Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 16

Più non ho la dolce speranza.


‘Seven mornings and evenings Immalee paced the sands of her lonely isle, without seeing the stranger. She had still his promise to console her, that they should meet in the world of suffering; and this she repeated to herself as if it was full of hope and consolation. In this interval she tried to educate herself for her introduction into this world, and it was beautiful to see her attempting, from vegetable and animal analogies, to form some image of the incomprehensible destiny of man. In the shade she watched the withering flower. — ‘The blood that ran red through its veins yesterday is purple to-day, and will be black and dry to-morrow,’ she said; ‘but it feels no pain — it dies patiently, — and the ranunculus and tulip near it are untouched by grief for their companion, or their colours would not be so resplendent. But can it be thus in the world that thinks? Could I see him wither and die, without withering and dying along with him. Oh no! when that flower fades, I will be the dew that falls over him!’

‘She attempted to enlarge her comprehension, by observing the animal world. A young loxia had fallen dead from its pendent nest; and Immalee, looking into the aperture which that intelligent bird forms at the lower extremity of the nest to secure it from birds of prey, perceived the old ones with fire-flies in their small beaks, their young one lying dead before them. At this sight Immalee burst into tears. — ‘Ah! you cannot weep,’ she said, ‘what an advantage I have over you! You eat, though your young one, your own one, is dead; but could I ever drink of the milk of the cocoa, if he could no longer taste it? I begin to comprehend what he said — to think, then, is to suffer — and a world of thought must be a world of pain! But how delicious are these tears! Formerly I wept for pleasure — but there is a pain sweeter than pleasure, that I never felt till I beheld him. Oh! who would not think, to have the joy of tears?’

‘But Immalee did not occupy this interval solely in reflection’; a new anxiety began to agitate her; and in the intervals of her meditation and her tears, she searched with avidity for the most glowing and fantastically wreathed shells to deck her arms and hair with. She changed her drapery of flowers every day, and never thought them fresh after the first hour; then she filled her largest shells with the most limpid water, and her hollow cocoa nuts with the most delicious figs, interspersed with roses, and arranged them picturesquely on the stone bench of the ruined pagoda. The time, however, passed over without the arrival of the stranger, and Immalee, on visiting her fairy banquet the next day, wept over the withered fruit, but dried her eyes, and hastened to replace them.

‘She was thus employed on the eighth morning, when she saw the stranger approach; and the wild and innocent delight with which she bounded towards him, excited in him for a moment a feeling of gloomy and reluctant compunction, which Immalee’s quick susceptibility traced in his pausing step and averted eye. She stood trembling in lovely and pleading diffidence, as if intreating pardon for an unconscious offence, and asking permission to approach by the very attitude in which she forbore it, while tears stood in her eyes ready to fall at another repelling motion. This sight ‘whetted his almost blunted purpose.’ She must learn to suffer, to qualify her to become my pupil, he thought. ‘Immalee, you weep,’ he added, approaching her. ‘Oh yes!’ said Immalee, smiling like a spring morning through her tears; ‘you are to teach me to suffer, and I shall soon be very fit for your world — but I had rather weep for you, than smile on a thousand roses.’ — ‘Immalee,’ said the stranger, repelling the tenderness that melted him in spite of himself, ‘Immalee, I come to shew you something of the world of thought you are so anxious to inhabit, and of which you must soon become an inmate. Ascend this hill where the palm-trees are clustering, and you shall see a glimpse of part of it.’ — ‘But I would like to see the whole, and all at once!’ said Immalee, with the natural avidity of thirsty and unfed intellect, that believes it can swallow all things, and digest all things. ‘The whole, and all at once!’ said her conductor, turning to smile at her as she bounded after him, breathless and glowing with newly excited feeling. ‘I doubt the part you will see to-night will be more than enough to satiate even your curiosity.’ As he spoke he drew a tube from his vest, and bid her apply it to her sight. The Indian obeyed him; but, after gazing a moment, uttered the emphatic exclamation, ‘I am there! — or are they here?’ and sunk on the earth in a frenzy of delight. She rose again in a moment, and eagerly seizing the telescope, applied it in a wrong direction, which disclosed merely the sea to her view, and exclaimed sadly, ‘Gone! — gone! — all that beautiful world lived and died in a moment — all that I love die so — my dearest roses live not half so long as those I neglect — you were absent for seven moons since I first saw you, and the beautiful world lived only a moment.’

‘The stranger again directed the telescope towards the shore of India, from which they were not far distant, and Immalee again exclaimed in rapture, ‘Alive and more beautiful than ever! — all living, thinking things! — their very walk thinks. No mute fishes, and senseless trees, but wonderful rocks,1 on which they look with pride, as if they were the works of their own hands. Beautiful rocks! how I love the perfect straitness of your sides, and the crisped and flower-like knots of your decorated tops! Oh that flowers grew, and birds fluttered round you, and then I would prefer you even to the rocks under which I watch the setting sun! Oh what a world must that be where nothing is natural, and every thing beautiful! — thought must have done all that. But, how little every thing is! — thought should have made every thing larger — thought should be a god. But,’ she added with quick intelligence and self-accusing diffidence, ‘perhaps I am wrong. Sometimes I have thought I could lay my hand on the top of a palm-tree, but when, after a long, long time, I came close to it, I could not have reached its lowest leaf were I ten times higher than I am. Perhaps your beautiful world may grow higher as I approach it.’ — ‘Hold, Immalee,’ said the stranger, taking the telescope from her hands, ‘to enjoy this sight you should understand it.’ — ‘Oh yes!’ said Immalee, with submissive anxiety, as the world of sense rapidly lost ground in her imagination against the new-found world of mind, — ‘yes — let me think.’ — ‘Immalee, have you any religion?’ said the visitor, as an indescribable feeling of pain made his pale brow still paler. Immalee, quick in understanding and sympathising with physical feeling, darted away at these words, returned in a moment with a banyan leaf, with which she wiped the drops from his livid forehead; and then seating herself at his feet, in an attitude of profound but eager attention, repeated, ‘Religion! what is that? is it a new thought?’ — ‘It is the consciousness of a Being superior to all worlds and their inhabitants, because he is the Maker of all, and will be their judge — of a Being whom we cannot see, but in whose power and presence we must believe, though invisible — of one who is every where unseen; always acting, though never in motion; hearing all things, but never heard.’ Immalee interrupted with an air of distraction — ‘Hold! too many thoughts will kill me — let me pause. I have seen the shower that came to refresh the rose-tree beat it to the earth.’ After an effort of solemn recollection, she added, ‘The voice of dreams told me something like that before I was born, but it is so long ago, — sometimes I have had thoughts within me like that voice. I have thought I loved the things around me too much, and that I should love things beyond me — flowers that could not fade, and a sun that never sets. I could have sprung, like a bird into the air, after such a thought — but there was no one to shew me that path upward.’ And the young enthusiast lifted towards heaven eyes in which trembled the tears of ecstatic imaginings, and then turned their mute pleadings on the stranger.

1 Intellige ‘buildings.’

‘It is right,’ he continued, ‘not only to have thoughts of this Being, but to express them by some outward acts. The inhabitants of the world you are about to see, call this, worship, — and they have adopted (a Satanic smile curled his lip as he spoke) very different modes; so different, that, in fact, there is but one point in which they all agree — that of making their religion a torment; — the religion of some prompting them to torture themselves, and the religion of some prompting them to torture others. Though, as I observed, they all agree in this important point, yet unhappily they differ so much about the mode, that there has been much disturbance about it in the world that thinks.’ — ‘In the world that thinks!’ repeated Immalee, ‘Impossible! Surely they must know that a difference cannot be acceptable to Him who is One.’ — ‘And have you then adopted no mode of expressing your thoughts of this Being, that is, of worshipping him?’ said the stranger. — ‘I smile when the sun rises in its beauty, and I weep when I see the evening star rise,’ said Immalee. — ‘And do you recoil at the inconsistencies of varied modes of worship, and yet you yourself employ smiles and tears in your address to the Deity?’ — ‘I do, — for they are both the expressions of joy with me,’ said the poor Indian; ‘the sun is as happy when he smiles through the rain-clouds, as when he burns in the mid-height of heaven, in the fierceness of his beauty; and I am happy whether I smile or I weep.’ — ‘Those whom you are about to see,’ said the stranger, offering her the telescope, ‘are as remote in their forms of worship as smiles from tears; but they are not, like you, equally happy in both.’ Immalee applied her eye to the telescope, and exclaimed in rapture at what she saw. ‘What do you see?’ said the stranger. Immalee described what she saw with many imperfect expressions, which, perhaps, may be rendered more intelligible by the explanatory words of the stranger.

‘You see,’ said he, ‘the coast of India, the shores of the world near you. — There is the black pagoda of Juggernaut, that enormous building on which your eye is first fixed. Beside it stands a Turkish mosque — you may distinguish it by a figure like that of the half-moon. It is the will of him who rules that world, that its inhabitants should worship him by that sign.1 At a small distance you may see a low building with a trident on its summit — that is the temple of Maha-deva, one of the ancient goddesses of the country.’ — ‘But the houses are nothing to me,’ said Immalee, ‘shew me the living things that go there. The houses are not half so beautiful as the rocks on the shore, draperied all over with seaweeds and mosses, and shaded by the distant palm-tree and cocoa.’ — ‘But those buildings,’ said the tempter, ‘are indicative of the various modes of thinking of those who frequent them. If it is into their thoughts you wish to look, you must see them expressed by their actions. In their dealings with each other, men are generally deceitful, but in their dealings with their gods, they are tolerably sincere in the expression of the character they assign them in their imaginations. If that character be formidable, they express fear; if it be one of cruelty, they indicate it by the sufferings they inflict on themselves; if it be gloomy, the image of the god is faithfully reflected in the visage of the worshipper. Look and judge.’

1 Tippoo Saib wished to substitute the Mohamedan for the Indian mythology throughout his dominions. This circumstance, though long antedated, is therefore imaginable.

‘Immalee looked and saw a vast sandy plain, with the dark pagoda of Juggernaut in the perspective. On this plain lay the bones of a thousand skeletons, bleaching in the burning and unmoistened air. A thousand human bodies, hardly more alive, and scarce less emaciated, were trailing their charred and blackened bodies over the sands, to perish under the shadow of the temple, hopeless of ever reaching that of its walls.

‘Multitudes of them dropt dead as they crawled. Multitudes still living, faintly waved their hands, to scare the vultures that hovered nearer and nearer at every swoop, and scooped the poor remnants of flesh from the living bones of the screaming victim, and retreated, with an answering scream of disappointment at the scanty and tasteless morsel they had torn away.

‘Many tried, in their false and fanatic zeal, to double their torments, by crawling through the sands on their hands and knees; but hands through the backs of which the nails had grown, and knees worn literally to the bone, struggled but feebly amid the sands and the skeletons, and the bodies that were soon to be skeletons, and the vultures that were to make them so.

‘Immalee withheld her breath, as if she inhaled the abominable effluvia of this mass of putrefaction, which is said to desolate the shores near the temple of Juggernaut, like a pestilence.

‘Close to this fearful scene, came on a pageant, whose splendour made a brilliant and terrible contrast to the loathsome and withering desolation of animal and intellectual life, amid which its pomp came towering, and sparkling, and trembling on. An enormous fabric, more resembling a moving palace than a triumphal car, supported the inshrined image of Juggernaut, and was dragged forward by the united strength of a thousand human bodies, priests, victims, brahmins, faqueers and all. In spite of this huge force, the impulse was so unequal, that the whole edifice rocked and tottered from time to time, and this singular union of instability and splendour, of trembling decadence and terrific glory, gave a faithful image of the meretricious exterior, and internal hollowness, of idolatrous religion. As the procession moved on, sparkling amid desolation, and triumphant amid death, multitudes rushed forward from time to time, to prostrate themselves under the wheels of the enormous machine, which crushed them to atoms in a moment, and passed on; — others ‘cut themselves with knives and lancets after their manner,’ and not believing themselves worthy to perish beneath the wheels of the idol’s chariot, sought to propitiate him by dying the tracks of those wheels with their blood; — their relatives and friends shouted with delight as they saw the streams of blood dye the car and its line of progress, and hoped for an interest in these voluntary sacrifices, with as much energy, and perhaps as much reason, as the Catholic votarist does in the penance of St Bruno, or the ex-oculation of St Lucia, or the martyrdom of St Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins, which, being interpreted, means the martyrdom of a single female named Undecimilla, which the Catholic legends read Undecim Mille.

‘The procession went on, amid that mixture of rites that characterizes idolatry in all countries, — half resplendent, half horrible — appealing to nature while they rebel against her — mingling flowers with blood, and casting alternately a screaming infant, or a garland of roses, beneath the car of the idol.

‘Such was the picture that presented to the strained, incredulous eyes of Immalee, those mingled features of magnificence and horror, — of joy and suffering, — of crushed flowers and mangled bodies, — of magnificence calling on torture for its triumph, — and the steam of blood and the incense of the rose, inhaled at once by the triumphant nostrils of an incarnate demon, who rode amid the wrecks of nature and the spoils of the heart! Immalee gazed on in horrid curiosity. She saw, by the aid of the telescope, a boy seated on the front of the moving temple, who ‘perfected the praise’ of the loathsome idol, with all the outrageous lubricities of the Phallic worship. From the slightest consciousness of the meaning of this phenomenon, her unimaginable purity protected her as with a shield. It was in vain that the tempter plied her with questions, and hints of explanation, and offers of illustration. He found her chill, indifferent, and even incurious. He gnashed his teeth and gnawed his lip en parenthese. But when she saw mothers cast their infants under the wheels of the car, and then turn to watch the wild and wanton dance of the Almahs, and appear, by their open lips and clapped hands, to keep time to the sound of the silver bells that tinkled round their slight ankles, while their infants were writhing in their dying agony, — she dropt the telescope in horror, and exclaimed, ‘The world that thinks does not feel. I never saw the rose kill the bud!’

‘But look again,’ said the tempter, ‘to that square building of stone, round which a few stragglers are collected, and whose summit is surmounted by a trident, — that is the temple of Maha-deva, a goddess who possesses neither the power or the popularity of the great idol Juggernaut. Mark how her worshippers approach her.’ Immalee looked, and saw women offering flowers, fruits, and perfumes; and some young girls brought birds in cages, whom they set free; others, after making vows for the safety of some absent, sent a small and gaudy boat of paper, illuminated with wax, down the stream of an adjacent river, with injunctions never to sink till it reached him.

‘Immalee smiled with pleasure at the rites of this harmless and elegant superstition. ‘This is not the religion of torment,’ said she. — ‘Look again,’ said the stranger. She did, and beheld those very women whose hands had been employed in liberating birds from their cages, suspending, on the branches of the trees which shadowed the temple of Maha-deva, baskets containing their newborn infants, who were left there to perish with hunger, or be devoured by the birds, while their mothers danced and sung in honour of the goddess.

‘Others were occupied in conveying, apparently with the most zealous and tender watchfulness, their aged parents to the banks of the river, where, after assisting them to perform their ablutions, with all the intensity of filial and divine piety, they left them half immersed in the water, to be devoured by alligators, who did not suffer their wretched prey to linger in long expectation of their horrible death; while others were deposited in the jungles near the banks of the river, where they met with a fate as certain and as horrible, from the tigers who infested it, and whose yell soon hushed the feeble wail of their unresisting victims.

‘Immalee sunk on the earth at this spectacle, and clasping both hands over her eyes, remained speechless with grief and horror.

‘Look yet again,’ said the stranger, ‘the rites of all religions are not so bloody.’ Once more she looked, and saw a Turkish mosque, towering in all the splendour that accompanied the first introduction of the religion of Mahomet among the Hindoos. It reared its gilded domes, and carved minarets, and crescented pinnacles, rich with all the profusion which the decorative imagination of Oriental architecture, at once light and luxuriant, gorgeous and aerial, delights to lavish on its favourite works.

‘A group of stately Turks were approaching the mosque, at the call of the muezzin. Around the building arose neither tree nor shrub; it borrowed neither shade nor ornament from nature; it had none of those soft and graduating shades and hues, which seem to unite the works of God and the creature for the glory of the former, and calls on the inventive magnificence of art, and the spontaneous loveliness of nature, to magnify the Author of both; it stood the independent work and emblem of vigorous hands and proud minds, such as appeared to belong to those who now approached it as worshippers. Their finely featured and thoughtful countenances, their majestic habits, and lofty figures, formed an imposing contrast to the unintellectual expression, the crouching posture, and the half naked squalidness of some poor Hindoos, who, seated on their hams, were eating their mess of rice, as the stately Turks passed on to their devotions. Immalee viewed them with a feeling of awe and pleasure, and began to think there might be some good in the religion professed by these noble-looking beings. But, before they entered the mosque, they spurned and spit at the unoffending and terrified Hindoos; they struck them with the flats of their sabres, and, terming them dogs of idolaters, they cursed them in the name of God and the prophet. Immalee, revolted and indignant at the sight, though she could not hear the words that accompanied it, demanded the reason of it. ‘Their religion,’ said the stranger, ‘binds them to hate all who do not worship as they do.’ — ‘Alas!’ said Immalee, weeping, ‘is not that hatred which their religion teaches, a proof that theirs is the worst? But why,’ she added, her features illuminated with all the wild and sparkling intelligence of wonder, while flushed with recent fears, ‘why do I not see among them some of those lovelier beings, whose habits differ from theirs, and whom you call women? Why do they not worship also; or have they a milder religion of their own?’ — ‘That religion,’ replied the stranger, ‘is not very favourable to those beings, of whom you are the loveliest; it teaches that men shall have different companions in the world of souls; nor does it clearly intimate that women shall ever arrive there. Hence you may see some of these excluded beings wandering amid those stones that designate the place of their dead, repeating prayers for the dead whom they dare not hope to join; and others, who are old and indigent, seated at the doors of the mosque, reading aloud passages from a book lying on their knees, (which they call the Koran), with the hope of soliciting alms, not of exciting devotion.’ At these desolating words, Immalee, who had in vain looked to any of these systems for that hope or solace which her pure spirit and vivid imagination alike thirsted for, felt a recoiling of the soul unutterable at religion thus painted to her, and exhibiting only a frightful picture of blood and cruelty, of the inversion of every principle of nature, and the disruption of every tie of the heart.

‘She flung herself on the ground, and exclaiming, ‘There is no God, if there be none but theirs!’ then, starting up as if to take a last view, in the desperate hope that all was an illusion, she discovered a small obscure building overshaded by palm-trees, and surmounted by a cross; and struck by the unobtrusive simplicity of its appearance, and the scanty number and peaceable demeanour of the few who were approaching it, she exclaimed, that this must be a new religion, and eagerly demanded its name and rites. The stranger evinced some uneasiness at the discovery she had made, and testified still more reluctance to answer the questions which it suggested; but they were pressed with such restless and coaxing importunity, and the beautiful being who urged them made such an artless transition from profound and meditative grief to childish, yet intelligent curiosity, that it was not in man, or more or less than man, to resist her.

‘Her glowing features, as she turned them toward him, with an expression half impatient, half pleading, were indeed those ‘of a stilled infant smiling through its tears.’1 Perhaps, too, another cause might have operated on this prophet of curses, and made him utter a blessing where he meant malediction; but into this we dare not inquire, nor will it ever be fully known till the day when all secrets must be disclosed. However it was, he felt himself compelled to tell her it was a new religion, the religion of Christ, whose rites and worshippers she beheld. ‘But what are the rites?’ asked Immalee. ‘Do they murder their children, or their parents, to prove their love to God? Do they hang them on baskets to perish, or leave them on the banks of rivers to be devoured by fierce and hideous animals?’ — ‘The religion they profess forbids that,’ said the stranger, with reluctant truth; ‘it requires them to honour their parents, and to cherish their children.’ — ‘But why do they not spurn from the entrance to their church those who do not think as they do?’ — ‘Because their religion enjoins them to be mild, benevolent, and tolerant; and neither to reject or disdain those who have not attained its purer light.’ — ‘But why is there no splendour or magnificence in their worship; nothing grand or attractive?’ — ‘Because they know that God cannot be acceptably worshipped but by pure hearts and crimeless hands; and though their religion gives every hope to the penitent guilty, it flatters none with false promises of external devotion supplying the homage of the heart; or artificial and picturesque religion standing in the place of that single devotion to God, before whose throne, though the proudest temples erected to his honour crumble into dust, the heart burns on the altar still, an inextinguishable and acceptable victim.’

1 I trust the absurdity of this quotation here will be forgiven for its beauty. It is borrowed from Miss Baillie, the first dramatic poet of the age.

‘As he spoke, (perhaps constrained by a higher power), Immalee bowed her glowing face to the earth, and then raising it with the look of a new-born angel, exclaimed, ‘Christ shall be my God, and I will be a Christian!’ Again she bowed in the deep prostration which indicates the united submission of soul, and body, and remained in this attitude of absorption so long, that, when she rose, she did not perceive the absence of her companion. — ‘He fled murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night.’

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