up fully awake, in all the horrors of an expected conflagration.

‘It is incredible, Sir, how the senses and the mind can operate thus, during the apparent suspension of both; how sound can affect organs that seem to be shut, and objects affect the sight, while its sense appears to be closed, — can impress on its dreaming consciousness, images more horribly vivid than even reality ever presented. I awoke with the idea that flames were raging in contact with my eye-balls, and I saw only a pale light, held by a paler hand — close to my eyes indeed, but withdrawn the moment I awoke. The person who held it shrouded it for a moment, and then advanced and flashed its full light on me, and along with it — the person of my companion. The associations of our last meeting rushed on me. I started up, and said, ‘Are we free, then?’ — ‘Hush, — one of us is free; but you must not speak so loud.’ — ‘Well, I have heard that before, but I cannot comprehend the necessity of this whispering secrecy. If I am free, tell me so, and tell me whether Juan has survived that last horrible moment, — my intellect is but just respiring. Tell me how Juan fares.’ — ‘Oh, sumptuously. No prince in all the land reposes under a more gorgeous canopy, — marble pillars, waving banners, and nodding plumes. He had music too, but he did not seem to heed it. He lay stretched on velvet and gold, but he appeared insensible of all these luxuries. There was a curl on his cold white lip, too, that seemed to breathe ineffable scorn on all that was going on, — but he was proud enough even in his life-time.’ — ‘His life-time!’ I shrieked; ‘then he is dead?’ — ‘Can you doubt that, when you know who struck the blow? None of my victims ever gave me the trouble of a second.’ — ‘You, — you?’ I swam for some moments in a sea of flames and blood. My frenzy returned, and I remember only uttering curses that would have exhausted divine vengeance in all its plenitude to fulfil. I might have continued to rave till my reason was totally lost, but I was silenced and stunned by his laugh bursting out amid my curses, and overwhelming them.

‘That laugh made me cease, and lift up my eyes to him, as if I expected to see another being, — it was still the same. ‘And you dreamt,’ he cried, ‘in your temerity, you dreamt of setting the vigilance of a convent at defiance? Two boys, one the fool of fear, and the other of temerity, were fit antagonists for that stupendous system, whose roots are in the bowels of the earth, and whose head is among the stars, — you escape from a convent! you defy a power that has defied sovereigns! A power whose influence is unlimited, indefinable, and unknown, even to those who exercise it, as there are mansions so vast, that their inmates, to their last hour, have never visited all the apartments; — a power whose operation is like its motto, — one and indivisible. The soul of the Vatican breathes in the humblest convent in Spain, — and you, an insect perched on a wheel of this vast machine, imagined you were able to arrest its progress, while its rotation was hurrying on to crush you to atoms.’ While he was uttering these words, with a rapidity and energy inconceivable, (a rapidity that literally made one word seem to devour another), I tried, with that effort of intellect which seems like the gasping respiration of one whose breath has long been forcibly suppressed or suspended, to comprehend and follow him. The first thought that struck me was one not very improbable in my situation, that he was not the person he appeared to be, — that it was not the companion of my escape who now addressed me; and I summoned all the remains of my intellect to ascertain this. A few questions must determine this point, if I had breath to utter them. ‘Were you not the agent in my escape? Were you not the man who — What tempted you to this step, in the defeat of which you appear to rejoice?’ — ‘A bribe.’ — ‘And you have betrayed me, you say, and boast of your treachery, — what tempted you to this?’ — ‘A higher bribe. Your brother gave gold, but the convent promised me salvation, — a business I was very willing to commit to their hands, as I was totally incompetent to manage it myself.’ — ‘Salvation, for treachery and murder?’ — ‘Treachery and murder, — hard words. Now, to talk sense, was not yours the vilest treachery? You reclaimed your vows, — you declared before God and man, that the words you uttered before both were the babble of an infant; then you seduced your brother from his duty to his and your parents, — you connived at his intriguing against the peace and sanctity of a monastic institution, and dare you talk of treachery? And did you not, with a callosity of conscience unexampled in one so young, accept, nay, cling to an associate in your escape whom you knew you were seducing from his vows, — from all that man reveres as holy, and all that God (if there be a God) must regard as binding on man? You knew my crime, you knew my atrocity, yet you brandished me as your banner of defiance against the Almighty, though its inscription was, in glaring characters, — impiety — parricide — irreligion. Torn as the banner was, it still hung near the altar, till you dragged it away, to wrap yourself from detection in its folds, — and you talk of treachery? — there is not a more traitorous wretch on earth than yourself. Suppose that I was all that is vile and culpable, was it for you to double-dye the hue of my crime in the crimson of your sacrilege and apostacy? And for murder, I know I am a parricide. I cut my father’s throat, but he never felt the blow, — nor did I, — I was intoxicated with wine, with passion, with blood, — no matter which; but you, with cold deliberate blows, struck at the hearts of father and mother. You killed by inches, — I murdered at a blow, — which of us is the murderer? — And you prate of treachery and murder? I am as innocent as the child that is born this hour, compared to you. Your father and mother have separated, — she is gone into a convent, to hide her despair and shame at your unnatural conduct, — your father is plunging successively into the abysses of voluptuousness and penitence, wretched in both; your brother, in his desperate attempt to liberate you, has perished, — you have scattered desolation over a whole family, — you have stabbed the peace and heart of each of them, with a hand that deliberated and paused on its blow, and then struck it calmly, — and you dare to talk of treachery and murder? You are a thousand times more culpable than I am, guilty as you think me. I stand a blasted tree, — I am struck to the heart, to the root, — I wither alone, — but you are the Upas, under whose poisonous droppings all things living have perished, — father — mother — brother, and last yourself; — the erosions of the poison, having nothing left to consume, strike inward, and prey on your own heart. Wretch, condemned beyond the sympathy of man, beyond the redemption of the Saviour, what can you say to this?’ — I answered only, ‘Is Juan dead, and were you his murderer, — were you indeed? I believe all you say, I must be very guilty, but is Juan dead?’ As I spoke, I lifted up to him eyes that no longer seemed to see, — a countenance that bore no expression but that of the stupefaction of intense grief. I could neither utter nor feel reproaches, — I had suffered beyond the power of complaint. I awaited his answer; he was silent, but his diabolical silence spoke. ‘And my mother retired to a convent?’ he nodded. ‘And my father?’ he smiled, and I closed my eyes. I could bear any thing but his smile. I raised my head a few moments after, and saw him, with an habitual motion, (it could not have been more), make the sign of the cross, as a clock in some distant passage struck. This sight reminded me of the play so often acted in Madrid, and which I had seen in my few days of liberation, — El diablo Predicador. You smile, Sir, at such a recollection operating at such a moment, but it is a fact; and had you witnessed that play under the singular circumstances I did, you would not wonder at my being struck with the coincidence. In this performance the infernal spirit is the hero, and in the disguise of a monk he appears in a convent, where he torments and persecutes the community with a mixture of malignity and mirth truly Satanic. One night that I saw it performed, a groupe of monks were carrying the Host to a dying person; the walls of the theatre were so slight, that we could distinctly hear the sound of the bell which they ring on that occasion. In an instant, actors, audience, and all, were on their knees, and the devil, who happened to be on the stage, knelt among the rest, and crossed himself with visible marks of a devotion equally singular and edifying. You will allow the coincidence to be irresistibly striking.

‘When he had finished his monstrous profanation of the holy sign, I fixed my eyes on him with an expression not to be mistaken. He saw it. There is not so bitter a reproach on earth as silence, for it always seems to refer the guilty to their own hearts, whose eloquence seldom fails to fill up the pause very little to the satisfaction of the accused. My look threw him into a rage, that I am now convinced not the most bitter upbraidings could have caused. The utmost fury of imprecation would have fallen on his ear like the most lulling harmony; — it would have convinced him that his victim was suffering all he could possibly inflict. He betrayed this in the violence of his exclamations. ‘What, wretch!’ he cried; — ‘Do you think it was for your masses and your mummeries, your vigils, and fasts, and mumbling over senseless unconsoling beads, and losing my rest all night watching for the matins, and then quitting my frozen mat to nail my knees to stone till they grew there, — till I thought the whole pavement would rise with me when I rose, — do you think it was for the sake of listening to sermons that the preachers did not believe, — and prayers that the lips that uttered them yawned at in the listlessness of their infidelity, — and penances that might be hired out to a lay-brother to undergo for a pound of coffee or of snuff, — and the vilest subserviencies to the caprice and passion of a Superior, — and the listening to men with God for ever in their mouths, and the world for ever in their hearts, — men who think of nothing but the aggrandizement of their temporal distinction, and screen, under the most revolting affectation of a concern in spiritualities, their ravening cupidity after earthly eminence:— Wretch! do you dream that it was for this? — that this atheism of bigotry, — this creed of all the priests that ever have existed in connexion with the state, and in hope of extending their interest by that connexion, — could have any influence over me? I had sounded every depth in the mine of depravity before them. I knew them, — I despised them. I crouched before them in body, I spurned them in my soul. With all their sanctimony, they had hearts so worldly, that it was scarce worth while to watch their hypocrisy, the secret developed itself so soon. There was no discovery to be made, no place for detection. I have seen them on their high festivals, prelates, and abbots, and priests, in all their pomp of office, appearing to the laity like descended gods, blazing in gems and gold, amid the lustre of tapers and the floating splendour of an irradiated atmosphere alive with light, and all soft and delicate harmonies and delicious odours, till, as they disappeared amid the clouds of incense so gracefully tossed from the gilded censers, the intoxicated eye dreamed it saw them ascending to Paradise. Such was the scene, but what was behind the scene?I saw it all. Two or three of them would rush from service into the vestry together, under the pretence of changing their vestments. One would imagine that these men would have at least the decency to refrain, while in the intervals of the holy mass. No, I overheard them. While shifting their robes, they talked incessantly of promotions and appointments, — of this or that prelate, dying or dead, — of a wealthy benefice being vacant, — of one dignitary having bargained hard with the state for the promotion of a relative, — of another who had well-founded hopes of obtaining a bishoprick, for what? neither for learning or piety, or one feature of the pastoral character, but because he had valuable benefices to resign in exchange, that might be divided among numerous candidates. Such was their conversation, — such and such only were their thoughts, till the last thunders of the allelujah from the church made them start, and hurry to resume their places at the altar. Oh what a compound of meanness and pride, of imbecillity and pretension, of sanctimony so transparently and awkwardly worn, that the naked frame of the natural mind was visible to every eye beneath it, — that mind which is ‘earthly, sensual, devilish.’ Was it to live among such wretches, who, all-villain as I was, made me hug myself with the thought that at least I was not like them, a passionless prone reptile, — a thing made of forms and dressings, half satin and shreds, half ave’s and credo’s, — bloated and abject, — creeping and aspiring, — winding up and up the pedestal of power at the rate of an inch a day, and tracking its advance to eminence by the flexibility of its writhings, the obliquity of its course, and the filth of its slime, — was it for this?’ — he paused, half-choaked with his emotions.

‘This man might have been a better being under better circumstances; he had at least a disdain of all that was mean in vice, with a wild avidity for all that was atrocious. ‘Was it for this,’ he continued, ‘that I have sold myself to work their works of darkness, — that I have become in this life as it were an apprentice to Satan, to take anticipated lessons of torture, — that I have sealed those indentures here, which must be fulfilled below? No, I despise — I loathe it all, the agents and the system, — the men and their matters. But it is the creed of that system, (and true or false it avails not, — some kind of creed is necessary, and the falser perhaps the better, for falsehood at least flatters), that the greatest criminal may expiate his offences, by vigilantly watching, and severely punishing, those of the enemies of heaven. Every offender may purchase his immunity, by consenting to become the executioner of the offender whom he betrays and denounces. In the language of the laws of another country, they may turn ‘king’s evidence,’ and buy their own lives at the price of another’s, — a bargain which every man is very ready to make. But, in religious life, this kind of transfer, this substitutional suffering, is adopted with an avidity indescribable. How we love to punish those whom the church calls the enemies of God, while conscious that, though our enmity against him is infinitely greater, we become acceptable in his sight by tormenting those who may be less guilty, but who are in our power! I hate you, not because I have any natural or social cause to do so, but because the exhaustion of my resentment on you, may diminish that of the Deity towards me. If I persecute and torment the enemies of God, must I not be the friend of God? Must not every pang I inflict on another, be recorded in the book of the All-remembering, as an expurgation of at least one of the pangs that await me hereafter? I have no religion, I believe in no God, I repeat no creed, but I have that superstition of fear and of futurity, that seeks its wild and hopeless mitigation in the sufferings of others when our own are exhausted, or when (a much more common case) we are unwilling to undergo them. I am convinced that my own crimes will be obliterated, by whatever crimes of others I can promote or punish. Had I not, then, every motive to urge you to crime? Had I not every motive to watch and aggravate your punishment? Every coal of fire that I heaped on your head, was removing one from that fire that burns for ever and ever for mine. Every drop of water that I withheld from your burning tongue, I expect will be repaid to me in slaking the fire and brimstone into which I must one day be hurled. Every tear that I draw, every groan that I extort, will, I am convinced, be repaid me in the remission of my own! — guess what a price I set on yours, or those of any other victim. The man in ancient story trembled and paused over the scattered limbs of his child, and failed in the pursuit, — the true penitent rushes over the mangled members of nature and passion, collects them with a hand in which there is no pulse, and a heart in which there is no feeling, and holds them up in the face of the Divinity as a peace-offering. Mine is the best theology, — the theology of utter hostility to all beings whose sufferings may mitigate mine. In this flattering theory, your crimes become my virtues, — I need not any of my own. Guilty as I am of the crime that outrages nature, your crimes (the crimes of those who offend against the church) are of a much more heinous order. But your guilt is my exculpation, your sufferings are my triumph. I need not repent, I need not believe; if you suffer, I am saved, — that is enough for me. How glorious and easy it is to erect at once the trophy of our salvation, on the trampled and buried hopes of another’s! How subtle and sublime that alchemy, that can convert the iron of another’s contumacy and impenitence into the precious gold of your own redemption! I have literally worked out my salvation by your fear and trembling. With this hope I appeared to concur in the plan laid by your brother, every feature of which was in its progress disclosed to the Superior. With this hope I passed that wretched night and day in the dungeon with you, for, to have effected our escape by daylight, would have startled credulity as gross as even yours. But all the time I was feeling the dagger I bore in my breast, and which I had received for a purpose amply accomplished. As for you, — the Superior consented to your attempt to escape, merely that he might have you more in his power. He and the community were tired of you, they saw you would never make a monk, — your appeal had brought disgrace on them, your presence was a reproach and a burden to them. The sight of you was as thorns in their eyes, — they judged you would make a better victim than a proselyte, and they judged well. You are a much fitter inmate for your present abode than your last, and from hence there is no danger of your escaping.’ — ‘And where, then, am I?’ — ‘You are in the prison of the Inquisition.’

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57