Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 34

Husband, husband, I’ve the ring

Thou gavest to-day to me;

And thou to me art ever wed,

As I am wed to thee!


‘The remainder of that dreadful night when Isidora disappeared, had been passed almost in despair by Donna Clara, who, amid all her rigour and chilling mediocrity, had still the feelings of a mother — and by Fra Jose, who, with all his selfish luxury and love of domination, had a heart where distress never knocked for admittance, that she did not find pity ready to open the door.

‘The distress of Donna Clara was aggravated by her fear of her husband, of whom she stood in great awe, and who, she dreaded, might reproach her with unpardonable negligence of her maternal authority.

‘In this night of distress, she was often tempted to call on her son for advice and assistance; but the recollection of his violent passions deterred her, and she sat in passive despair till day. Then, with an unaccountable impulse, she rose from her seat, and hurried to her daughter’s apartment, as if she imagined that the events of the preceding night were only a fearful and false illusion that would be dispersed by the approach of day.

‘It seemed, indeed, as if they were, for on the bed lay Isidora in a profound sleep, with the same pure and placid smile as when she was lulled into slumber by the melodies of nature, and the sound was prolonged in her dream by the whispered songs of the spirits of the Indian Ocean. Donna Clara uttered a shriek of surprise, that had the singular effect of rousing Fra Jose from a deep sleep into which he had fallen at the approach of day. Starting at the sound, the good-natured, pampered priest, tottered into the room, and saw, with incredulity that slowly yielded to frequent application to his obstinate and adhesive eye-lids, the form of Isidora extended in profound slumber.

‘Oh what an exquisite enjoyment!’ said the yawning priest, as he looked on the sleeping beauty without another emotion than that of the delight of an uninterrupted repose. — ‘Pray, don’t disturb her,’ he said, yawning himself out of the room — ‘after such a night as we all have had, sleep must be a very refreshing and laudable exercise; and so I commend you to the protection of the holy saints!’ — ‘Oh reverend Father! — Oh holy Father!’ cried Donna Clara clinging to him, ‘desert me not in this extremity — this has been the work of magic — of infernal spirits. See how profoundly she sleeps, though we are speaking, and it is now day-light.’ — ‘Daughter, you are much mistaken,’ answered the drowsy priest; ‘people can sleep soundly even in the day-time; and for proof send me, as I am now retiring to rest, a bottle of Foncarral or Valdepenas — not that I value the richest vintage of Spain from the Chacoli of Biscay to the Mataro of Catalonia,1 but I would never have it said that I slept in the day-time, but for sufficient reason.’ — ‘Holy Father!’ answered Donna Clara, ‘do you not think my daughter’s disappearance and intense slumber are the result of preternatural causes?’ — ‘Daughter,’ answered the priest, contracting his brows, ‘let me have some wine to slake the intolerable thirst caused by my anxiety for the welfare of your family, and let me meditate some hours afterwards on the measures best to be adopted, and then — when I awake, I will give you my opinion.’ — ‘Holy Father, you shall judge for me in every thing.’ — ‘It were not amiss, daughter,’ said the priest retiring, ‘if a few slices of ham, or some poignant sausages, accompanied the wine — it might, as it were, abate the deleterious effects of that abominable liquor, which I never drink but on emergencies like these.’ — ‘Holy Father, they shall be ordered,’ said the anxious mother — ‘but do you not think my daughter’s sleep is supernatural?’ — ‘Follow me to mine apartment, daughter,’ answered the priest, exchanging his cowl for a night-cap, which one of the numerous household obsequiously presented him, ‘and you will soon see that sleep is a natural effect of a natural cause. Your daughter has doubtless passed a very fatiguing night, and so have you, and so have I, though perhaps from very different causes; but all those causes dispose us to a profound repose. — I have no doubt of mine — fetch up the wine and sausages — I am very weary — Oh I am weak and worn with fasts and watching, and the labours of exhortation. My tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth, and my jaws cling together, — perhaps a draught or two might dissolve their parching adhesion. But I do so hate wine — why the devil don’t you fetch up the bottle?’

1 Vide Dillon’s travels through Spain.

‘The attendant domestic, terrified by the tone of wrath in which the last words were uttered, hurried on with submissive expedition, and Fra Jose sat down at length in his apartment to ruminate on the calamities and perplexities of the family, till he was actually overcome by the subject, and exclaimed in a tone of despair, ‘Both bottles empty! Then it is useless to meditate further on this subject.’

‘He was roused at an earlier hour than he wished, by a message from Donna Clara, who, in the distress of a weak mind, accustomed always to factitious and external support, now felt as if every step she took without it, must lead to actual and instant perdition. Her fear of her husband, next to her superstitious fears, held the strongest power over her mind, and that morning she called Fra Jose to an early consultation of terror and inquietude. — Her great object was to conceal, if possible, the absence of her daughter on that eventful night; and finding that none of the domestics appeared conscious of it, and that amid the numerous household, only one aged servant was absent, of whose absence no one took notice amid the superfluous multitude of a Spanish establishment, her courage began to revive. It was raised still higher by a letter from Aliaga, announcing the necessity of his visiting a distant part of Spain, and of the marriage of his daughter with Montilla being deferred for some months — this sounded like reprieve in the ears of Donna Clara — she consulted with the priest, who answered in words of comfort, that if Donna Isidora’s short absence were known, it was but a slight evil, and if it were not known, it was none at all, — and he recommended to her, to ensure the secresy of the servants by means that he swore by his habit were infallible, as he had known them operate effectively among the servants of a far more powerful and extensive establishment. ‘Reverend Father,’ said Donna Clara, ‘I know of no establishment among the grandees of Spain more splendid than ours.’ — ‘But I do, daughter,’ said the priest, ‘and the head of that establishment is — the Pope; — but go now, and awake your daughter, who deserves to sleep till doomsday, as she seems totally to have forgotten the hour of breakfast. It is not for myself I speak, daughter, but I cannot bear to see the regularity of a magnificent household thus interrupted; for myself, a basin of chocolate, and a cluster of grapes, will be sufficient; and to allay the crudity of the grapes, a glass of Malaga. — Your glasses, by the bye, are the shallowest I ever drank out of — could you not find some means to get from Ildefonso1 glasses of the right make, with short shanks and ample bodies? Yours resemble those of Quichotte, all limbs and no trunk. I like one that resembles his squire, a spacious body and a shank that may be measured by my little finger.’ — ‘I will send to St Ildefonso this day,’ answered Donna Clara. — ‘Go and awake your daughter first,’ said the priest.

1 The celebrated manufactory for glass in Spain.

‘As he spoke, Isidora entered the room — the mother and the priest both stood amazed. Her countenance was as serene, her step as equal, and her mein as composed, as if she were totally unconscious of the terror and distress her disappearance the preceding night had caused. To the first short silence of amazement, succeeded a storm of interrogations from Donna Clara and Fra Jose in concert — why — where — wherefore — and what, and with whom and how — that was all they could articulate. They might as well have spared themselves the trouble, for neither that day nor many following, could the remonstrances, intreaties, or menaces of her mother, aided by the spiritual authority and more powerful anxiety of the priest, extort from her a word of explanation on the cause of her absence that awful night. When closely and sternly pressed, Isidora’s mind seemed to assume something of the wild but potent spirit of independence, which her early habits and feelings might have communicated to her. She had been her own teacher and mistress for seventeen years, and though naturally gentle and tractable, when imperious mediocrity attempted to tyrannize over her, she felt a sense of disdain which she expressed only by profound silence.

‘Fra Jose, incensed at her obstinacy, and trembling for the loss of his power over the family, threatened to exclude her from confession, unless she disclosed to him the secret of that night — ‘Then I will confess to God!’ said Isidora. Her mother’s importunity she found it more difficult to resist, for her feminine heart loved all that was feminine even in its most unattractive shape, and the persecution from that quarter was alike monotonous and unremitting.

‘There was a weak but harassing tenacity about Donna Clara, that is the general adjunct to the female character when it combines intellectual mediocrity with rigid principle. When she laid siege to a secret, the garrison might as well capitulate at once. — What she wanted in vigour and ability, she supplied by a minute and gnawing assiduity. She never ventured to carry the fort by storm, but her obstinacy blockaded it till it was forced to surrender. But here even her importunity failed. — Isidora remained respectfully, but resolutely silent; finding matters thus desperate, Donna Clara, who had a fine talent for keeping as well as discovering a secret, agreed with Fra Jose not to utter a syllable of the business to her father and brother. — ‘We will show,’ said Donna Clara, with a sagacious and self-approving nod, ‘that we can keep a secret as well as she.’ — ‘Right, daughter,’ said Fra Jose, ‘imitate her in the only point in which you can flatter yourself with the hope of resemblance.’

‘The secret was, however, soon disclosed. Some months had elapsed, and the visits of her husband began to give an habitual calm and confidence to the mind of Isidora. He imperceptibly was exchanging his ferocious misanthropy for a kind of pensive gloom. — It was like the dark, cold, but unterrific and comparatively soothing night, that succeeds to a day of storm and earthquake. The sufferers remember the terrors of the day, and the still darkness of the night feels to them like a shelter. Isidora gazed on her espoused with delight, when she saw no longer his withering frown, or more withering smile; and she felt the hope that the calm purity of female hearts always suggests, that its influence will one day float over the formless and the void, like the spirit that moved upon the face of the waters; and that the unbelieving husband may yet be saved by the believing wife.

‘These thoughts were her comfort, and it was well she had thoughts to comfort her, for facts are miserable allies when imagination fights its battle with despair. On one of those nights that she expected Melmoth, he found her employed in her usual hymn to the Virgin, which she accompanied on her lute. ‘Is it not rather late to sing your vesper hymn to the Virgin after midnight?’ said Melmoth with a ghastly smile. ‘Her ear is open at all times, I have been told,’ answered Isidora. — ‘If it is, then, love,’ said Melmoth, vaulting as usual through the casement, ‘add a stanza to your hymn in favour of me.’ — ‘Alas!’ said Isidora, dropping her lute, ‘you do not believe, love, in what the Holy Church requires.’ — ‘Yes, I do believe, when I listen to you.’ — ‘And only then?’ — ‘Sing again your hymn to the Virgin.’

‘Isidora complied, and watched the effect on the listener. He seemed affected — he motioned to her to repeat it. ‘My love,’ said Isidora, ‘is not this more like the repetition of a theatrical song called for by an audience, than a hymn which he who listens to loves his wife better for, because she loves her God.’ — ‘It is a shrewd question,’ said Melmoth, ‘but why am I in your imagination excluded from the love of God?’ — ‘Do you ever visit the church,’ answered the anxious Isidora. A profound silence. — ‘Do you ever receive the Holy Sacrament?’ — Melmoth did not utter a word. — ‘Have you ever, at my earnest solicitation, enabled me to announce to my anxious family the tie that united us?’ — No answer. — ‘And now — that — perhaps — I dare not utter what I feel! Oh! how shall I appear before eyes that watch me even now so closely? — what shall I say? — a wife without a husband — a mother without a father for her child, or one whom a fearful oath has bound her never to declare! Oh! Melmoth, pity me, — deliver me from this life of constraint, falsehood, and dissimulation. Claim me as your wedded wife in the face of my family, and in the face of ruin your wedded wife will follow — will cling to — will perish with you!’ Her arms clung round him, her cold but heart-wrung tears fell fast on his cheek, and the imploring arms of woman supplicating for deliverance in her hour of shame and terror, seldom are twined round us in vain. Melmoth felt the appeal — it was but for a moment. He caught the white arms extended towards him — he fixed an eager and fearful look of inquiry on his victim-consort, as he asked — ‘And is it so?’ The pale and shuddering wife shrunk from his arms at the question — her silence answered him. The agonies of nature throbbed audibly in his heart. He said to himself — it is mine — the fruit of affection — the first-born of the heart and of nature — mine — mine, — and whatever becomes of me, there shall yet be a human being on earth who traces me in its external form, and who will be taught to pray for its father, even when its prayer falls parched and hissing on the fires that burn for ever, like a wandering drop of dew on the burning sands of the desert!

‘From the period of this communication, Melmoth’s tenderness for his wife visibly increased.

‘Heaven only knows the source of that wild fondness with which he contemplated her, and in which was still mingled something of ferocity. His warm look seemed like the glow of a sultry summer day, whose heat announces a storm, and compels us by its burning oppression, to look to the storm almost for relief.

‘It is not impossible that he looked to some future object of his fearful experiment — and a being so perfectly in his power as his own child, might have appeared to him fatally fitted for his purpose — the quantum of misery, too, necessary to qualify the probationer, it was always in his own power to inflict. Whatever was his motive, he assumed as much tenderness as it was possible for him to assume, and spoke of the approaching event with the anxious interest of a human father.

‘Soothed by his altered manner, Isidora bore with silent sufferance the burden of her situation, with all its painful accompaniments of indisposition and dejection, aggravated by hourly fear and mysterious secresy. She hoped he would at length reward her by an open and honourable declaration, but this hope was expressed only in her patient smiles. The hour approached fast, and fearful and indefinite apprehensions began to overshadow her mind, relative to the fate of the infant about to be born under circumstances so mysterious.

‘At his next nightly visit, Melmoth found her in tears.

‘Alas!’ said she in answer to his abrupt inquiry, and brief attempt at consolation, ‘How many causes have I for tears — and how few have I shed? If you would have them wiped away, be assured it is only your hand can do it. I feel,’ she added, ‘that this event will be fatal to me — I know I shall not live to see my child — I demand from you the only promise that can support me even under this conviction’ — Melmoth interrupted her by the assurance, that these apprehensions were the inseparable concomitants of her situation, and that many mothers, surrounded by a numerous offspring, smiled as they recollected their fears that the birth of each would be fatal to them.

‘Isidora shook her head. ‘The presages,’ said she, ‘that visit me, are such as never visited mortality in vain. I have always believed, that as we approach the invisible world, its voice becomes more audible to us, and grief and pain are very eloquent interpreters between us and eternity — quite distinct from all corporeal suffering, even from all mental terror, is that deep and unutterable impression which is alike incommunicable and ineffaceable — it is as if heaven spoke to us alone, and told us to keep its secret, or divulge it on the condition of never being believed. Oh! Melmoth, do not give that fearful smile when I speak of heaven — soon I may be your only intercessor there.’ ‘My dear saint,’ said Melmoth, laughing and kneeling to her in mockery, ‘let me make early interest for your mediation — how many ducats will it cost me to get you canonized? — you will furnish me, I hope, with an authentic account of legitimate miracles — one is ashamed of the nonsense that is sent monthly to the Vatican.’ ‘Let your conversion be the first miracle on the list,’ said Isidora, with an energy that made Melmoth tremble — it was dark — but she felt that he trembled — she pursued her imagined triumph — ‘Melmoth,’ she exclaimed, ‘I have a right to demand one promise from you — for you I have sacrificed every thing — never was woman more devoted — never did woman give proofs of devotion like mine. I might have been the noble, honoured wife of one who would have laid his wealth and titles at my feet. In this my hour of danger and suffering, the first families in Spain would have been waiting round my door. Alone, unaided, unsustained, unconsoled, I must undergo the terrible struggle of nature — terrible to those whose beds are smoothed by the hands of affection, whose agonies are soothed by the presence of a mother — who hears the first feeble cry of her infant echoed by the joy of exulting noble relatives. Oh Melmoth! what must be mine! I must suffer in secresy and in silence! I must see my babe torn from me before I have even kissed it, — and the chrism-mantle will be one of that mysterious darkness which your fingers have woven! Yet grant me one thing — one thing!’ continued the suppliant, growing earnest in her prayer even to agony; ‘swear to me that my child shall be baptised according to the forms of the Catholic church, — that it shall be a Christian as far as those forms can make it, — and I shall feel that, if all my fearful presages are fulfilled, I shall leave behind me one who will pray for his father, and whose prayer may be accepted. Promise me, — swear to me,’ she added, in intenser agony, ‘that my child shall be a Christian! Alas! if my voice be not worthy to be heard in heaven, that of a cherub may! Christ himself suffered children to come unto him while on earth, and will he repel them in heaven? — Oh! no, — no! he will not repel yours!’

‘Melmoth listened to her with feelings that it is better to suppress than explain or expatiate on. Thus solemnly adjured, however, he promised that the child should be baptised; and added, with an expression which Isidora’s delight at this concession did not give her time to understand, that it should be a Christian as far as the rites and ceremonies of the Catholic church could make it one. While he added many a bitter hint of the inefficacy of any external rites — and the impotentiality of any hierarchy — and of the deadly and desperate impositions of priests under every dispensation — and exposed them with a spirit at once ludicrous and Satanic, — a spirit that mingled ridicule with horror, and seemed like a Harlequin in the infernal regions, flirting with the furies, Isidora still repeated her solemn request that her child, if it survived her, should be baptised. To this he assented; and added, with a sarcastic and appalling levity, — ‘And a Mahometan, if you should change your mind, — or any other mythology you please to adopt; — only send me word, — priests are easily obtained, and ceremonies cheaply purchased! Only let me know your future intentions, — when you know them yourself.’ — ‘I shall not be here to tell you,’ said Isidora, replying with profound conviction to this withering levity, like a cold winter day to the glow of a capricious summer one, that blends the sunshine and the lightning; — ‘Melmoth, I shall not be here then!’ And this energy of despair in a creature so young, so inexperienced, except in the vicissitudes of the heart, formed a strong contrast to the stony apathy of one who had traversed life from Dan to Beersheba, and found all barren, or — made it so.

‘At this moment, while Isidora wept the cold tears of despair, without daring to ask the hand of him she loved to dry them, the bells of a neighbouring convent, where they were performing a mass for the soul of a departed brother, suddenly rung out. Isidora seized that moment, when the very air was eloquent with the voice of religion, to impress its power on that mysterious being whose presence inspired her equally with terror and with love. ‘Listen, — listen!’ she cried. The sounds came slowly and stilly on, as if it was an involuntary expression of that profound sentiment that night always inspires, — the reverberating watch-word from sentinel to sentinel, when wakeful and reflecting minds have become the ‘watchers of the night.’1 The effect of these sounds was increased, by their catching from time to time the deep and thrilling chorus of the voices, — these voices more than harmonized, they were coincident with the toll of the bell, and seemed like them set in involuntary motion, — music played by invisible hands.

1 He called unto me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? — Watchman, what of the night? — ISAIAH.

‘Listen,’ repeated Isidora, ‘is there no truth in the voice that speaks to you in tones like these? Alas! if there be no truth in religion, there is none on earth! Passion itself evanishes into an illusion, unless it is hallowed by the consciousness of a God and of futurity. That sterility of the heart that forbids the growth of divine feeling, must be hostile also to every tender and generous sentiment. He who is without a God must be without a heart! Oh, my love, will you not, as you bend over my grave, wish my last slumbers to have been soothed by sounds like these, — wish that they may whisper peace to your own? Promise me, at least, that you will lead your child to my tomb-stone, — that you will suffer it to read the inscription that tells I died in the faith of Christ, and the hope of immortality. Its tears will be powerful pleaders to you not to deny it the consolation that faith has given me in hours of suffering, and the hopes with which it will illuminate my parting hour. Oh promise me this at least, that you will suffer your child to visit my grave — that is all. Do not interrupt or distract the impression by sophistry or levity, or by that wild and withering eloquence that flashes from your lips, not to enlighten but to blast. You will not weep, but you will be silent, — leave Heaven and nature free to their work. The voice of God will speak to its heart, and my spirit, as it witnesses the conflict, will tremble though in paradise, — and, even in heaven, will feel an added joy, when it beholds the victory won. Promise me, then, — swear to me!’ she added, with agonizing energy of tone and gesture. ‘Your child shall be a Christian!’ said Melmoth.

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