Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 21

He saw the eternal fire that keeps,

In the unfathomable deeps,

Its power for ever, and made a sign

To the morning prince divine;

Who came across the sulphurous flood,

Obedient to the master-call,

And in angel-beauty stood,

High on his star-lit pedestal.

‘In this part of the manuscript, which I read in the vault of Adonijah the Jew,’ said Monçada, continuing his narrative, ‘there were several pages destroyed, and the contents of many following wholly obliterated — nor could Adonijah supply the deficiency. From the next pages that were legible, it appeared that Isidora imprudently continued to permit her mysterious visitor to frequent the garden at night, and to converse with him from the casement, though unable to prevail on him to declare himself to her family, and perhaps conscious that his declaration would not be too favourably received. Such, at least, appeared to be the meaning of the next lines I could decypher.

‘She had renewed, in these nightly conferences, her former visionary existence. Her whole day was but a long thought of the hour at which she expected to see him. In the day-time she was silent, pensive, abstracted, feeding on thought — with the evening her spirits perceptibly though softly rose, like those of one who has a secret and incommunicable store of delight; and her mind became like that flower that unfolds its leaves, and diffuses its odours, only on the approach of night.

‘The season favoured this fatal delusion. It was that rage of summer when we begin to respire only towards evening, and the balmy and brilliant night is our day. The day itself is passed in a languid and feverish doze. At night alone she existed, — at her moon-lit casement alone she breathed freely; and never did the moonlight fall on a lovelier form, or gild a more angelic brow, or gleam on eyes that returned more pure and congenial rays. The mutual and friendly light seemed like the correspondence of spirits who glided on the alternate beams, and, passing from the glow of the planet to the glory of a mortal eye, felt that to reside in either was heaven.

‘She lingered at that casement till she imagined that the clipped and artificially straitened treillage of the garden was the luxuriant and undulating foliage of the trees of her paradise isle — that the flowers had the same odour as that of the untrained and spontaneous roses that once showered their leaves under her naked feet — that the birds sung to her as they had once done when the vesper-hymn of her pure heart ascended along with their closing notes, and formed the holiest and most acceptable anthem that perhaps ever wooed the evening-breeze to waft it to heaven.

‘This delusion would soon cease. The stiff and stern monotony of the parterre, where even the productions of nature held their place as if under the constraint of duty, forced the conviction of its unnatural regularity on her eye and soul, and she turned to heaven for relief. Who does not, even in the first sweet agony of passion? Then we tell that tale to heaven which we would not trust to the ear of mortal — and in the withering hour that must come to all whose love is only mortal, we again call on that heaven which we have intrusted with our secret, to send us back one bright messenger of consolation on those thousand rays that its bright, and cold, and passionless orbs, are for ever pouring on the earth as if in mockery. We ask, but is the petition heard or answered? We weep, but do not we feel that those tears are like rain falling on the sea? Mare infructuosum. No matter. Revelation assures us there is a period coming, when all petitions suited to our state shall be granted, and when ‘tears shall be wiped from all eyes.’ In revelation, then, let us trust — in any thing but our own hearts. But Isidora had not yet learned that theology of the skies, whose text is, ‘Let us go into the house of mourning.’ To her still the night was day, and her sun was the ‘moon walking in its brightness.’ When she beheld it, the recollections of the isle rushed on her heart like a flood; and a figure soon appeared to recal and to realize them.

‘That figure appeared to her every night without disturbance or interruption; and though her knowledge of the severe restraint and regularity of the household caused her some surprise at the facility with which Melmoth apparently defied both, and visited the garden every night, yet such was the influence of her former dream-like and romantic existence, that his continued presence, under circumstances so extraordinary, never drew from her a question with regard to the means by which he was enabled to surmount difficulties insurmountable to all others.

‘There were, indeed, two extraordinary circumstances attendant on these meetings. Though seeing each other again in Spain, after an interval of three years elapsing since they had parted on the shores of an isle in the Indian sea, neither had ever inquired what circumstances could have led to a meeting so unexpected and extraordinary. On Isidora’s part this incurious feeling was easily accounted for. Her former existence had been one of such a fabulous and fantastic character, that the improbable had become familiar to her, — and the familiar only, improbable. Wonders were her natural element; and she felt, perhaps, less surprised at seeing Melmoth in Spain, than when she first beheld him treading the sands of her lonely island. With Melmoth the cause was different, though the effect was the same. His destiny forbid alike curiosity or surprise. The world could show him no greater marvel than his own existence; and the facility with which he himself passed from region to region, mingling with, yet distinct from all his species, like a wearied and uninterested spectator rambling through the various seats of some vast theatre, where he knows none of the audience, would have prevented his feeling astonishment, had he encountered Isidora on the summit of the Andes.

‘During a month, through the course of which she had tacitly permitted these nightly visits beneath her casement — (at a distance which indeed might have defied Spanish jealousy itself to devise matter of suspicion out of, — the balcony of her window being nearly fourteen feet above the level of the garden, where Melmoth stood) — during this month, Isidora rapidly, but imperceptibly, graduated through those stages of feeling which all who love have alike experienced, whether the stream of passion be smooth or obstructed. In the first, she was full of anxiety to speak and to listen, to hear and to be heard. She had all the wonders of her new existence to relate; and perhaps that indefinite and unselfish hope of magnifying herself in the eyes of him she loved, which induces us in our first encounter to display all the eloquence, all the powers, all the attractions we possess, not with the pride of a competitor, but with the humiliation of a victim. The conquered city displays all its wealth in hopes of propitiating the conqueror. It decorates him with all its spoils, and feels prouder to behold him arrayed in them, than when she wore them in triumph herself. That is the first bright hour of excitement, of trembling, but hopeful and felicitous anxiety. Then we think we never can display enough of talent, of imagination, of all that can interest, of all that can dazzle. We pride ourselves in the homage we receive from society, from the hope of sacrificing that homage to our beloved — we feel a pure and almost spiritualized delight in our own praises, from imagining they render us more worthy of meriting his, from whom we have received the grace of love to deserve them — we glorify ourselves, that we may be enabled to render back the glory to him from whom we received it, and for whom we have kept it in trust, only to tender it back with that rich and accumulated interest of the heart, of which we would pay the uttermost farthing, if the payment exacted the last vibration of its fibres, — the last drop of its blood. No saint who ever viewed a miracle performed by himself with a holy and self-annihilating abstraction from seity, has perhaps felt a purer sentiment of perfect devotedness, than the female who, in her first hours of love, offers, at the feet of her worshipped one, the brilliant wreath of music, painting, and eloquence, — and only hopes, with an unuttered sigh, that the rose of love will not be unnoticed in the garland.

‘Oh! how delicious it is to such a being (and such was Isidora) to touch her harp amid crowds, and watch, when the noisy and tasteless bravoes have ceased, for the heart-drawn sigh of the one, to whom alone her soul, not her fingers, have played, — and whose single sigh is heard, and heard alone, amid the plaudits of thousands! Yet how delicious to her to whisper to herself, ‘I heard his sigh, but he has heard the applause!’

‘And when she glides through the dance, and in touching, with easy and accustomed grace, the hands of many, she feels there is but one hand whose touch she can recognize; and, waiting for its thrilling and life-like vibration, moves on like a statue, cold and graceful, till the Pygmalion-touch warms her into woman, and the marble melts into flesh under the hands of the resistless moulder. And her movements betray, at that moment, the unwonted and half-unconscious impulses of that fair image to which love had given life, and who luxuriated in the vivid and newly-tried enjoyment of that animation which the passion of her lover had breathed into her frame. And when the splendid portfolio is displayed, or the richly-wrought tapestry expanded by outstretched arms, and cavaliers gaze, and ladies envy, and every eye is busy in examination, and every tongue loud in praise, just in the inverted proportion of the ability of the one to scrutinize with accuracy, and the other to applaud with taste — then to throw round the secret silent glance, that searches for that eye whose light alone, to her intoxicated gaze, contains all judgment, all taste, all feeling — for that lip whose very censure would be dearer than the applause of a world! — To hear, with soft and submissive tranquillity, censure and remark, praise and comment, but to turn for ever the appealing look to one who alone can understand, and whose swiftly-answering glance can alone reward it! — This — this had been Isidora’s hope. Even in the isle where he first saw her in the infancy of her intellect, she had felt the consciousness of superior powers, which were then her solace, not her pride. Her value for herself rose with her devotion to him. Her passion became her pride: and the enlarged resources of her mind, (for Christianity under its most corrupt form enlarges every mind), made her at first believe, that to behold her admired as she was for her loveliness, her talents, and her wealth, would compel this proudest and most eccentric of beings to prostrate himself before her, or at least to acknowledge the power of those acquirements which she had so painfully been arrived at the knowledge of, since her involuntary introduction into European society.

‘This had been her hope during the earlier period of his visits; but innocent and flattering to its object as it was, she was disappointed. To Melmoth ‘nothing was new under the sun.’ Talent was to him a burden. He knew more than man could tell him, or woman either. Accomplishments were a bauble — the rattle teazed his ear, and he flung it away. Beauty was a flower he looked on only to scorn, and touched only to wither. Wealth and distinction he appreciated as they deserved, but not with the placid disdain of the philosopher, or the holy abstraction of the saint, but with that ‘fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation,’ to which he believed their possessors irreversibly devoted, and to the infliction of which he looked forward with perhaps a feeling like that of those executioners who, at the command of Mithridates, poured the melted ore of his golden chains down the throat of the Roman ambassador.

‘With such feelings, and others that cannot be told, Melmoth experienced an indescribable relief from the eternal fire that was already kindled within him, in the perfect and unsullied freshness of what may be called the untrodden verdure of Immalee’s heart, — for she was Immalee still to him. She was the Oasis of his desert — the fountain at which he drank, and forgot his passage over the burning sands — and the burning sands to which his passage must conduct him. He sat under the shade of the gourd, and forgot the worm was working at its root; — perhaps the undying worm that gnawed, and coiled, and festered in his own heart, might have made him forget the corrosions of that he himself had sown in hers.

‘Isidora, before the second week of their interview, had lowered her pretensions. She had given up the hope to interest or to dazzle — that hope which is twin-born with love in the purest female heart. She now had concentrated all her hopes, and all her heart, no longer in the ambition to be beloved, but in the sole wish to love. She no longer alluded to the enlargement of her faculties, the acquisition of new powers, and the expansion and cultivation of her taste. She ceased to speak — she sought only to listen — then her wish subsided into that quiet listening for his form alone, which seemed to transfer the office of hearing into the eyes, or rather, to identify both. She saw him long before he appeared, — and heard him though he did not speak. They have been in each other’s presence for the short hours of a Spanish summer’s night, — Isidora’s eyes alternately fixed on the sun-like moon, and on her mysterious lover, — while he, without uttering a word, leaned against the pillars of her balcony, or the trunk of the giant myrtle-tree, which cast the shade he loved, even by night, over his portentous expression, — and they never uttered a word to each other, till the waving of Isidora’s hand, as the dawn appeared, was the tacit signal for their parting.

‘This is the marked graduation of profound feeling. Language is no longer necessary to those whose beating hearts converse audibly — whose eyes, even by moonlight, are more intelligible to each other’s stolen and shadowed glances, than the broad converse of face to face in the brightest sunshine — to whom, in the exquisite inversion of earthly feeling and habit, darkness is light, and silence eloquence.

‘At their last interviews, Isidora sometimes spoke, — but it was only to remind her lover, in a soft and chastened tone, of a promise which it seems he had at one time made of disclosing himself to her parents, and demanding her at their hands. Something she murmured also of her declining health — her exhausted spirits — her breaking heart — the long delay — the hope deferred — the mysterious meeting; and while she spoke she wept, but hid her tears from him.

‘It is thus, Oh God! we are doomed (and justly doomed when we fix our hearts on any thing below thee) to feel those hearts repelled like the dove who hovered over the shoreless ocean, and found not a spot where her foot might rest, — not a green leaf to bring back in her beak. Oh that the ark of mercy may open to such souls, and receive them from that stormy world of deluge and of wrath, with which they are unable to contend, and where they can find no resting-place!

‘Isidora now had arrived at the last stage of that painful pilgrimage through which she had been led by a stern and reluctant guide.

‘In its first, with the innocent and venial art of woman, she had tried to interest him by the display of her new acquirements, without the consciousness that they were not new to him. The harmony of civilized society, of which she was at once weary and proud, was discord to his ear. He had examined all the strings that formed this curious but ill-constructed instrument, and found them all false.

‘In the second, she was satisfied with merely beholding him. His presence formed the atmosphere of her existence — in it alone she breathed. She said to herself, as evening approached, ‘I shall see him!’ — and the burden of life rolled from her heart as she internally uttered the words. The constraint, the gloom, the monotony of her existence, vanished like clouds at the sun, or rather like those clouds assuming such gorgeous and resplendent colours, that they seemed to have been painted by the finger of happiness itself. The brilliant hue diffused itself over every object of her eye and heart. Her mother appeared no longer a cold and gloomy bigot, and even her brother seemed kind. There was not a tree in the garden whose foliage was not illumined as by the light of a setting sun; and the breeze spoke to her in a voice whose melody was borrowed from her own heart.

‘When at length she saw him, — when she said to herself, He is there, — she felt as if all the felicity of earth was comprised in that single sensation, — at least she felt that all her own was. She no longer indulged the wish to attract or to subdue him — absorbed in his existence, she forgot her own — immersed in the consciousness of her own felicity, she lost the wish, or rather the pride, of BESTOWING it. In the impassioned revelry of the heart, she flung the pearl of existence into the draught in which she pledged her lover, and saw it melt away without a sigh. But now she was beginning to feel, that for this intensity of feeling, this profound devotedness, she was entitled at least to an honourable acknowledgement on the part of her lover; and that the mysterious delay in which her existence was wasted, might make that acknowledgement come perhaps too late. She expressed this to him; but to these appeals, (not the least affecting of which had no language but that of looks), he replied only by a profound but uneasy silence, or by a levity whose wild and frightful sallies had something in them still more alarming.

‘At times he appeared even to insult the heart over which he had triumphed, and to affect to doubt his conquest with the air of one who is revelling in its certainty, and who mocks the captive by asking ‘if it is really in chains?’

‘You do not love?’ he would say; — ‘you cannot love me at least. Love, in your happy Christian country, must be the result of cultivated taste, — of harmonized habits, — of a felicitous congeniality of pursuits, — of thought, and hopes, and feelings, that, in the sublime language of the Jewish poet, (prophet I meant), ‘tell and certify to each other; and though they have neither speech or language, a voice is heard among them.’ You cannot love a being repulsive in his appearance, — eccentric in his habits, — wild and unsearchable in his feelings, — and inaccessible in the settled purpose of his fearful and fearless existence. No,’ he added in a melancholy and decided tone of voice, ‘you cannot love me under the circumstances of your new existence. Once — but that is past. — You are now a baptized daughter of the Catholic church, — the member of a civilized community, — the child of a family that knows not the stranger. What, then, is there between me and thee, Isidora, or, as your Fra Jose would phrase it, (if he knows so much Greek), τι εμοι και σοι.’ — ‘I loved you,’ answered the Spanish maiden, speaking in the same pure, firm, and tender voice in which she had spoken when she first was the sole goddess of her fairy and flowery isle; ‘I loved you before I was a Christian. They have changed my creed — but they never can change my heart. I love you still — I will be yours for ever! On the shore of the desolate isle, — from the grated window of my Christian prison, — I utter the same sounds. What can woman, what can man, in all the boasted superiority of his character and feeling, (which I have learned only since I became a Christian, or an European), do more? You but insult me when you appear to doubt that feeling, which you may wish to have analysed, because you do not experience or cannot comprehend it. Tell me, then, what is it to love? I defy all your eloquence, all your sophistry, to answer the question as truly as I can. If you would wish to know what is love, inquire not at the tongue of man, but at the heart of woman.’ — ‘What is love?’ said Melmoth; ‘is that the question?’ — ‘You doubt that I love,’ said Isidora — ‘tell me, then, what is love?’ — ‘You have imposed on me a task,’ said Melmoth smiling, but not in mirth, ‘so congenial to my feelings and habits of thought, that the execution will doubtless be inimitable. To love, beautiful Isidora, is to live in a world of the heart’s own creation — all whose forms and colours are as brilliant as they are deceptive and unreal. To those who love there is neither day or night, summer or winter, society or solitude. They have but two eras in their delicious but visionary existence, — and those are thus marked in the heart’s calendar — presence — absence. These are the substitutes for all the distinctions of nature and society. The world to them contains but one individual, — and that individual is to them the world as well as its single inmate. The atmosphere of his presence is the only air they can breathe in, — and the light of his eye the only sun of their creation, in whose rays they bask and live.’ — ‘Then I love,’ said Isidora internally. ‘To love,’ pursued Melmoth, ‘is to live in an existence of perpetual contradictions — to feel that absence is insupportable, and yet be doomed to experience the presence of the object as almost equally so — to be full of ten thousand thoughts while he is absent, the confession of which we dream will render our next meeting delicious, yet when the hour of meeting arrives, to feel ourselves, by a timidity alike oppressive and unaccountable, robbed of the power of expressing one — to be eloquent in his absence, and dumb in his presence — to watch for the hour of his return as for the dawn of a new existence, yet when it arrives, to feel all those powers suspended which we imagined it would restore to energy — to be the statue that meets the sun, but without the music his presence should draw from it — to watch for the light of his looks, as a traveller in the deserts looks for the rising of the sun; and when it bursts on our awakened world, to sink fainting under its overwhelming and intolerable glory, and almost wish it were night again — this is love!’ — ‘Then I believe I love,’ said Isidora half audibly. ‘To feel,’ added Melmoth with increasing energy, ‘that our existence is so absorbed in his, that we have lost all consciousness but of his presence — all sympathy but of his enjoyments — all sense of suffering but when he suffers — to be only because he is — and to have no other use of being but to devote it to him, while our humiliation increases in proportion to our devotedness; and the lower you bow before your idol, the prostrations seem less and less worthy of being the expression of your devotion, — till you are only his, when you are not yourself — To feel that to the sacrifice of yourself, all other sacrifices are inferior; and in it, therefore, all other sacrifices must be included. That she who loves, must remember no longer her individual existence, her natural existence — that she must consider parents, country, nature, society, religion itself — (you tremble, Immalee — Isidora I would say) — only as grains of incense flung on the altar of the heart, to burn and exhale their sacrificed odours there.’ — ‘Then I do love,’ said Isidora; and she wept and trembled indeed at this terrible confession — ‘for I have forgot the ties they told me were natural, — the country of which they said I was a native. I will renounce, if it must be so, parents, — country, — the habits which I have acquired, — the thoughts which I have learnt, — the religion which I— Oh no! my God! my Saviour!’ she exclaimed, darting from the casement, and clinging to the crucifix — ‘No! I will never renounce you! — I will never renounce you! — you will not forsake me in the hour of death! — you will not desert me in the moment of trial! — you will not forsake me at this moment!’

‘By the wax-lights that burned in her apartment, Melmoth could see her prostrate before the sacred image. He could see that devotion of the heart which made it throb almost visibly in the white and palpitating bosom — the clasped hands that seemed imploring aid against that rebellious heart, whose beatings they vainly struggled to repress; and then, locked and upraised, asked forgiveness from heaven for their fruitless opposition. He could see the wild but profound devotion with which she clung to the crucifix, — and he shuddered to behold it. He never gazed on that symbol, — his eyes were immediately averted; — yet now he looked long and intently at her as she knelt before it. He seemed to suspend the diabolical instinct that governed his existence, and to view her for the pure pleasure of sight. Her prostrate figure, — her rich robes that floated round her like drapery round an inviolate shrine, — her locks of light streaming over her naked shoulders, — her small white hands locked in agony of prayer, — the purity of expression that seemed to identify the agent with the employment, and made one believe they saw not a suppliant, but the embodied spirit of supplication, and feel, that lips like those had never held communion with aught below heaven. — All this Melmoth beheld; and feeling that in this he could never participate, he turned away his head in stern and bitter agony, — and the moon-beam that met his burning eye saw no tear there.

‘Had he looked a moment longer, he might have beheld a change in the expression of Isidora too flattering to his pride, if not to his heart. He might have marked all that profound and perilous absorption of the soul, when it is determined to penetrate the mysteries of love or of religion, and chuse ‘whom it will serve’ — that pause on the brink of an abyss, in which all its energies, its passions, and its powers, are to be immersed — that pause, while the balance is trembling (and we tremble with it) between God and man.

‘In a few moments, Isidora arose from before the cross. There was more composure, more elevation in her air. There was also that air of decision which an unreserved appeal to the Searcher of hearts never fails to communicate even to the weakest of those he has made.

‘Melmoth, returning to his station beneath the casement, looked on her for some time with a mixture of compassion and wonder — feelings that he hasted to repel, as he eagerly demanded, ‘What proof are you ready to give of that love I have described — of that which alone deserves the name?’ — ‘Every proof,’ answered Isidora firmly, ‘that the most devoted of the daughters of man can give — my heart and hand, — my resolution to be yours amid mystery and grief, — to follow you in exile and loneliness (if it must be) through the world!’

‘As she spoke, there was a light in her eye, — a glow on her brow, — an expansive and irradiated sublimity around her figure, — that made it appear like the rare and glorious vision of the personified union of passion and purity, — as if those eternal rivals had agreed to reconcile their claims, to meet on the confines of their respective dominions, and had selected the form of Isidora as the temple in which their league might be hallowed, and their union consummated — and never were the opposite divinities so deliciously lodged. They forgot their ancient feuds, and agreed to dwell there for ever.

‘There was a grandeur, too, about her slender form, that seemed to announce that pride of purity, — that confidence in external weakness, and internal energy, — that conquest without armour, — that victory over the victor, which makes the latter blush at his triumph, and compels him to bow to the standard of the besieged fortress at the moment of its surrender. She stood like a woman devoted, but not humiliated by her devotion — uniting tenderness with magnanimity — willing to sacrifice every thing to her lover, but that which must lessen the value of the sacrifice in his eyes — willing to be the victim, but feeling worthy to be the priestess.

‘Melmoth gazed on her as she stood. One generous, one human feeling, throbbed in his veins, and thrilled in his heart. He saw her in her beauty, — her devotedness, — her pure and perfect innocence, — her sole feeling for one who could not, by the fearful power of his unnatural existence, feel for mortal being. He turned aside, and did not weep; or if he did, wiped away his tears, as a fiend might do, with his burning talons, when he sees a new victim arrive for torture; and, repenting of his repentance, rends away the blot of compunction, and arms himself for his task of renewed infliction.

‘Well, then, Isidora, you will give me no proof of your love? Is that what I must understand?’ — ‘Demand,’ answered the innocent and high-souled Isidora, ‘any proof that woman ought to give — more is not in human power — less would render the proof of no value!’

‘Such was the impression that these words made on Melmoth, whose heart, however, plunged in unutterable crimes, had never been polluted by sensuality, that he started from the spot where he stood, — gazed on her for a moment, — and then exclaimed, ‘Well! you have given me proofs of love unquestionable! It remains for me to give you a proof of that love which I have described — of that love which only you could inspire — of that love which, under happier circumstances, I might — But no matter — it is not my business to analyse the feeling, but to give the proof.’ He extended his arm toward the casement at which she stood. — ‘Would you then consent to unite your destiny with mine? Would you indeed be mine amid mystery and sorrow? Would you follow me from land to sea, and from sea to land, — a restless, homeless, devoted being, — with the brand on your brow, and the curse on your name? Would you indeed be mine? — my own — my only Immalee?’ — ‘I would — I will!’ — ‘Then,’ answered Melmoth, ‘on this spot receive the proof of my eternal gratitude. On this spot I renounce your sight! — I disannul your engagement! — I fly from you for ever!’ And as he spoke, he disappeared.’

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