Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 15

But tell me to what saint, I pray,

    What martyr, or what angel bright,

Is dedicate this holy day,

    Which brings you here so gaily dight?


Dost thou not, simple Palmer, know,

    What every child can tell thee here? —

Nor saint nor angel claims this show,

    But the bright season of the year.


‘The sole and beautiful inmate of the isle, though disturbed at the appearance of her worshippers, soon recovered her tranquillity. She could not be conscious of fear, for nothing of that world in which she lived had ever borne a hostile appearance to her. The sun and the shade — the flowers and foliage — the tamarinds and figs that prolonged her delightful existence — the water that she drank, wondering at the beautiful being who seemed to drink whenever she did — the peacocks, who spread out their rich and radiant plumage the moment they beheld her — and the loxia, who perched on her shoulder and hand as she walked, and answered her sweet voice with imitative chirpings — all these were her friends, and she knew none but these.

‘The human forms that sometimes approached the island, caused her a slight emotion; but it was rather that of curiosity than alarm; and their gestures were so expressive of reverence and mildness, their offerings of flowers, in which she delighted, so acceptable, and their visits so silent and peaceful, that she saw them without reluctance, and only wondered, as they rowed away, how they could move on the water in safety; and how creatures so dark, and with features so unattractive, happened to grow amid the beautiful flowers they presented to her as the productions of their abode. The elements might be supposed to have impressed her imagination with some terrible ideas; but the periodical regularity of these phoenomena, in the climate she inhabited, divested them of their terrors to one who had been accustomed to them, as to the alternation of night and day — who could not remember the fearful impression of the first, and, above, all, who had never heard any terror of them expressed by another, — perhaps the primitive cause of fear in most minds. Pain she had never felt — of death she had no idea — how, then, could she become acquainted with fear?

‘When a north-wester, as it is termed, visited the island, with all its terrific accompaniments of midnight darkness, clouds of suffocating dust, and thunders like the trumpet of doom, she stood amid the leafy colonnades of the banyan-tree, ignorant of her danger, watching the cowering wings and dropping heads of the birds, and the ludicrous terror of the monkies, as they skipt from branch to branch with their young. When the lightning struck a tree, she gazed as a child would on a fire-work played off for its amusement; but the next day she wept, when she saw the leaves would no longer grow on the blasted trunk. When the rains descended in torrents, the ruins of the pagoda afforded her a shelter; and she sat listening to the rushing of the mighty waters, and the murmurs of the troubled deep, till her soul took its colour from the sombrous and magnificent imagery around her, and she believed herself precipitated to earth with the deluge — borne downward, like a leaf, by a cataract — engulphed in the depths of the ocean — rising again to light on the swell of the enormous billows, as if she were heaved on the back of a whale — deafened with the roar — giddy with the rush — till terror and delight embraced in that fearful exercise of imagination. So she lived like a flower amid sun and storm, blooming in the light, and bending to the shower, and drawing the elements of her sweet and wild existence from both. And both seemed to mingle their influences kindly for her, as if she was a thing that nature loved, even in her angry mood, and gave a commission to the storm to nurture her, and to the deluge to spare the ark of her innocence, as it floated over the waters. This existence of felicity, half physical, half imaginative, but neither intellectual or impassioned, had continued till the seventeenth year of this beautiful and mild being, when a circumstance occurred that changed its hue for ever.

‘On the evening of the day after the Indians had departed, Immalee, for that was the name her votarists had given her, was standing on the shore, when a being approached her unlike any she had ever beheld. The colour of his face and hands resembled her own more than those she was accustomed to see, but his garments, (which were European), from their square uncouthness, their shapelessness, and their disfiguring projection about the hips, (it was the fashion of the year 1680), gave her a mixed sensation of ridicule, disgust, and wonder, which her beautiful features could express only by a smile — that smile, a native of the face from which not even surprise could banish it.

‘The stranger approached, and the beautiful vision approached also, but not like an European female with low and graceful bendings, still less like an Indian girl with her low salams, but like a young fawn, all animation, timidity, confidence, and cowardice, expressed in almost a single action. She sprung from the sands — ran to her favourite tree; — returned again with her guard of peacocks, who expanded their superb trains with a kind of instinctive motion, as if they felt the danger that menaced their protectress, and, clapping her hands with exultation, seemed to invite them to share in the delight she felt in gazing at the new flower that had grown in the sand.

‘The stranger advanced, and, to Immalee’s utter astonishment, addressed her in the language which she herself had retained some words of since her infancy, and had endeavoured in vain to make her peacocks, parrots, and loxias, answer her in corresponding sounds. But her language, from want of practice, had become so limited, that she was delighted to hear its most unmeaning sounds uttered by human lips; and when he said, according to the form of the times, ‘How do you, fair maid?’ she answered, ‘God made me,’ from the words of the Christian Catechism that had been breathed into her infant lip. ‘God never made a fairer creature,’ replied the stranger, grasping her hand, and fixing on her eyes that still burn in the sockets of that arch-deceiver. ‘Oh yes!’ answered Immalee, ‘he made many things more beautiful. The rose is redder than I am — the palm-tree is taller than I am — and the wave is bluer than I am; — but they all change, and I never change. I have grown taller and stronger, though the rose fades every six moons; and the rock splits to let in the bats, when the earth shakes; and the waves fight in their anger till they turn grey, and far different from the beautiful colour they have when the moon comes dancing on them, and sending all the young, broken branches of her light to kiss my feet, as I stand on the soft sand. I have tried to gather them every night, but they all broke in my hand the moment I dipt it into water.’ — ‘And have you fared better with the stars?’ said the stranger smiling. — ‘No,’ answered the innocent being, ‘the stars are the flowers of heaven, and the rays of the moon the boughs and branches; but though they are so bright, they only blossom in the night, — and I love better the flowers that I can gather, and twine in my hair. When I have been all night wooing a star, and it has listened and descended, springing downwards like a peacock from its nest, it has hid itself often afterwards playfully amid the mangoes and tamarinds where it fell; and though I have searched for it till the moon looked wan and weary of lighting me, I never could find it. But where do you come from? — you are not scaly and voiceless like those who grow in the waters, and show their strange shapes as I sit on the shore at sun-set; — nor are you red and diminutive like those who come over the waters to me from other worlds, in houses that can live on the deep, and walk so swiftly, with their legs plunged in the water. Where do you come from? — you are not so bright as the stars that live in the blue sea above me, nor so deformed as those that toss in the darker sea at my feet. Where did you grow, and how came you here? — there is not a canoe on the sand; and though the shells bear the fish that live in them so lightly over the waters, they never would bear me. When I placed my foot on their scolloped edge of crimson and purple, they sunk into the sand.’ — ‘Beautiful creature,’ said the stranger, ‘I come from a world where there are thousands like me.’ — ‘That is impossible,’ said Immalee, ‘for I live here alone, and other worlds must be like this.’ — ‘What I tell you is true, however,’ said the stranger. Immalee paused for a moment, as if making the first effort of reflection — an exertion painful enough to a being whose existence was composed of felicitous tacts and unreflecting instincts — and then exclaimed, ‘We both must have grown in the world of voices, for I know what you say better than the chirp of the loxia, or the cry of the peacock. That must be a delightful world where they all speak — what would I give that my roses grew in the world of answers!’

‘At this moment the stranger made certain signals of hunger, which Immalee understood in a moment, and told him to follow her to where the tamarind and the fig were shedding their fruit — where the stream was so clear, you could count the purple shells in its bed — and where she would scoop for him in the cocoa-shell the cool waters that flowed beneath the shade of the mango. As they went, she gave him all the information about herself that she could. She told him that she was the daughter of a palm-tree, under whose shade she had been first conscious of existence, but that her poor father had been long withered and dead — that she was very old, having seen many roses decay on their stalks; and though they were succeeded by others, she did not love them so well as the first, which were a great deal larger and brighter — that, in fact, every thing had grown smaller latterly, for she was now able to reach to the fruit which formerly she was compelled to wait for till it dropt on the ground; — but that the water was grown taller, for once she was forced to drink it on her hands and knees, and now she could scoop it in a cocoa-shell. Finally, she added, she was much older than the moon, for she had seen it waste away till it was dimmer than the light of a fire-fly; and the moon that was lighting them now would decline too, and its successor be so small, that she would never again give it the name she had given to the first — Sun of the Night. ‘But,’ said her companion, ‘how are you able to speak a language you never learned from your loxias and peacocks?’ — ‘I will tell you,’ said Immalee, with an air of solemnity, which her beauty and innocence made at once ludicrous and imposing, and in which she betrayed a slight tendency to that wish to mystify that distinguishes her delightful sex, — ‘there came a spirit to me from the world of voices, and it whispered to me sounds that I never have forgotten, long, long before I was born.’ — ‘Really?’ said the stranger. ‘Oh yes! — long before I could gather a fig, or gather the water in my hand, and that must be before I was born. When I was born, I was not so high as the rose-bud, at which I tried to catch, now I am as near the moon as the palm-tree — sometimes I catch her beams sooner than he does, therefore I must be very old, and very high.’ At these words, the stranger, with an expression indescribable, leaned against a tree. He viewed that lovely and helpless being, while he refused the fruits and water she offered him, with a look, that, for the first time, intimated compassion. The stranger feeling did not dwell long in a mansion it was unused to. The expression was soon exchanged for that half-ironical, half-diabolical glance Immalee could not understand. ‘And you live here alone,’ he said, ‘and you have lived in this beautiful place without a companion?’ — ‘Oh no!’ said Immalee, ‘I have a companion more beautiful than all the flowers in the isle. There is not a rose-leaf that drops in the river so bright as its cheek. My friend lives under the water, but its colours are so bright. It kisses me too, but its lips are very cold; and when I kiss it, it seems to dance, and its beauty is all broken into a thousand faces, that come smiling at me like little stars. But, though my friend has a thousand faces, and I have but one, still there is one thing that troubles me. There is but one stream where it meets me, and that is where are no shadows from the trees — and I never can catch it but when the sun is bright. Then when I catch it in the stream, I kiss it on my knees; but my friend has grown so tall, that sometimes I wish it were smaller. Its lips spread so much wider, that I give it a thousand kisses for one that I get.’ ‘Is your friend male or female,’ said the stranger. — ‘What is that?’ answered Immalee. — ‘I mean, of what sex is your friend?’

‘But to this question he could obtain no satisfactory answer; and it was not till his return the next day, when he revisited the isle, that he discovered Immalee’s friend was what he suspected. He found this innocent and lovely being bending over a stream that reflected her image, and wooing it with a thousand wild and graceful attitudes of joyful fondness. The stranger gazed at her for some time, and thoughts it would be difficult for man to penetrate into, threw their varying expression over his features for a moment. It was the first of his intended victims he had ever beheld with compunction. The joy, too, with which Immalee received him, almost brought back human feelings to a heart that had long renounced them; and, for a moment, he experienced a sensation like that of his master when he visited paradise, — pity for the flowers he resolved to wither for ever. He looked at her as she fluttered round him with outspread arms and dancing eyes; and sighed, while she welcomed him in tones of such wild sweetness, as suited a being who had hitherto conversed with nothing but the melody of birds and the murmur of waters. With all her ignorance, however, she could not help testifying her amazement at his arriving at the isle without any visible means of conveyance. He evaded answering her on this point, but said, ‘Immalee, I come from a world wholly unlike that you inhabit, amid inanimate flowers, and unthinking birds. I come from a world where all, as I do, think and speak.’ Immalee was speechless with wonder and delight for some time; at length she exclaimed, ‘Oh, how they must love each other! even I love my poor birds and flowers, and the trees that shade, and the waters that sing to me!’ The stranger smiled. ‘In all that world, perhaps there is not another being beautiful and innocent as you. It is a world of suffering, guilt, and care.’ It was with much difficulty she was made to comprehend the meaning of these words, but when she did, she exclaimed, ‘Oh, that I could live in that world, for I would make every one happy!’ — ‘But you could not, Immalee,’ said the stranger; ‘this world is of such extent that it would take your whole life to traverse it, and, during your progress, you never could be conversant with more than a small number of sufferers at a time, and the evils they undergo are in many instances such as you or no human power could relieve.’ At these words, Immalee burst into an agony of tears. ‘Weak, but lovely being,’ said the stranger, ‘could your tears heal the corrosions of disease? — cool the burning throb of a cancered heart? — wash the pale slime from the clinging lips of famine? — or, more than all, quench the fire of forbidden passion?’ Immalee paused aghast at this enumeration, and could only faulter out, that wherever she went, she would bring her flowers and sunshine among the healthy, and they should all sit under the shade of her own tamarind. That for disease and death, she had long been accustomed to see flowers wither and die their beautiful death of nature. ‘And perhaps,’ she added, after a reflective pause, ‘as I have often known them to retain their delicious odour even after they were faded, perhaps what thinks may live too after the form has faded, and that is a thought of joy.’ Of passion, she said she knew nothing, and could propose no remedy for an evil she was unconscious of. She had seen flowers fade with the season, but could not imagine why the flower should destroy itself. ‘But did you never trace a worm in the flower?’ said the stranger, with the sophistry of corruption. ‘Yes,’ answered Immalee, ‘but the worm was not the native of the flower; its own leaves never could have hurt it.’ This led to a discussion, which Immalee’s impregnable innocence, though combined with ardent curiosity and quick apprehension, rendered perfectly harmless to her. Her playful and desultory answers, — her restless eccentricity of imagination, — her keen and piercing, though ill-poised intellectual weapons, — and, above all, her instinctive and unfailing tact in matters of right and wrong, formed altogether an array that discomfited and baffled the tempter more than if he had been compelled to encounter half the wranglers of the European academies of that day. In the logic of the schools he was well-versed, but in this logic of the heart and of nature, he was ‘ignorance itself.’ It is said, that the ‘awless lion’ crouches before ‘a maid in the pride of her purity.’ The tempter was departing gloomily, when he saw tears start from the bright eyes of Immalee, and caught a wild and dark omen from her innocent grief. ‘And you weep, Immalee?’ ‘Yes,’ said the beautiful being, ‘I always weep when I see the sun set in clouds; and will you, the sun of my heart, set in darkness too? and will you not rise again? will you not?’ and, with the graceful confidence of pure innocence, she pressed her red delicious lip to his hand as she spoke. ‘Will you not? I shall never love my roses and peacocks if you do not return, for they cannot speak to me as you do, nor can I give them one thought, but you can give me many. Oh, I would like to have many thoughts about the world that suffers, from which you came; and I believe you came from it, for, till I saw you, I never felt a pain that was not pleasure; but now, it is all pain when I think you will not return.’ — ‘I will return,’ said the stranger, ‘beautiful Immalee, and will shew you, at my return, a glimpse of that world from which I come, and in which you will soon be an inmate.’ — ‘But shall I see you there,’ said Immalee, ‘otherwise how shall I talk thoughts? — ‘Oh yes, — oh certainly.’ — ‘But why do you repeat the same words twice; your once would have been enough.’ — ‘Well then, yes.’ — ‘Then take this rose from me, and let us inhale its odour together, as I say to my friend in the fountain, when I bend to kiss it; but my friend withdraws its rose before I have tasted it, and I leave mine on the water. Will you not take my rose,’ said the beautiful suppliant, bending towards him. ‘I will,’ said the stranger; and he took a flower from the cluster Immalee held out to him. It was a withered one. He snatched it, and hid it in his breast. ‘And will you go without a canoe across that dark sea?’ said Immalee. — ‘We shall meet again, and meet in the world of suffering,’ said the stranger. — ‘Thank you, — oh, thank you,’ repeated Immalee, as she saw him plunge fearless amid the surf. The stranger answered only, ‘We shall meet again.’ Twice, as he parted, he threw a glance at the beautiful and isolated being; a lingering of humanity trembled round his heart, — but he tore the withered rose from his bosom, and to the waved arm and angel-smile of Immalee, he answered, ‘We shall meet again.’

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