Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 23

If he to thee no answer give,

    I’ll give to thee a sign;

A secret known to nought that live,

    Save but to me and mine.

* * * *

Gone to be married. —


‘The whole of the next day was occupied by Donna Clara, to whom letter-writing was a rare, troublesome, and momentous task, in reading over and correcting her answer to her husband’s letter; in which examination she found so much to correct, interline, alter, modify, expunge, and new-model, that finally Donna Clara’s epistle very much resembled the work she was now employed in, namely, that of overcasting a piece of tapestry wrought by her grandmother, representing the meeting of king Solomon and the queen of Sheba. The new work, instead of repairing, made fearful havock among the old; but Donna Clara went on, like her countryman at Mr Peter’s puppet-show, playing away (with her needle) in a perfect shower of back-strokes, forestrokes, side-thrusts, and counter-thrusts, till not a figure in the tapestry could know himself again. The faded face of Solomon was garnished with a florid beard of scarlet silk (which Fra Jose at first told her she must rip out, as it made Solomon very little better than Judas) that made him resemble a boiled scallop. The fardingale of the queen of Sheba was expanded to an enormous hoop, of whose shrunk and pallid wearer it might be truly said, ‘Minima est pars sui. The dog that, in the original tapestry, stood by the spurred and booted heel of the oriental monarch, (who was clad in Spanish costume), by dint of a few tufts of black and yellow satin, was converted into a tiger, — a transformation which his grinning fangs rendered as authentic as heart could wish. And the parrot perched on the queen’s shoulder, with the help of a train of green and gold, which the ignorant mistook for her majesty’s mantle, proved a very passable peacock.

‘As little trace of her original epistle did Donna Clara’s present one bear, as did her elaborate overcasting to the original and painful labours of her grandmother. In both, however, Donna Clara (who scorned to flinch) went over the same ground with dim eye, and patient touch, and inextinguishable and remorseless assiduity. The letter, such as it was, was still sufficiently characteristic of the writer. Some passages of it the reader shall be indulged with, — and we reckon on his gratitude for not insisting on his perusal of the whole. The authentic copy, from which we are favoured with the extracts, runs thus.

‘Your daughter takes to her religion like mother’s milk; and well may she do so, considering that the trunk of our family was planted in the genuine soil of the Catholic church, and that every branch of it must flourish there or perish. For a Neophyte, (as Fra Jose wills me to word it), she is as promising a sprout as one should wish to see flourishing within the pale of the holy church; — and for a heathen, she is so amenable, submissive, and of such maidenly suavity, that for the comportment of her person, and the discreet and virtuous ordering of her mind, I have no Christian mother to envy. Nay, I sometimes take pity on them, when I see the lightness, the exceeding vain carriage, and the unadvised eagerness to be wedded, of the best trained maidens of our country. This our daughter hath nothing of, either in her outward demeanour, or inward mind. She talks little, therefore she cannot think much; and she dreams not of the light devices of love, and is therefore well qualified for the marriage proposed unto her.

‘One thing, dear spouse of my soul, I would have thee to take notice of, and guard like the apple of thine eye, — our daughter is deranged, but never, on thy discretion, mention this to Don Montilla, even though he were the descendant in the right line of the Campeador, or of Gonsalvo di Cordova. Her derangement will in no wise impede or contravene her marriage, — for be it known to thee, it breaks out but at times, and at such times, that the most jealous eye of man could not spy it, unless he had a foretaught intimation of it. She hath strange fantasies swimming in her brain, such as, that heretics and heathens shall not be everlastingly damned — (God and the saints protect us!) — which must clearly proceed from madness, — but which her Catholic husband, if ever he comes to the knowledge of them, shall know how to expel, by aid of the church, and conjugal authority. That thou may’st better know the truth of what I hereby painfully certify, the saints and Fra Jose (who will not let me tell a lie, because he in a manner holds my pen) can witness, that about four days before we left Madrid, as we went to church, and I was about, while ascending the steps, to dole alms to a mendicant woman wrapt in a mantle, who held up a naked child for the receiving of charity, your daughter twitched my sleeve, while she whispered, ‘Madam, she cannot be mother to that child, for she is covered, and her child is naked. If she were its mother, she would cover her child, and not be comfortably wrapt herself.’ True it was, I found afterwards the wretched woman had hired the child from its more wretched mother, and my alms had paid the price of its hire for the day; but still that not a whit disproved our daughter insane, inasmuch as it showed her ignorant of the fashion and usages of the beggars of the country, and did in some degree shew a doubt of the merit of alms-deeds, which thou know’st none but heretics or madmen could deny. Other and grievous proofs of her insanity doth she give daily; but not willing to incumber you with ink, (which Fra Jose willeth me to call atramentum), I will add but a few particulars to arouse your dormant faculties, which may be wrapt in lethargic obliviousness by the anodyne of my somniferous epistolation.’

‘Reverend Father,’ said Donna Clara, looking up to Fra Jose, who had dictated the last line, ‘Don Francisco will know the last line not to be mine — he heard it in one of your sermons. Let me add the extraordinary proof of my daughter’s insanity at the ball.’ — ‘Add or diminish, compose or confound, what you will, in God’s name!’ said Fra Jose, vexed at the frequent erazures and lituras which disfigured the lines of his dictation; ‘for though in style I may somewhat boast of my superiority, in scratches no hen on the best dunghill in Spain can contend with you! On, then, in the name of all the saints! — and when it pleases heaven to send an interpreter to your husband, we may hope to hear from him by the next post-angel, for surely such a letter was never written on earth.’

‘With this encouragement and applause, Donna Clara proceeded to relate sundry other errors and wanderings of her daughter, which, to a mind so swathed, crippled, and dwarfed, by the ligatures which the hand of custom had twined round it since its first hour of consciousness, might well have appeared like the aberrations of insanity. Among other proofs, she mentioned that Isidora’s first introduction to a Christian and Catholic church, was on that night of penitence in passion-week, when, the lights being extinguished, the miserere is chaunted in profound darkness, the penitents macerate themselves, and groans are heard on every side instead of prayers, as if the worship of Moloch was renewed without its fires; — struck with horror at the sounds she heard, and the darkness which surrounded her, Isidora demanded what they were doing. — ‘Worshipping God,’ was the answer.

‘At the expiration of Lent, she was introduced to a brilliant assembly, where the gay fandango was succeeded by the soft notes of the seguedilla, — and the crackling of the castanets, and the tinkling of the guitars, marked alternate time to the light and ecstatic step of youth, and the silvery and love-tuned voice of beauty. Touched with delight at all she saw and heard, — the smiles that dimpled and sparkled over her beautiful features reflecting every shade of pleasure they encountered, like the ripplings of a brook kissed by the moon-beams, — she eagerly asked, ‘And are not these worshipping God?’ — ‘Out on it, daughter!’ interposed Donna Clara, who happened to overhear the question; ‘This is a vain and sinful pastime, — the invention of the devil to delude the children of folly, — hateful in the eyes of heaven and its saints, — and abhorred and renounced by the faithful.’ — ‘Then there are two Gods,’ said Isidora sighing, ‘the God of smiles and happiness, and the God of groans and blood. Would I could serve the former!’ — ‘I will take order you shall serve the latter, heathenish and profane that you are!’ answered Donna Clara, as she hurried her from the assembly, shocked at the scandal which her words might have given. These and many similar anecdotes were painfully indited in Donna Clara’s long epistle, which, after being folded and sealed by Fra Jose, (who swore by the habit he wore, he had rather study twenty pages of the Polyglot fasting, than read it over once more), was duly forwarded to Don Francisco.

‘The habits and movements of Don Francisco were, like those of his nation, so deliberate and dilatory, and his aversion to writing letters, except on mercantile subjects, so well known, that Donna Clara was actually alarmed at receiving, in the evening of the day in which her epistle was dispatched, another letter from her husband.

‘Its contents must be guessed to be sufficiently singular, when the result was, that Donna Clara and Fra Jose sat up over them nearly the whole of the night, in consultation, anxiety, and fear. So intense was their conference, that it is recorded it was never interrupted even by the lady telling her beads, or the monk thinking of his supper. All the artificial habits, the customary indulgences, the factitious existence of both, were merged in the real genuine fear which pervaded their minds, and which asserted its power over both in painful and exacting proportion to their long and hardy rejection of its influence. Their minds succumbed together, and sought and gave in vain, feeble counsel, and fruitless consolation. They read over and over again this extraordinary letter, and at every reading their minds grew darker, — and their counsels more perplexed, — and their looks more dismal. Ever and anon they turned their eyes on it, as it lay open before them on Donna Clara’s ebony writing-desk, and then starting, asked each other by looks, and sometimes in words, ‘Did either hear some strange noise in the house?’ The letter, among other matter not important to the reader, contained the singular passage following.

‘In my travel from the place where I landed, to that whence I now write, I fortuned to be in company with strangers, from whom I heard things touching me (not as they meant, but as my fear interpreted them) in a point the most exquisite that can prick and wound the soul of a Christian father. These I shall discuss unto thee at thy more leisure. They are full of fearful matter, and such as may perchance require the aid of some churchman rightly to understand, and fully to fathom. Nevertheless this I can commend to thy discretion, that after I had parted from this strange conference, the reports of which I cannot by letter communicate to thee, I retired to my chamber full of sad and heavy thoughts, and being seated in my chair, pored over a tome containing legends of departed spirits, in nowise contradictive to the doctrine of the holy Catholic church, otherwise I would have crushed it with the sole of my foot into the fire that burned before me on the hearth, and spit on its cinders with the spittle of my mouth. Now, whether it was the company I fortuned to be into, (whose conversation must never be known but to thee only), or the book I had been reading, which contained certain extracts from Pliny, Artemidore, and others, full-filled with tales which I may not now recount, but which did relate altogether to the revivification of the departed, appearing in due accordance with our Catholic conceptions of Christian ghosts in purgatory, with their suitable accoutrements of chains and flames, — as thus Pliny writeth, ‘Apparebat eidolon senex, macie et senie confectus,’ — or finally, the weariness of my lonely journey, or other things I know not, — but feeling my mind ill-disposed for deeper converse with books or my own thoughts, and though oppressed by sleep, unwilling to retire to rest, — a mood which I and others have often experienced, — I took out thy letters from the desk in which I duly reposit them, and read over the description which thou didst send me of our daughter, upon the first intelligence of her being discovered in that accursed isle of heathenism, — and I do assure thee, the description of our daughter hath been written in such characters on the bosom to which she hath never been clasped, that it would defy the art of all the limners in Spain to paint it more effectually. So, thinking on those dark-blue eyes, — and those natural ringlets which will not obey their new mistress, art, — and that slender undulating shape, — and thinking it would soon be folded in my arms, and ask the blessing of a Christian father in Christian tones, I dozed as I sat in my chair; and my dreams taking part with my waking thoughts, I was a-dreamt that such a creature, so fair, so fond, so cherubic, sat beside me, and asked me blessing. As I bowed to give it, I nodded in my chair and awoke. Awoke I say, for what followed was as palpable to human sight as the furniture of my apartment, or any other tangible object. There was a female seated opposite me, clad in a Spanish dress, but her veil flowed down to her feet. She sat, and seemed to expect that I should bespeak her first. ‘Damsel,’ I said, ‘what seekest thou? — or why art thou here?’ The figure never raised its veil, nor motioned with hand or lip. Mine head was full of what I had heard and read of; and after making the sign of the cross, and uttering certain prayers, I approached that figure, and said, ‘Damsel, what wantest thou?’ — ‘A father,’ said the form, raising its veil, and disclosing the identical features of my daughter Isidora, as described in thy numerous letters. Thou mayest well guess my consternation, which I might almost term fear, at the sight and words of this beautiful but strange and solemn figure. Nor was my perplexity and trouble diminished but increased, when the figure, rising and pointing to the door, through which she forthwith passed with a mysterious grace and incredible alacrity, uttered, in transitu, words like these:— ‘Save me! — save me! — lose not a moment, or I am lost!’ And I swear to thee, wife, that while that figure sat or departed, I heard not the rustling of her garments, or the tread of her foot, or the sound of her respiration — only as she went out, there was a rushing sound as of a wind passing through the chamber, — and a mist seemed to hang on every object around me, which dispersed, — and I was conscious of heaving a deep sigh, as if a load had been removed from my breast. I sat thereafter for an hour pondering on what I had seen, and not knowing whether to term it a waking dream, or a dream-like waking. I am a mortal man, sensible of fear, and liable to error, — but I am also a Catholic Christian, and have ever been a hearty contemner of your tales of spectres and visions, excepting always when sanctioned by the authority of the holy church, and recorded in the lives of her saints and martyrs. Finding no end or fruit of these my heavy cogitations, I withdrew myself to bed, where I long lay tossing and sleepless, till at the approach of morning, just as I was falling into a deep sleep, I was awoke by a noise like that of a breeze waving my curtains. I started up, and drawing them, looked around me. There was a glimpse of day-light appearing through the window-shutters, but not sufficient to enable me to distinguish the objects in the room, were it not for the lamp that burned on the hearth, and whose light, though somewhat dim, was perfectly distinct. By it I discovered, near the door, a figure which my sight, rendered more acute by my terror, verified as the identical figure I had before beheld, who, waving its arm with a melancholy gesture, and uttering in a piteous voice these words, ‘It is too late,’ disappeared. As, I will own to thee, overcome with horror at this second visitation, I fell back on my pillow almost bereft of the use of my faculties, I remember the clock struck three.’

‘As Donna Clara and the priest (on their tenth perusal of the letter) arrived at these words, the clock in the hall below struck three. ‘That is a singular coincidence,’ said Fra Jose. ‘Do you think it nothing more, Father?’ said Donna Clara, turning very pale. ‘I know not,’ said the priest; ‘many have told credible stories of warnings permitted by our guardian saints, to be given even by the ministry of inanimate things. But to what purpose are we warned, when we know not the evil we are to shun?’ — ‘Hush! — hark!’ said Donna Clara, ‘did you hear no noise?’ — ‘None,’ said Fra Jose listening, not without some appearance of perturbation — ‘None,’ he added, in a more tranquil and assured voice, after a pause; ‘and the noise which I did hear about two hours ago, was of short continuance, and has not been renewed.’ — ‘What a flickering light these tapers give!’ said Donna Clara, viewing them with eyes glassy and fixed with fear. ‘The casements are open,’ answered the priest. ‘So they have been since we sat here,’ returned Donna Clara; ‘yet now see what a stream of air comes rushing against them! Holy God! they flare as if they would go out!’

‘The priest, looking up at the tapers, observed the truth of what she said, — and at the same time perceived the tapestry near the door to be considerably agitated. ‘There is a door open in some other direction,’ said he, rising. ‘You are not going to leave me, Father?’ said Donna Clara, who sat in her chair paralyzed with terror, and unable to follow him but with her eyes.

‘The Father Jose made no answer. He was now in the passage, where a circumstance which he observed had arrested all his attention, — the door of Isidora’s apartment was open, and lights were burning in it. He entered it slowly at first, and gazed around, but its inmate was not there. He glanced his eye on the bed, but no human form had pressed it that night — it lay untouched and undisturbed. The casement next caught his eye, now glancing with the quickness of fear on every object. He approached it — it was wide open, — the casement that looked towards the garden. In his horror at this discovery, the good Father could not avoid uttering a cry that pierced the ears of Donna Clara, who, trembling and scarce able to make her way to the room, attempted to follow him in vain, and fell down in the passage. The priest raised and tried to assist her back to her own apartment. The wretched mother, when at last placed in her chair, neither fainted or wept; but with white and speechless lips, and a paralytic motion of her hand, tried to point towards her daughter’s apartment, as if she wished to be conveyed there. ‘It is too late,’ said the priest, unconsciously using the ominous words quoted in the letter of Don Francisco.’

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