Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Maturin

Chapter 7

Pandere res alta terrâ et caligine mersas.


I’ll shew your Grace the strangest sight, —

Body o’me, what is it, Butts? —


‘Of the desolation of mind into which the rejection of my appeal plunged me, I can give no account, for I retain no distinguishing image. All colours disappear in the night, and despair has no diary, — monotony is her essence and her curse. Hours have I walked in the garden, without retaining a single impression but that of the sounds of my footsteps; — thought, feeling, passion, and all that employs them, — life and futurity, extinct and swallowed up. I was already like an inhabitant of the land where ‘all things are forgotten.’ I hovered on the regions of mental twilight, where the ‘light is as darkness.’ The clouds were gathering that portended the approach of utter night, — they were scattered by a sudden and extraordinary light.

‘The garden was my constant resort, — a kind of instinct supplying the place of that choice I had no longer energy enough to make, directed me there to avoid the presence of the monks. One evening I saw a change in its appearance. The fountain was out of repair. The spring that supplied it was beyond the walls of the convent, and the workmen, in prosecuting the repairs, had found it necessary to excavate a passage under the garden-wall, that communicated with an open space in the city. This passage, however, was closely watched during the day while the workmen were employed, and well secured at night by a door erected for the purpose, which was chained, barred, and bolted, the moment the workmen quitted the passage. It was, however, left open during the day; and this tantalizing image of escape and freedom, amid the withering certainty of eternal imprisonment, gave a kind of awakened sting to the pains that were becoming obtuse. I entered the passage, and drew as close as possible to the door that shut me out from life. My seat was one of the stones that were scattered about, my head rested on my hand, and my eyes were sadly fixed on the tree and the well, the scene of that false miracle. I knew not how long I sat thus. I was aroused by a slight noise near me, and perceived a paper, which some one was thrusting under the door, where a slight inequality in the ground rendered the attempt just practicable. I stooped and attempted to seize it. It was withdrawn: but a moment after a voice, whose tones my agitation did not permit me to distinguish, whispered, ‘Alonzo.’ — ‘Yes, — yes,’ I answered eagerly. The paper was instantly thrust into my hands, and I heard a sound of steps retreating rapidly. I lost not a moment in reading the few words it contained. ‘Be here to-morrow evening at the same hour. I have suffered much on your account, — destroy this.’ It was the hand of my brother Juan, that hand so well remembered from our late eventful correspondence, — that hand whose traces I never beheld without feeling corresponding characters of hope and confidence retraced in my soul, as lines before invisible appear on exposure to the heat that seems to vivify them. I am surprised that between this and the following evening my agitation did not betray me to the community. But perhaps it is only agitation arising from frivolous causes, that vents itself in external indications, — I was absorbed in mine. It is certain, at least, that my mind was all that day vacillating like a clock that struck every minute the alternate sounds, ‘There is hope,there is no hope.’ The day, — the eternal day, was at last over. Evening came on; how I watched the advancing shades! At vespers, with what delight did I trace the gradual mellowing of the gold and purple tinges that gleamed through the great eastern window, and calculated that their western decline, though slower, must come at last! — It came. Never was a more propitious evening. It was calm and dark — the garden deserted, not a form to be seen, not a step to be heard in the walks. — I hurried on. Suddenly I thought I heard the sound of something pursuing me. I paused, — it was but the beating of my own heart, audible in the deep stillness of that eventful moment. I pressed my hand on my breast, as a mother would on an infant whom she tried to pacify; — it did not cease to throb, however. I entered the passage. I approached the door, of which hope and despair seemed to stand the alternate portresses. The words still rung in my ears. ‘Be here to-morrow evening at the same hour.’ I stooped, and saw, with eyes that devoured the sight, a piece of paper appear under the door. I seized and buried it in my habit. I trembled with such ecstacy, that I thought I never should be able to carry it undiscovered to my cell. I succeeded, however; and the contents, when I read them, justified my emotion. To my unspeakable uneasiness, great part of it was illegible, from being crushed amid the stones and damp clay contiguous to the door, and from the first page I could hardly extract that he had been kept in the country almost a prisoner, through the influence of the Director; that one day, while shooting with only one attendant, the hope of liberation suddenly filled him with the idea of terrifying this man into submission. Presenting his loaded fowling piece at the terrified wretch, he threatened him with instant death, if he made the least opposition. The man suffered himself to be bound to a tree; and the next page, though much defaced, gave me to understand he had reached Madrid in safety, and heard for the first time the event of my ill-fated appeal. The effect of this intelligence on the impetuous, sanguine, and affectionate Juan, could be easily traced in the broken and irregular lines in which he vainly attempted to describe it. The letter then proceeded. ‘I am now in Madrid, pledged body and soul never to quit it till you are liberated. If you possess resolution, this is not impossible, — the doors even of convents are not inaccessible to a silver key. My first object, that of obtaining a communication with you, appeared as impracticable as your escape, yet it has been accomplished. I understood that repairs were going on in the garden, and stationed myself at the door evening after evening, whispering your name, but it was not till the sixth that you were there.’

‘In another part he detailed his plans more fully. ‘Money and secrecy are the primary objects, — the latter I can insure by the disguises I wear, but the former I scarce know how to obtain. My escape was so sudden, that I was wholly unprovided, and have been obliged to dispose of my watch and rings since I reached Madrid, to purchase disguises and procure subsistence. I could command what sums I pleased by disclosing my name, but this would be fatal. The report of my being in Madrid would immediately reach my father’s ears. My resource must be a Jew; and when I have obtained money, I have little doubt of effecting your liberation. I have already heard of a person in the convent under very extraordinary circumstances, who would probably not be disinclined to’ * * * * *

‘Here a long interval occurred in the letter, which appeared to be written at different times. The next lines that I could trace, expressed all the light-heartedness of this most fiery, volatile, and generous of created beings. * * * * *

‘Be not under the least uneasiness about me, it is impossible that I should be discovered. At school I was remarkable for a dramatic talent, a power of personation almost incredible, and which I now find of infinite service. Sometimes I strut as a Majo,1 with enormous whiskers. Sometimes I assume the accent of a Biscayan, and, like the husband of Donna Rodriguez, ‘am as good a gentleman as the king, because I came from the mountains.’ But my favourite disguise is that of a mendicant or a fortune-teller, — the former procures me access to the convent, the other money and intelligence. Thus I am paid, while I appear to be the buyer. When the wanderings and stratagems of the day are over, you would smile to see the loft and pallet to which the heir of Monçada retires. This masquerade amuses me more than the spectators. A consciousness of our superiority is often more delightful when confined to our own breasts, than when expressed by others. Besides, I feel as if the squalid bed, the tottering seat, the cobwebbed rafters, the rancid oil, and all the other agremens of my new abode, were a kind of atonement for the wrongs I have done you, Alonzo. My spirits sometimes sink under privations so new to me, but still a kind of playful and wild energy, peculiar to my character, supports me. I shudder at my situation when I retire at night, and place, for the first time with my own hands, the lamp on the miserable hearth; but I laugh when, in the morning, I attire myself in fantastic rags, discolour my face, and modulate my accent, so that the people in the house, (where I tenant a garret), when they meet me on the stairs, do not know the being they saw the preceding evening. I change my abode and costume every day. Feel no fears for me, but come every evening to the door in the passage, for every evening I shall have fresh intelligence for you. My industry is indefatigable, my zeal unquenchable, my heart and soul are on fire in the cause. Again I pledge myself, soul and body, never to quit this spot till you are free, — depend on me, Alonzo.’

1 Something between a bully and a rake.

‘I will spare you, Sir, the detail of the feelings, — feelings! Oh my God, pardon me the prostration of heart with which I kissed those lines, with which I could have consecrated the hand that traced them, and which are worthy only to be devoted to the image of the great Sacrifice. Yet a being so young, so generous, so devoted, with a heart at once so wild and warm, sacrificing all that rank, and youth, and pleasure could offer, — submitting to the vilest disguises, undergoing the most deplorable privations, struggling with what must have been most intolerable to a proud voluptuous boy, (and I knew he was all this), hiding his revoltings under a gaiety that was assumed, and a magnanimity that was real — and all this for me! — Oh what I felt! * * * * *

‘The next evening I was at the door; no paper appeared, though I sat watching for it till the declining light made it impossible for me to discover it, had it been there. The next I was more fortunate; it appeared. The same disguised voice whispered ‘Alonzo,’ in tones that were the sweetest music that ever reached my ears. This billet contained but a very few lines, (so I found no difficulty in swallowing it immediately after perusal). It said, ‘I have found a Jew, at last, who will advance me a large sum. He pretends not to know me, though I am satisfied he does. — But his usurious interest and illegal practices are my full security. I shall be master of the means of liberating you in a few days; and I have been fortunate enough to discover how those means may be applied. There is a wretch — ’

‘Here the billet ended; and for four following evenings the state of the repairs excited so much curiosity in the convent, (where it is so easy to excite curiosity), that I dared not to remain in the passage, without the fear of exciting suspicion. All this time I suffered not only the agony of suspended hope, but the dread of this accidental communication being finally closed; for I knew the workmen could not have more than a few days to employ on their task. This I conveyed the intelligence of to my brother in the same way in which I received his billets. Then I reproached myself for hurrying him. I reflected on the difficulties of his concealment — of his dealing with Jews — of his bribing the servants of the convent. I thought of all he had undertaken, and all he had undergone. Then I dreaded that all might be in vain. I would not live over those four days again to be sovereign of the earth. I will give you one slight proof of what I must have felt, when I heard the workmen say, ‘It will be finished soon.’ I used to rise at an hour before matins, displace the stones, trample on the mortar, which I mingled with the clay, so as to render it totally useless; and finally, re-act Penelope’s web with such success, that the workmen believed the devil himself was obstructing their operations, and latterly never came to their task unless armed with a vessel of holy water, which they dashed about with infinite sanctimony and profusion. On the fifth evening I caught the following lines beneath the door. ‘All is settled — I have fixed the Jew on Jewish terms. He affects to be ignorant of my real rank, and certain (future) wealth, but he knows it all, and dare not, for his own sake, betray me. The Inquisition, to which I could expose him in a moment, is my best security — I must add, my only. There is a wretch in your convent, who took sanctuary from parricide, and consented to become a monk, to escape the vengeance of heaven in this life at least. I have heard, that this monster cut his own father’s throat, as he sat at supper, to obtain a small sum which he had lost at gambling. His partner, who was a loser also, had, it seems, made a vow to an image of the Virgin, that was in the neighbourhood of the wretched house where they gamed, to present two wax tapers before it in the event of his success. He lost; and, in the fury of a gamester, as he repassed the image, he struck and spit at it. This was very shocking — but what was it to the crime of him who is now an inmate of your convent? The one defaced an image, the other murdered his father: Yet the former expired under tortures the most horrible, and the other, after some vain efforts to elude justice, took sanctuary, and is now a lay-brother in your convent. On the crimes of this wretch I build all my hopes. His soul must be saturated with avarice, sensuality, and desperation. There is nothing he will hesitate at if he be bribed; — for money he will undertake your liberation — for money he will undertake to strangle you in your cell. He envies Judas the thirty pieces of silver for which the Redeemer of mankind was sold. His soul might be purchased at half-price. Such is the instrument with which I must work. — It is horrible, but necessary. I have read, that from the most venomous reptiles and plants, have been extracted the most sanative medicines. I will squeeze the juice, and trample on the weed.

‘Alonzo, tremble not at these words. Let not your habits prevail over your character. Entrust your liberation to me, and the instruments I am compelled to work with; and doubt not, that the hand which traces these lines, will soon be clasping that of a brother in freedom.’

‘I read these lines over and over again in the solitude of my cell, when the excitement of watching for, secreting, and perusing it for the first time, were over, and many doubts and fears began to gather round me like twilight clouds. In proportion as Juan’s confidence increased, mine appeared to diminish. There was a terrifying contrast between the fearlessness, independence, and enterprise of his situation, and the loneliness, timidity, and danger of mine. While the hope of escape, through his courage and address, still burnt like an inextinguishable light in the depth of my heart, I still dreaded entrusting my destiny to a youth so impetuous, though so affectionate; one who had fled from his parents’ mansion, was living by subterfuge and imposture in Madrid, and had engaged, as his coadjutor, a wretch whom nature must revolt from. Upon whom and what did my hopes of liberation rest? On the affectionate energies of a wild, enterprising, and unaided being, and the co-operation of a demon, who might snatch at a bribe, and then shake it in triumph in his ears, as the seal of our mutual and eternal despair, while he flung the key of liberation into an abyss where no light could penetrate, and from which no arm could redeem it.

‘Under these impressions, I deliberated, I prayed, I wept in the agony of doubt. At last I wrote a few lines to Juan, in which I honestly stated my doubts and apprehensions. I stated first my doubts of the possibility of my escape. I said, ‘Can it be imagined that a being whom all Madrid, whom all Spain, is on the watch for, can elude their detection? Reflect, dear Juan, that I am staked against a community, a priesthood, a nation. The escape of a monk is almost impossible, — but his concealment afterwards is downright impossible. Every bell in every convent in Spain would ring out untouched in pursuit of the fugitive. The military, civil, and ecclesiastical powers, would all be on the ‘qui vive.’ Hunted, panting, and despairing, I might fly from place to place — no place affording me shelter. The incensed powers of the church — the fierce and vigorous gripe of the law — the execration and hatred of society — the suspicions of the lowest order among whom I must lurk, to shun and curse their penetration; think of encountering all this, while the fiery cross of the Inquisition blazes in the van followed by the whole pack, shouting, cheering, hallooing on to the prey. Oh Juan! if you knew the terrors under which I live — under which I would rather die than encounter them again, even on the condition of liberation! Liberation! Great God! what chance of liberation for a monk in Spain? There is not a cottage where I could rest one night in security — there is not a cavern whose echoes would not resound to the cry of my apostacy. If I was hid in the bowels of the earth, they would discover me, and tear me from its entrails. My beloved Juan, when I consider the omnipotence of the ecclesiastical power in Spain, may I not address it in the language applied to Omnipotence itself: ‘If I climb up to heaven, thou art there; — if I go down to hell, thou art there also; — if I take the wings of the morning, and flee unto the uttermost parts of the sea, even there — ‘ And suppose my liberation was accomplished — suppose the convent plunged in a profound torpor, and the unsleeping eye of the Inquisition winked at my apostacy — where am I to reside? how am I to procure subsistence? The luxurious indolence of my early years unfit me for active employment. The horrible conflict of apathy the deepest, with hostility the most deadly, in monastic life, disqualifies me for society. Throw the doors of every convent in Spain open, and for what will their inmates be fit? For nothing that will either embellish or improve it. What could I do to serve myself? — what could I do that would not betray me? I should be a persecuted, breathless fugitive, — a branded Cain. Alas! — perhaps expiring in flames, I might see Abel not my victim, but that of the Inquisition.’

‘When I had written these lines, with an impulse for which all can account but the writer, I tore them to atoms, burnt them deliberately by the assistance of the lamp in my cell, and went to watch again at the door in the passage — the door of hope. In passing through the gallery, I encountered, for a moment, a person of a most forbidding aspect. I drew on one side — for I had made it a point not to mix, in the slightest degree, with the community, beyond what the discipline of the house compelled me to. As he passed, however, he touched my habit, and gave a most significant look. I immediately comprehended this was the person Juan alluded to in his letter. And in a few moments after, on descending to the garden, I found a note that confirmed my conjectures. It contained these words: ‘I have procured the money — I have secured our agent. He is an incarnate devil, but his resolution and intrepidity are unquestionable. Walk in the cloister to-morrow evening — some one will touch your habit — grasp his left wrist, that will be the signal. If he hesitates, whisper to him — ‘Juan,’ he will answer — ‘Alonzo.’ That is your man, consult with him. Every step that I have taken will be communicated to you by him.’

‘After reading these lines, I appeared to myself like a piece of mechanism wound up to perform certain functions, in which its co-operation was irresistible. The precipitate vigour of Juan’s movements seemed to impel mine without my own concurrence; and as the shortness of the time left me no opportunity for deliberation, it left me also none for choice. I was like a clock whose hands are pushed forward, and I struck the hours I was impelled to strike. When a powerful agency is thus exercised on us, — when another undertakes to think, feel, and act for us, we are delighted to transfer to him, not only our physical, but our moral responsibility. We say, with selfish cowardice, and self-flattering passiveness, ‘Be it so — you have decided for me,’ — without reflecting that at the bar of God there is no bail. So I walked the next evening in the cloister. I composed my habit, — my looks; any one would have imagined me plunged in profound meditation, — and so I was, but not on the subjects with which they conceived I was occupied. As I walked, some one touched my habit. I started, and, to my consternation, one of the monks asked my pardon for the sleeve of his tunic having touched mine. Two minutes after another touched my habit. I felt the difference, — there was an intelligential and communicative force in his grasp. He seized it as one who did not fear to be known, and who had no need to apologise. How is it that crime thus seizes us in life with a fearless grasp, while the touch of conscience trembles on the verge of our garment. One would almost parody the words of the well known Italian proverb, and say that guilt is masculine, and innocence feminine. I grasped his wrist with a trembling hand, and whispered — ‘Juan,’ in the same breath. He answered — ‘Alonzo,’ and passed me onward in a moment. I had then a few moments leisure to reflect on a destiny thus singularly entrusted to a being whose affections honoured humanity, and a being whose crimes disgraced it. I was suspended like Mahomet’s tomb between heaven and earth. I felt an antipathy indescribable to hold any communication with a monster who had tried to hide the stains of parricide, by casting over their bloody and ineffaceable traces the shroud of monasticism. I felt also an inexpressible terror of Juan’s passions and precipitancy; and I felt ultimately that I was in the power of all I dreaded most, and must submit to the operation of that power for my liberation.

‘I was in the cloisters the following evening. I cannot say I walked with a step so equal, but I am sure I did with a step much more artificially regular. For the second time the same person touched my habit, and whispered the name of Juan. After this I could no longer hesitate. I said, in passing, ‘I am in your power.’ A hoarse repulsive voice answered, ‘No, I am in yours.’ I murmured, ‘Well, then, I understand you, we belong to each other.’ — ‘Yes. We must not speak here, but a fortunate opportunity presents itself for our communication. To-morrow will be the eve of the feast of Pentecost; the vigil is kept by the whole community, who go two and two every hour to the altar, pass their hour in prayer, and then are succeeded by two more, and this continues all night. Such is the aversion with which you have inspired the community, that they have one and all refused to accompany you during your hour, which is to be from two till three. You will therefore be alone, and during your hour I will come and visit you, — we shall be undisturbed and unsuspected.’ At these words he quitted me. The next night was the eve of Pentecost, the monks went two and two all night to the altar, — at two o’clock my turn arrived. They rapped at my cell, and I descended to the church alone.’

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