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by Charles Robert Maturin
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
Charles Robert Maturin
Charles Robert Maturin (1782-1824) was a Church of Ireland priest with a distinct dislike of Roman Catholicism. His novels, most notably 'Melmoth', are considered foundations of the modern horror genre. Oscar Wilde, after his release from prison, travelled under the name of Sebastian Melmoth.
I. - The Portrait
John Melmoth, student at Trinity College, Dublin, having journeyed to County Wicklow for attendance at the deathbed of his miserly uncle, finds the old man, even in his last moments, tortured by avarice, and by suspicion of all around him. He whispers to John:
"I want a glass of wine," groaned the old man; "it would keep me alive a little longer."
John Melmoth offered to get some for him. The dying man clutched the blankets around him, and looked strangely at his nephew.
"Take this key," he said. "There is wine in that closet."
John knew that no one but his uncle had entered the closet for sixty years - his uncle who had spent his life in greedily heaping treasure upon treasure, and who, now, on his miserable death-bed, grudged the clergyman's fee for the last sacrament.
When John stepped into the closet, his eyes were instantly riveted by a portrait that hung on the wall. There was nothing remarkable about costume or countenance, but the eyes, John felt, were such as one feels they wish they had never seen. In the words of Southey, "they gleamed with demon light." John held the candle to the portrait, and could distinguish the words on the border: "Jno. Melmoth, anno 1646." He gazed in stupid horror until recalled by his uncle's cough.
"You have seen the portrait?" whispered old Melmoth.
"Well, you will see him again - he is still alive."
Later in the night, when the miser was at the point of death, John saw a figure enter the room, deliberately look round, and retire. The face of the figure was the face of the portrait! After a moment of terror, John sprang up to pursue, but the shrieks of his uncle recalled him. The agony was nearly ended; in a few minutes old Melmoth was dead.
In the will, which made John a wealthy man, there was an instruction to him to destroy the portrait in the closet, and also to destroy a manuscript that he would find in the mahogany chest under the portrait; he was to read the manuscript if he pleased.
On a cold and gloomy evening John entered the closet, found the manuscript, and with a feeling of superstitious awe, began to read it. The task was a hard one, for the manuscript was discoloured and mutilated, and much was quite indecipherable.
John was able to gather, however, that it was the narrative of an Englishman, named Stanton, who had travelled in Spain in the seventeenth century. On one night of storm, Stanton had seen carried past him the bodies of two lovers who had been killed by lightning. As he watched, a man had stepped forward, had looked calmly at the bodies, and had burst into a horrible demoniac laugh. Stanton saw the man several times, always in circumstances of horror; he learnt that his name was Melmoth. This being exercised a kind of fascination over Stanton, who searched for him far and wide. Ultimately, Stanton was confined in a madhouse by relatives who wanted to secure his property; and from the madhouse he was offered, but refused, release by Melmoth as a result of some bargain, the nature of which was not revealed.
After reading this story, John Melmoth raised his eyes, and he started involuntarily as they encountered those of the portrait. With a shudder, he tore the portrait from its frame, and rushed into his room, where he flung its fragments on the fire.
The mansion was close by the iron-bound coast of Wicklow, in Ireland, and on the next night John was summoned forth by the news that a vessel was in distress. He saw immediately that the ship was doomed. She lay beating upon a rock, against which the tempest hurled breakers that dashed their foam to a height of thirty feet.
In the midst of the tumult John descried, standing a little above him on the rock, a figure that showed neither sympathy nor terror, uttered no sound, offered no help. A few minutes afterwards he distinctly heard the words, "Let them perish!"
Just then a tremendous wave dashing over the vessel extorted a cry of horror from the spectators. When the cry had ceased, Melmoth heard a laugh that chilled his blood. It was from the figure that stood above him. He recalled Stanton's narrative. In a blind fury of eagerness, he began to climb the rock; but a stone gave way in his grasp, and he was hurled into the roaring deep below.
It was several days before he recovered his senses, and he then learned that he had been rescued by the one survivor of the wreck, a Spaniard, who had clutched at John and dragged him ashore with him. As soon as John had recovered somewhat, he hastened to thank his deliverer, who was lodged in the mansion. Having expressed his gratitude, Melmoth was about to retire, when the Spaniard detained him.
"Señor," he said, "I understand your name is" - he gasped - "Melmoth?"
"Had you," said the Spaniard rapidly, "a relative who was, about one hundred and forty years ago, said to be in Spain?"
"I believe - I fear - I had."
"Are you his descendant? Are you the repository of that terrible secret which - ?" He gave way to uncontrollable agitation. Gradually he recovered himself, and went on. "It is singular that accident should have placed me within the reach of the only being from whom I could expect either sympathy or relief in the extraordinary circumstances in which I am placed - circumstances which I did not believe I should ever disclose to mortal man, but which I shall disclose to you."
II. - The Spaniard's Story
I am, as you know, a native of Spain; but you are yet to learn that I am a descendant of one of its noblest houses - the house of Monçada. While I was yet unborn, my mother vowed that I should be devoted to religion. As the time drew near when I was to forsake the world and retire to a monastery, I revolted in horror at the career before me, and refused to take the vows. But my family were completely under the influence of a cunning and arrogant priest, who threatened God's curse upon me if I disobeyed; and ultimately, with a despairing heart, I consented.
"The horror with which I had anticipated monastic life was nothing to my disgust and misery at the realisation of its evils. The narrowness and littleness of it, the hypocrisies, all filled me with revolt; and it was only by brooding over possibilities of escape that I could avoid utter despair. At length a ray of hope came to me. My younger brother, a lad of spirit, who had quarrelled with the priest who dominated our family, succeeded with great difficulty in communicating with me, and promised that a civil process should be undertaken for the reclamation of my vows.
"But presently my hopes were destroyed by the news that my civil process had failed. Of the desolation of mind into which this failure plunged me, I can give no account - despair has no diary. I remember that I used to walk for hours in the garden, where alone I could avoid the neighbourhood of the other monks. It happened that the fountain of the garden was out of repair, and the workmen engaged upon it had had to excavate a passage under the garden wall. But as this was guarded by day and securely locked by night, it offered but a tantalising image of escape and freedom.
"One evening, as I sat gloomily by the door of the passage, I heard my name whispered. I answered eagerly, and a paper was thrust under the door. I knew the handwriting - it was that of my brother Juan. From it I learned that Juan was still planning my escape, and had found a confederate within the monastery - a parricide who had turned monk to evade his punishment.
"Juan had bribed him heavily, yet I feared to trust him until he confided to me that he himself also intended to escape. At length our plans were completed; my companion had secured the key of a door in the chapel that led through the vaults to a trap-door opening into the garden. A rope ladder flung by Juan over the wall would give us liberty.
"At the darkest hour of the night we passed through the door, and crawled through the dreadful passages beneath the monastery. I reached the top of the ladder-a lantern flashed in my eyes. I dropped down into my brother's arms.
"We hurried away to where a carriage was waiting. I sprang into it.
"'He is safe,' cried Juan, following me.
"'But are you?' answered a voice behind him. He staggered and fell back. I leapt down beside him. I was bathed in his blood. He was dead. One moment of wild, fearful agony, and I lost consciousness.
"When I came to myself, I was lying in an apartment not unlike my cell, but without a crucifix. Beside me stood my companion in flight.
"'Where am I?' I asked.
"'You are in the prison of the Inquisition,' he replied, with a mocking laugh.
"He had betrayed me! He had been all the while in league with the superior.
"I was tried again and again by the Inquisition -, charged not only with the crime of escaping from the convent and breaking my religious vows, but with the murder of my brother. My spirits sank with each appearance before the judges. I foresaw myself doomed to die at the stake.
"One night, and for several nights afterwards, a visitor presented himself to me. He came and went apparently without help or hindrance - as if he had had a master-key to all the recesses of the prison. And yet he seemed no agent of the Inquisition - indeed, he denounced it with caustic satire and withering severity. But what struck me most of all was the preternatural glare of his eyes. I felt that I had never beheld such eyes blazing in a mortal face. It was strange, too, that he constantly referred to events that must have happened long before his birth as if he had actually witnessed them.
"On the night before my final trial, I awoke from a hideous dream of burning alive to behold the stranger standing beside me. With an impulse I could not resist, I flung myself before him and begged him to save me. He promised to do so - on one awful and incommunicable condition. My horror brought me courage; I refused, and he left me.
"Next day I was sentenced to death at the stake. But before my fearful doom could be accomplished, I was free - and by that very agency of fire that was to have destroyed me. The prison of the Inquisition was burned to the ground, and in the confusion I escaped.
"When my strength was exhausted by running through the deserted streets, I leaned against a door; it gave way, and I found myself within the house. Concealed, I heard two voices - an old man's and a young man's. The old man was confessing to the young one - his son - that he was a Jew, and entreating the son to adopt the faith of Israel.
"I knew I was in the presence of a pretended convert - one of those Jews who profess to become Catholics through fear of the Inquisition. I had become possessed of a valuable secret, and instantly acted upon it. I burst out upon them, and threatened that unless the old man gave me hiding I should betray him. At first he was panic-stricken, then, hastily promising me protection, he conducted me within the house. In an inner room he raised a portion of the floor; we descended and went along a dark passage, at the end of which my guide opened a door, through which I passed. He closed it behind me, and withdrew.
"I was in an underground chamber, the walls of which were lined with skeletons, bottles containing strange misshapen creatures, and other hideous objects. I shuddered as I looked round.
"'Why fearest thou these?' asked a voice.' Surely the implements of the healing art should cause no terror.'
"I turned and beheld a man immensely old seated at a table. His eyes, although faded with years, looked keenly at me.
"'Thou hast escaped from the clutches of the Inquisition?' he asked me.
"'Yes,' I answered.
"'And when in its prison,' he continued, leaning forward eagerly, 'didst thou face a tempter who offered thee deliverance at a dreadful price?'
"'It was so,' I answered, wondering.
"'My prayer, then, is granted,' he said. 'Christian youth, thou art safe here. None save mine own Jewish people know of my existence. And I have employment for thee.'
"He showed me a huge manuscript.
"'This,' he said, 'is written in characters that the officers of the Inquisition understand not. But the time has come for transcribing it, and my own eyes, old with age, are unequal to the labour. Yet it was necessary that the work should be done by one who has learnt the dread secret.'
"A glance at the manuscript showed me that the language was Spanish, but the characters Greek. I began to read it, nor did I raise my eyes until the reading was ended."
III. - The Romance of Immalee
"The manuscript told how a Spanish merchant had set forth for the East Indies, taking his wife and son with him, and leaving an infant daughter behind. He prospered, and decided to settle in the East; he sent for his daughter, who came with her nurse. But their ship was wrecked; the child and the nurse alone escaped, and were stranded on an uninhabited island near the mouth of the Hooghly. The nurse died; but the child survived, and grew up a wild and beautiful daughter of nature, dwelling in lonely innocence, and revered as a goddess by the natives who watched her from afar.
"To the Island, when Immalee (so she called herself) was growing into pure and lovely womanhood, there came a stranger - pale-faced, wholly different from the dark-skinned people she had seen from the shores of the island. She welcomed him with innocent joy. He came often; he told her of the outer world, of its wickedness and its miseries. She, too untutored to realise the sinister bitterness of his tone, listened with rapt attention and sympathy. She loved him. She told him that he was her all, that she would cling to him wheresoever he went. He looked at her with stern sorrow; he left her abruptly, nor did he ever visit the island again.
"Immalee was rescued, her origin was discovered, and she became Isidora de Aliaga, the carefully nurtured daughter of prosperous and devout Spanish parents. The island and the stranger were memories of the past. Yet one day, in the streets of Madrid, she beheld once more the well-remembered eyes. Soon afterwards she was visited by the stranger. How he entered and left her home when he came to her - and again he came often - she could not tell. She feared him, and yet she loved him.
"At length her father, who had been on another voyage, announced that he was returning, and bringing with him a suitable husband for his newly-found daughter. Isidora, in panic, besought the stranger to save her. He was unwilling. At last, in response to her tears, he consented. They were wedded, so Isidora believed, by a hermit in a ruined monastery. She returned home, and he renewed his visits, promising to reveal their marriage in the fullness of time.
"Meanwhile, tales had reached her father's ears of a malignant being who was permitted to wander over the earth and tempt men in dire extremity with release from their troubles as the result of their concluding an unspeakable bargain. This being himself appeared to the father, and warned him that his daughter was in danger.
"He returned, and pressed on with preparations for the bridal ceremony. Isidora entreated her husband to rescue her. He promised, and went away. A masked ball was given in celebration of the nuptials. At the hour of twelve Isidora felt a touch upon her shoulder. It was her husband. They hastened away, but not unperceived. Her brother called on the pair to stop, and drew his sword. In an instant he lay bleeding and lifeless. The family and the guests crowded round in horror. The stranger waved them back with his arm. They stood motionless, as if rooted to the ground.
"'Isidora, fly with me!' he said. She looked at him, looked at the body of her brother, and sank in a swoon. The stranger passed out amid the powerless onlookers.
"Isidora, the confessed bride of an unhallowed being, was taken before the Inquisition, and sentenced to life-long imprisonment. But she did not survive long; and ere she died, her husband appeared to her, and offered her freedom, happiness, and love - at a dreadful price she would not pay. Such was the history of the ill-fated love of Immalee for a being to whom mortal love was a boon forbidden."
IV. - The Fate of Melmoth
When Monçada had completed the tale of Immalee, he announced his intention of describing how he had left the house of the Jewish doctor, and what was his purpose in coming to Ireland. A time was fixed for the continuation of the recital.
The night when Monçada prepared to resume his story was a dark and stormy one. The two men drew close to the fire.
"Hush!" suddenly said Monçada.
John Melmoth listened, and half rose from his chair.
"We are watched!" he exclaimed.
At that moment the door opened, and a figure appeared at it. The figure advanced slowly to the centre of the room. Monçada crossed himself, and attempted to pray. John Melmoth, nailed to his chair, gazed upon the form that stood before him - it was indeed Melmoth the Wanderer. But the eyes were dim; those beacons lit by an infernal fire were no longer visible.
"Mortals," said the Wanderer, in strange and solemn accents, "you are here to talk of my destiny. That distiny is accomplished. Your ancestor has come home," he continued, turning to John Melmoth. "If my crimes have exceeded those of mortality, so will my punishment. And the time for that punishment is come.
"It is a hundred and fifty years since I first probed forbidden secrets. I have now to pay the penalty. None can participate in my destiny but with his own consent. None has consented. It has been reported of me, as you know, that I obtained from the enemy of souls a range of existence beyond the period of mortality - a power to pass over space with the swiftness of thought - to encounter perils unharmed, to penetrate into dungeons, whose bolts were as flax and tow at my touch. It has been said that this power was accorded to me that I might be enabled to tempt wretches at their fearful hour of extremity with the promise of deliverance and immunity on condition of their exchanging situations with me.
"No one has ever changed destinies with Melmoth the Wanderer. I have traversed the world in search, and no one to gain that world would lose his own soul!" He paused. "Let me, if possible, obtain an hour's repose. Ay, repose - sleep!" he repeated, answering the astonishment of his hearers' looks. "My existence is still human!"
And a ghastly and derisive smile wandered over his features as he spoke. John Melmoth and Monçada quitted the apartment, and the Wanderer, sinking back in his chair slept profoundly.
The two men did not dare to approach the door until noon next day. The Wanderer started up, and they saw with horror the change that had come over him. The lines of extreme age were visible in every feature.
"My hour is come," he said. "Leave me alone. Whatever noises you may hear in the course of the awful night that is approaching, come not near, at peril of your lives. Be warned! Retire!"
They passed that day in intense anxiety, and at night had no thought of repose. At midnight sounds of indescribable horror began to issue from the Wanderer's apartment, shrieks of supplication, yells of blasphemy - they could not tell which. The sounds suddenly ceased. The two men hastened into the room. It was empty.
A small door leading to a back staircase was open, and near it they discovered the trace of footsteps of a person who had been walking in damp sand or clay. They traced the footsteps down the stairs, through the garden, and across a field to a rock that overlooked the sea.
Through the furze that clothed this rock, there was a kind of track as if a person had dragged his way, or been dragged, through it. The two men gained the summit of the rock; the wide, waste, engulfing ocean was beneath. On a crag below, something hung as floating to the blast. Melmoth clambered down and caught it. It was the handkerchief which the Wanderer had worn about his neck the preceding night. That was the last trace of the Wanderer.
Melmoth and Monçada exchanged looks of silent horror, and returned slowly home.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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