Evil and Madness

Two selections from Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin

The company were dispersed through various alleys of the garden; the bridegroom and bride wandered through one where the delicious perfume of the orange trees mingled itself with that of the myrtles in blow. On their return to the ball, both of them asked, Had the company heard the exquisite sounds that floated through the garden just before they quitted it? No one had heard them. They expressed their surprise. The Englishman had never quitted the hall; it was said he smiled with a most particular and extraordinary expression as the remark was made. His silence had been noticed before, but it was ascribed to his ignorance of the Spanish language, an ignorance that Spaniards are not anxious either to expose or remove by speaking to a stranger. The subject of the music was not again reverted to till the guests were seated at supper, when Donna Ines and her young husband, exchanging a smile of delighted surprise, exclaimed they heard the same delicious sounds floating round them. The guests listened, but no one else could hear it;—everyone felt there was something extraordinary in this. Hush! was uttered by every voice almost at the same moment. A dead silence followed,—you would think, from their intent looks, that they listened with their very eyes. This deep silence, contrasted with the splendor of the feast, and the light effused from torches held by the domestics, produced a singular effect,—it seemed for some moments like an assembly of the dead. The silence was interrupted, though the cause of wonder had not ceased, by the entrance of Father Olavida, the Confessor of Donna Isabella, who had been called away previous to the feast, to administer extreme unction to a dying man in the neighborhood. He was a priest of uncommon sanctity, beloved in the family, and respected in the neighborhood, where he had displayed uncommon taste and talents for exorcism;—in fact, this was the good Father’s forte, and he piqued himself on it accordingly. The devil never fell into worse hands than Father Olavida’s, for when he was so contumacious as to resist Latin, and even the first verses of the Gospel of St. John in Greek, which the good Father never had recourse to but in cases of extreme stubbornness and difficulty,— (here Stanton recollected the English story of the Boy of Bilson, and blushed even in Spain for his countrymen),—then he always applied to the Inquisition; and if the devils were ever so obstinate before, they were always seen to fly out of the possessed, just as, in the midst of their cries (no doubt of blasphemy), they were tied to the stake. Some held out even till the flames surrounded them; but even the most stubborn must have been dislodged when the operation was over, for the devil himself could no longer tenant a crisp and glutinous lump of cinders. Thus Father Olavida’s fame spread far and wide, and the Cardoza family had made uncommon interest to procure him for a Confessor, and happily succeeded. The ceremony he had just been performing had cast a shade over the good Father’s countenance, but it dispersed as he mingled among the guests, and was introduced to them. Room was soon made for him, and he happened accidentally to be seated opposite the Englishman. As the wine was presented to him, Father Olavida (who, as I observed, was a man of singular sanctity) prepared to utter a short internal prayer. He hesitated,— trembled,—desisted; and, putting down the wine, wiped the drops from his forehead with the sleeve of his habit. Donna Isabella gave a sign to a domestic, and other wine of a higher quality was offered to him. His lips moved, as if in the effort to pronounce a benediction on it and the company, but the effort again failed; and the change in his countenance was so extraordinary, that it was perceived by all the guests. He felt the sensation that his extraordinary appearance excited, and attempted to remove it by again endeavoring to lift the cup to his lips. So strong was the anxiety with which the company watched him, that the only sound heard in that spacious and crowded hall was the rustling of his habit as he attempted to lift the cup to his lips once more—in vain. The guests sat in astonished silence. Father Olavida alone remained standing; but at that moment the Englishman rose, and appeared determined to fix Olavida’s regards by a gaze like that of fascination. Olavida rocked, reeled, grasped the arm of a page, and at last, closing his eyes for a moment, as if to escape the horrible fascination of that unearthly glare (the Englishman’s eyes were observed by all the guests, from the moment of his entrance, to effuse a most fearful and preternatural luster), exclaimed, “Who is among us?—Who?—I cannot utter a blessing while he is here. I cannot feel one. Where he treads, the earth is parched!—Where he breathes, the air is fire!—Where he feeds, the food is poison!— Where he turns his glance is lightning!—WHO IS AMONG US?—WHO?” repeated the priest in the agony of adjuration, while his cowl fallen back, his few thin hairs around the scalp instinct and alive with terrible emotion, his outspread arms protruded from the sleeves of his habit, and extended toward the awful stranger, suggested the idea of an inspired being in the dreadful rapture of prophetic denunciation. He stood—still stood, and the Englishman stood calmly opposite to him. There was an agitated irregularity in the attitudes of those around them, which contrasted strongly the fixed and stern postures of those two, who remained gazing silently at each other. “Who knows him?” exclaimed Olavida, starting apparently from a trance; “who knows him? who brought him here?”

The guests severally disclaimed all knowledge of the Englishman, and each asked the other in whispers, “who HAD brought him there?” Father Olavida then pointed his arm to each of the company, and asked each individually, “Do you know him?” No! no! no!” was uttered with vehement emphasis by every individual. “But I know him,” said Olavida, “by these cold drops!” and he wiped them off;— “by these convulsed joints!” and he attempted to sign the cross, but could not. He raised his voice, and evidently speaking with increased difficulty,—”By this bread and wine, which the faithful receive as the body and blood of Christ, but which HIS presence converts into matter as viperous as the suicide foam of the dying Judas,—by all these—I know him, and command him to be gone!—He is—he is—” and he bent forward as he spoke, and gazed on the Englishman with an expression which the mixture of rage, hatred, and fear rendered terrible. All the guests rose at these words,— the whole company now presented two singular groups, that of the amazed guests all collected together, and repeating, “Who, what is he?” and that of the Englishman, who stood unmoved, and Olavida, who dropped dead in the attitude of pointing to him.

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At midnight he started from a doze, half a swoon, half a sleep, which probably the hardness of his seat, and of the deal table on which he leaned, had not contributed to prolong.

He was in complete darkness; the horror of his situation struck him at once, and for a moment he was indeed almost qualified for an inmate of that dreadful mansion. He felt his way to the door, shook it with desperate strength, and uttered the most frightful cries, mixed with expostulations and commands. His cries were in a moment echoed by a hundred voices. In maniacs there is a peculiar malignity, accompanied by an extraordinary acuteness of some of the senses, particularly in distinguishing the voice of a stranger. The cries that he heard on every side seemed like a wild and infernal yell of joy, that their mansion of misery had obtained another tenant.

He paused, exhausted,–a quick and thundering step was heard in the passage. The door was opened, and a man of savage appearance stood at the entrance,–two more were seen indistinctly in the passage.–’Release me, villain!’ ‘Stop, my fine fellow, what’s all this noise for?’ ‘Where am I?’ ‘Where you ought to be.’ ‘Will you dare to detain me?’ ‘Yes, and a little more than that,’ answered the ruffian, applying a loaded horse-whip to his back and shoulders, till the patient soon fell to the ground convulsed with rage and pain. ‘Now you see you are where you ought to be,’ repeated the ruffian, brandishing the horse-whip over him, ‘and now take the advice of a friend, and make no more noise. The lads are ready for you with the darbies, and they’ll clink them on in the crack of this whip, unless you prefer another touch of it first.’ They then were advancing into the room as he spoke, with fetters in their hands, (strait waistcoats being then little known or used), and shewed, by their frightful countenances and gestures, no unwillingness to apply them. Their harsh rattle on the stone pavement made Stanton’s blood run cold; the effect, however, was useful. He had the presence of mind to acknowledge his (supposed) miserable condition, to supplicate the forbearance of the ruthless keeper, and promise complete submission to his orders. This pacified the ruffian, and he retired.

Stanton collected all his resolution to encounter the horrible night; he saw all that was before him, and summoned himself to meet it. After much agitated deliberation, he conceived it best to continue the same appearance of submission and tranquillity, hoping that thus he might in time either propitiate the wretches in whose hands he was, or, by his apparent inoffensiveness, procure such opportunities of indulgence, as might perhaps ultimately facilitate his escape. He therefore determined to conduct himself with the utmost tranquillity, and never to let his voice be heard in the house; and he laid down several other resolutions with a degree of prudence which he already shuddered to think might be the cunning of incipient madness, or the beginning result of the horrid habits of the place.

These resolutions were put to desperate trial that very night. Just next to Stanton’s apartment were lodged two most uncongenial neighbours. One of them was a puritanical weaver, who had been driven mad by a single sermon from the celebrated Hugh Peters, and was sent to the mad-house as full of election and reprobation as he could hold,–and fuller. He regularly repeated over the five points while day-light lasted, and imagined himself preaching in a conventicle with distinguished success; towards twilight his visions were more gloomy, and at midnight his blasphemies became horrible. In the opposite cell was lodged a loyalist tailor, who had been ruined by giving credit to the cavaliers and their ladies,–(for at this time, and much later, down to the reign of Anne, tailors were employed by females even to make and fit on their stays),–who had run mad with drink and loyalty on the burning of the Rump, and ever since had made the cells of the madhouse echo with fragments of the ill-fated Colonel Lovelace’s songs, scraps from Cowley’s ‘Cutter of Coleman street,’ and some curious specimens from Mrs Aphra Behn’s plays, where the cavaliers are denominated the heroicks, and Lady Lambert and Lady Desborough represented as going to meeting, their large Bibles carried before them by their pages, and falling in love with two banished cavaliers by the way.–’Tabitha, Tabitha,’ cried a voice half in exultation and half in derision; thou shalt go with thy hair curled, and thy breasts naked;’–and then added in an affected voice,–’I could dance the Canaries once, spouse.’ This never failed to rouse the feelings, or rather operate on the instincts of the puritanic weaver, who immediately answered, ‘Colonel Harrison shall come out of the west, riding on a sky-coloured mule, which signifies instruction.’ ‘Ye lie, ye round-head son of a b–-h,’ roared the cavalier tailor, ‘Colonel Harrison will be damned before he ever mounts a sky-coloured mule;’ and he concluded this pithy sentence with fragments of anti-Oliverian songs.

‘And may I live to see
Old Noll upon a tree,
And many such as he;
Confound him, confound him,
Diseases all around him.’

‘Ye are honest gentlemen, I can play many tunes,’ squeaked a poor mad loyalist fiddler, who had been accustomed to play in the taverns to the cavalier party, and just remembered the words of a similar minstrel playing for Colonel Blunt in the committee. ‘Then play me the air to Rebellion is breaking up house,’ exclaimed the tailor, dancing wildly about his cell (as far as his chains allowed him) to an imaginary measure. The weaver could contain no longer. ‘How long, Lord, how long,’ he exclaimed, ‘shall thine enemies insult thy sanctuary, in which I have been placed an anointed teacher? even here, where I am placed to preach to the souls in prison?–Open the flood-gates of thy power, and though thy waves and storms go over me, let me testify in the midst of them, even as he who spreadeth forth his hands to swim may raise one of them to warn his companion that he is about to sink.–Sister Ruth, why dost thou uncover thy bosom to discover my frailty?–Lord, let thine arm of power be with us as it was when thou brakest the shield, the sword, and the battle.–when thy foot was dipped in the blood of thine enemies, and the tongue of thy dogs was red through the same.–Dip all thy garments in blood, and let me weave thee fresh when thou art stained.–When shall thy saints tread the winepress of thy wrath? Blood! blood! the saints call for it, earth gapes to swallow it, hell thirsts for it!–Sister Ruth, I pray thee, conceal thy bosom, and be not as the vain women of this generation.–Oh for a day like that, a day of the Lord of hosts, when the towers fell!–Spare me in the battle, for I am not a mighty man of war; leave me in the rear of the host, to curse, with the curse of Meroz, those who come not to the help of the Lord against the mighty,–even to curse this malignant tailor,–yea, curse him bitterly.–Lord, I am in the tents of Kedar, my feet stumble on the dark mountains,–I fall,–I fall!’–And the poor wretch, exhausted by his delirious agonies, fell, and grovelled for some time in his straw. ‘Oh! I have had a grievous fall,–Sister Ruth,–Oh Sister Ruth!–Rejoice not against me, Oh mine enemy! though I fall, I shall rise again.’ Whatever satisfaction Sister Ruth might have derived from this assurance, if she could have heard it, was enjoyed tenfold by the weaver, whose amorous reminiscences were in a moment exchanged for war-like ones, borrowed from a wretched and disarranged mass of intellectual rubbish. ‘The Lord is a man of war,’ he shouted.–’Look to Marston Moor!–Look to the city, the proud city, full of pride and sin!–Look to the waves of the Severn, as red with blood as the waves of the Red Sea!–There were the hoofs broken by means of the prancings, the prancings of the mighty ones.–Then, Lord, was thy triumph, and the triumph of thy saints, to bind their kings in chains, and their nobles in links of iron.’ The malignant tailor burst out in his turn: ‘Thank the false Scots, and their solemn league and covenant, and Carisbrook Castle, for that, ye crop-eared Puritan,’ he yelled. ‘If it had not been for them, I would have taken measure of the king for a velvet cloak as high as the Tower of London, and one flirt of its folds would have knocked the ‘copper nose’ into the Thames, and sent it a-drift to Hell.’ ‘Ye lie, in your teeth,’ echoed the weaver; ‘and I will prove it unarmed, with my shuttle against your needle, and smite you to the earth thereafter, as David smote Goliah. It was the man’s (such was the indecent language in which Charles the First was Spoken of by the Puritans)–it was the man’s carnal, self-seeking, World-loving, prelatical hierarchy, that drove the godly to seek the sweet word in season from their own pastors, who righteously abominated the Popish garniture of lawn-sleeves, lewd organs, and steeple houses. Sister Ruth, tempt me not with that calf’s head, it is all streaming with blood;–drop it, I beseech thee, sister, it is unmeet in a woman’s hand, though the brethren drink of it.–Woe be unto thee, gainsayer, dost thou not see how flames envelope the accursed city under his Arminian and Popish son?–London is on fire!–on fire!’ he yelled; ‘and the brands are lit by the half-papist, whole-arminian, all-damned people thereof.–Fire!–fire!’ The voice in which he shrieked out the last words was powerfully horrible, but it was like the moan of an infant, compared to the voice which took up and re-echoed the cry, in a tone that made the building shake. It was the voice of a maniac, who had lost her husband, children, subsistence, and finally her reason, in the dreadful fire of London. The cry of fire never failed to operate with terrible punctuality on her associations. She had been in a disturbed sleep, and now started from it as suddenly as on that dreadful night. It was Saturday night, too, and she was always observed to be particularly violent on that night,–it was the terrible weekly festival of insanity with her. She was awake, and busy in a moment escaping from the flames; and she dramatized the whole scene with such hideous fidelity, that Stanton’s resolution was far more in danger from her than from the battle between his neighbours Testimony and Hothead. She began exclaiming she was suffocated by the smoke; then she sprung from her bed, calling for a light, and appeared to be struck by the sudden glare that burst through her casement.–’The last day,’ she shrieked, ‘The last day! The very heavens are on fire!’–’That will not come till the Man of Sin be first destroyed,’ cried the weaver; ‘thou ravest of light and fire, and yet thou art in utter darkness.–I pity thee, poor mad soul, I pity thee!’ The maniac never heeded him; she appeared to be scrambling up a stair-case to her children’s room. She exclaimed she was scorched, singed, suffocated; her courage appeared to fail, and she retreated. ‘But my children are there!’ she cried in a voice of unspeakable agony, as she seemed to make another effort; ‘here I am–here I am come to save you.–Oh God! They are all blazing!–Take this arm–no, not that, it is scorched and disabled–well, any arm–take hold of my clothes–no, they are blazing too!–Well, take me all on fire as I am!–And their hair, how it hisses!–Water, one drop of water for my youngest–he is but an infant–for my youngest, and let me burn!’ She paused in horrid silence, to watch the fall of a blazing rafter that was about to shatter the stair-case on which she stood.–’The roof has fallen on my head!’ she exclaimed. ‘The earth is weak, and all the inhabitants thereof,’ chaunted the weaver; ‘I bear up the pillars of it.’

The maniac marked the destruction of the spot where she thought she stood by one desperate bound, accompanied by a wild shriek, and then calmly gazed on her infants as they rolled over the scorching fragments, and sunk into the abyss of fire below. ‘There they go,–one–two–three–all!’ and her voice sunk into low mutterings, and her convulsions into faint, cold shudderings, like the sobbings of a spent storm, as she imagined herself to ‘stand in safety and despair,’ amid the thousand houseless wretches assembled in the suburbs of London on the dreadful nights after the fire, without food, roof, or raiment, all gazing on the burning ruins of their dwellings and their property. She seemed to listen to their complaints, and even repeated some of them very affectingly, but invariably answered them with the same words, ‘But I have lost all my children–all!’ It was remarkable, that when this sufferer began to rave, all the others became silent. The cry of nature hushed every other cry,–she was the only patient in the house who was not mad from politics, religion, ebriety, or some perverted passion; and terrifying as the outbreak of her frenzy always was, Stanton used to await it as a kind of relief from the dissonant, melancholy, and ludicrous ravings of the others.

But the utmost efforts of his resolution began to sink under the continued horrors of the place. The impression on his senses began to defy the power of reason to resist them. He could not shut out these frightful cries nightly repeated, nor the frightful sound of the whip employed to still them. Hope began to fail him, as he observed, that the submissive tranquillity (which he had imagined, by obtaining increased indulgence, might contribute to his escape, or perhaps convince the keeper of his sanity) was interpreted by the callous ruffian, who was acquainted only with the varieties of madness, as a more refined species of that cunning which he was well accustomed to watch and baffle.

On his first discovery of his situation, he had determined to take the utmost care of his health and intellect that the place allowed, as the sole basis of his hope of deliverance. But as that hope declined, he neglected the means of realizing it. He had at first risen early, walked incessantly about his cell, and availed himself of every opportunity of being in the open air. He took the strictest care of his person in point of cleanliness, and with or without appetite, regularly forced down his miserable meals; and all these efforts were even pleasant, as long as hope prompted them. But now he began to relax them all. He passed half the day in his wretched bed, in which he frequently took his meals, declined shaving or changing his linen, and, when the sun shone into his cell, turned from it on his straw with a sigh of heart-broken despondency. Formerly, when the air breathed through his grating, he used to say, ‘Blessed air of heaven, I shall breathe you once more in freedom!–Reserve all your freshness for that delicious evening when I shall inhale you, and be as free as you myself.’ Now when he felt it, he sighed and said nothing. The twitter of the sparrows, the pattering of rain, or the moan of the wind, sounds that he used to sit up in his bed to catch with delight, as reminding him of nature, were now unheeded.

He began at times to listen with sullen and horrible pleasure to the cries of his miserable companions. He became squalid, listless, torpid, and disgusting in his appearance.

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