Charles Robert Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer
Τηλε μειργουσι ψυχαι, ειδοωλα καμοντων. — HOMER
When, after some days interval, the Spaniard attempted to describe his feelings on the receipt of his brothers letter, the sudden resuscitation of heart, and hope, and existence, that followed its perusal, he trembled,—uttered some inarticulate sounds,—wept;—and his agitation appeared to Melmoth, with his uncontinental feelings, so violent, that he entreated him to spare the description of his feelings, and proceed with his narrative.
You are right, said the Spaniard, drying his tears, joy is a convulsion, but grief is a habit, and to describe what we never can communicate, is as absurd as to talk of colours to the blind. I will hasten on, not to tell of my feelings, but of the results which they produced. A new world of hope was opened to me. I thought I saw liberty on the face of heaven when I walked in the garden. I laughed at the jar of the doors as they opened, and said to myself, You shall soon expand to me for ever. I behaved with uncommon complacency to the community. But I did not, amid all this, neglect the most scrupulous precautions suggested by my brother. Am I confessing the strength or the weakness of my heart? In the midst of all the systematic dissimulation that I was prepared and eager to carry on, the only circumstance that gave me real compunction, was my being obliged to destroy the letters of that dear and generous youth who had risked every thing for my emancipation. In the mean time, I pursued my preparations with industry inconceivable to you, who have never been in a convent.
Lent was now begun,—all the community were preparing themselves for the great confession. They shut themselves up,—they prostrated themselves before the shrines of the saints,—they occupied themselves whole hours in taking minutes of their consciences, and magnifying the trivial defects of conventual discipline into offences in the eye of God, in order to give consequence to their penitence in the hearing of the confessor,—in fact, they would have been glad to accuse themselves of a crime, to escape from the monotony of a monastic conscience. There was a kind of silent bustle in the house, that very much favoured my purposes. Hour after hour I demanded paper for my confession. I obtained it, but my frequent demands excited suspicion,—they little knew what I was writing. Some said, for every thing excites inquiry in a convent, He is writing the history of his family; he will discharge it into the ears of the confessor, along with the secrets of his own soul. Others said, He has been in a state of alienation for some time, he is giving an account to God for it,—we shall never hear a word about it. Others, who were more judicious, said, He is weary of the monastic life, he is writing an account of his monotony and ennui, doubtless that must be very long; and the speakers yawned as they uttered these words, which gave a very strong attestation to what they said. The Superior watched me in silence. He was alarmed, and with reason. He consulted with some of the discreet brethren, whom I mentioned before, and the result was a restless vigilance on their part, to which I supplied an incessant fuel, by my absurd and perpetual demand for paper. Here, I acknowledge, I committed a great oversight. It was impossible for the most exaggerated conscience to charge itself, even in a convent, with crimes enough to fill all the paper I required. I was filling them all the time with their crimes, not my own. Another great mistake I made, was being wholly unprepared for the great confession when it came on. I received intimations of this as we walked in the garden,—I have before mentioned that I had assumed an amicability of habit toward them. They would say to me, You have made ample preparations for the great confession. I have prepared myself. But we expect great edification from its results. I trust you will receive it.—I said no more, but I was very much disturbed at these hints. Others would say, My brother, amid the multitudinous offences that burden your conscience, and which you have found necessary to employ quires of paper to record, would it not be a relief to you to open your mind to the Superior, and ask for a few previous moments of consolation and direction from him. To this I answered, I thank you, and will consider of it.—I was thinking all the time of something else.
It was a few nights before the time of the great confession, that I had to entrust the last packet of my memorial to the porter. Our meetings had been hitherto unsuspected. I had received and answered my brothers communications, and our correspondence had been conducted with a secrecy unexampled in convents. But this last night, as I put my packet into the porters hand, I saw a change in his appearance that terrified me. He had been a comely, robust man, but now, even by the moon-light, I could perceive he was wasted to a shadow,—his hands trembled as he took the papers from me,—his voice faultered as he promised his usual secrecy. The change, which had been observed by the whole convent, had escaped me till that night; my mind had been too much occupied by my own situation. I noticed it then, however, and I said, But what is the matter? Can you then ask? I am withered to a spectre by the terrors of the office I have been bribed to. Do you know what I risk?—incarceration for life, or rather for death,—perhaps a denunciation to the Inquisition. Every line I deliver from you, or to you, seems a charge against my own soul,—I tremble when I meet you. I know that you have the sources of life and death, temporal and eternal, in your hands. The secret in which I am an agent should never be intrusted but to one, and you are another. As I sit in my place, I think every step in the cloister is advancing to summon me to the presence of the Superior. When I attend in the choir, amid the sounds of devotion your voice swells to accuse me. When I lie down at night, the evil spirit is beside my bed, reproaching me with perjury, and reclaiming his prey;—his emissaries surround me wherever I move,—I am beset by the tortures of hell. The saints from their shrines frown on me,—I see the painting of the traitor Judas on every side I turn to. When I sleep for a moment, I am awakened by my own cries. I exclaim, Do not betray me, he has not yet violated his vows, I was but an agent,—I was bribed,—do not kindle those fires for me. I shudder,—I start up in a cold sweat. My rest, my appetite, are gone. Would to God you were out of this convent;—and O! would that I had never been instrumental to your release, then both of us might have escaped damnation to all eternity. I tried to pacify him, to assure him of his safety, but nothing could satisfy him but my solemn and sincere assurance that this was the last packet I would ever ask him to deliver. He departed tranquillized by this assurance; and I felt the dangers of my attempt multiplying around me every hour.
This man was faithful, but he was timid; and what confidence can we have in a being whose right hand is held out to you, while his left trembles to be employed in transferring your secret to your enemy. This man died a few weeks after. I believe I owed his dying fidelity to the delirium that seized on his last moments. But what I suffered during those moments!—his death under such circumstances, and the unchristian joy I felt at it, were only in my mind stronger evidences against the unnatural state of life that could render such an event, and such feelings, almost necessary. It was on the evening after this, that I was surprised to see the Superior, with four of the monks, enter my cell. I felt this visit boded me no good. I trembled all over, while I received them with deference. The Superior seated himself opposite to me, arranging his seat so as that I was opposite the light. I did not understand what this precaution meant, but I conceive now, that he wished to watch every change in my countenance, while his was concealed from me. The four monks stood at the back of his chair; their arms were folded, their lips closed, their eyes half shut, their heads declined—they looked like men assembled reluctantly to witness the execution of a criminal. The Superior began, in a mild voice, My son, you have been intently employed on your confession for some time—that was laudable. But have you, then, accused yourself of every crime your conscience charges you with? I have, my father. Of all, you are sure? My father, I have accused myself of all I was conscious of. Who but God can penetrate the abysses of the heart? I have searched mine as far as I could. And you have recorded all the accusations you found there? I have. And you did not discover among them the crime of obtaining the means of writing out your confession, to abuse them to a very different purpose?—This was coming to the point. I felt it necessary to summon my resolution—and I said, with a venial equivocation, That is a crime of which my conscience does not accuse me? My son, do not dissemble with your conscience, or with me. I should be even above it in your estimation; for if it errs and deceives you, it is to me you should apply to enlighten and direct it. But I see it is in vain to attempt to touch your heart. I make my last appeal to it in these plain words. A few moments only of indulgence await you—use them or abuse them, as you will. I have to ask you a few plain questions, which, if you refuse to answer, or do not answer truly, your blood be on your own head. I trembled, but I said, My father, have I then refused to answer your questions? Your answers are all either interrogations or evasions. They must be direct and simple to the questions I am about to propose in the presence of these brethren. More depends on your answer than you are aware of. The warning voice breaks forth in spite of me.—Terrified at these words, and humbled to the wish to propitiate them, I rose from my chair—then gasping, I leant on it for support. I said, My God! what is all this terrible preparation for? Of what am I guilty? Why am I summoned by this warning voice so often, whose warnings are only so many mysterious threatenings? Why am I not told of my offence?
The four monks, who had never spoken or lifted up their heads till that moment, now directed their livid eyes at me, and repeated, all together, in a voice that seemed to issue from the bottom of a sepulchre, Your crime is — The Superior gave them a signal to be silent, and this interruption increased my consternation. It is certain, that when we are conscious of guilt, we always suspect that a greater degree of it will be ascribed to us by others. Their consciences avenge the palliations of our own, by the most horrible exaggerations. I did not know of what crime they might be disposed to accuse me; and already I felt the accusation of my clandestine correspondence as dust in the balance of their resentment. I had heard the crimes of convents were sometimes unutterably atrocious; and I felt as anxious now for a distinct charge to be preferred against me, as I had a few moments before to evade it. These indefinite fears were soon exchanged for real ones, as the Superior proposed his questions. You have procured a large quantity of paper—-how did you employ it? I recovered myself, and said, As I ought to do. How, in unburdening your conscience? Yes, in unburdening my conscience. That is false; the greatest sinner on earth could not have blotted so many pages with the record of his crimes. I have often been told in the convent, I was the greatest sinner on earth. You equivocate again, and convert your ambiguities into reproaches—this will not do—you must answer plainly: For what purpose did you procure so much paper, and how have you employed it? I have told you already. It was, then, employed in your confession?—I was silent, but bowed assentingly.—You can, then, shew us the proofs of your application to your duties. Where is the manuscript that contains your confession? I blushed and hesitated, as I showed about half-a-dozen blotted and scrawled pages as my confession. It was ridiculous. It did not occupy more than a tenth part of the paper which I had received. And this is your confession? It is. And you dare to say that you have employed all the paper entrusted to you for that purpose.—I was silent. Wretch! said the Superior, losing all patience, disclose instantly for what purpose you have employed the paper granted you. Acknowledge instantly that it was for some purpose contrary to the interests of this house.—At these words I was roused. I saw again the cloven foot of interest peeping from beneath the monastic garb. I answered, Why am I suspected if you are not guilty? What could I accuse you of? What could I complain of if there were no cause? Your own consciences must answer this question for me. At these words, the monks were again about to interpose, when the Superior, silencing them by a signal, went on with his matter-of-fact questions, that paralyzed all the energy of passion. You will not tell me what you have done with the paper committed to you?—I was silent.—I enjoin you, by your holy obedience, to disclose it this moment.—His voice rose in passion as he spoke, and this operated as a signal on mine. I said, You have no right, my father, to demand such a declaration. Right is not the question now. I command you to tell me. I require your oath on the altar of Jesus Christ, and by the image of his blessed Mother. You have no right to demand such an oath. I know the rules of the house—I am responsible to the confessor. Do you, then, make a question between right and power? You shall soon feel, within these walls, they are the same. I make no question—perhaps they are the same. And you will not tell what you have done with those papers, blotted, doubtless, with the most infernal calumnies? I will not. And you will take the consequences of your obstinacy on your own head? I will. And the four monks chorussed again, all in the same unnatural tone, The consequences be on his own head. But while they spoke thus, two of them whispered in my ears, Deliver up your papers, and all is well. The whole convent knows you have been writing. I answered, I have nothing to give up—nothing on the faith of a monk. I have not a single page in my possession, but what you have seized on. The monks, who had whispered in a conciliatory tone to me before, quitted me. They conversed in whispers with the Superior, who, darting on me a terrible look, exclaimed, And you will not give up your papers? I have nothing to give up: Search my person—search my cell—every thing is open to you. Every thing shall be soon, said the Superior in fury. In a moment the examination commenced. There was not an article of furniture in my cell that was not the object of their investigation. My chair and table were overturned, shaken, and finally broken, in the attempt to discover whether any papers had been secreted in them. The prints were snatched from the walls,—held up between them and the light.—Then the very frames were broken, to try if any thing was concealed in them. Then they examined my bed;—they threw all the furniture about the floor, they unripped the mattress, and tore out the straw; one of them, during this operation, actually applied his teeth to facilitate it,—and this malice of activity formed a singular contrast to the motionless and rigid torpor with which they had clothed themselves but a few moments before. All this time, I stood in the centre of the floor, as I was ordered, without turning to right or left. Nothing was found to justify their suspicions. They then surrounded me; and the examination of my person was equally rapid, minute, and indecorous. Every thing I wore was on the floor in a moment: The very seams of my habit were ript open; and, during the examination, I covered myself with one of the blankets they had taken from my bed. When it was over, I said, Have you discovered any thing? The Superior answered, in a voice of rage, struggling proudly, but vainly, with disappointment, I have other means of discovery—prepare for them, and tremble when they are resorted to. At these words he rushed from my cell, giving a sign to the four monks to follow him. I was left alone. I had no longer any doubt of my danger. I saw myself exposed to the fury of men who would risk nothing to appease it. I watched, waited, trembled, at every step I heard in the gallery—at the sound of every door that opened or shut near me. Hours went on in this agony of suspense, and terminated at last without an event. No one came near me that night—the next was to be that of the great confession. In the course of the day, I took my place in the choir, trembling, and watching every eye. I felt as if every countenance was turned on me, and every tongue said in silence, Thou art the man. Often I wished that the storm I felt was gathering around me, would burst at once. It is better to hear the thunder than to watch the cloud. It did not burst, however, then. And when the duties of the day were over, I retired to my cell, and remained there, pensive, anxious, and irresolute.
The confession had begun; and as I heard the penitents, one by one, return from the church, and close the doors of their cells, I began to dread that I was to be excluded from approaching the holy chair, and that this exclusion from a sacred and indispensible right, was to be the commencement of some mysterious course of rigour. I waited, however, and was at last summoned. This restored my courage, and I went through my duties more tranquilly. After I had made my confession, only a few simple questions were proposed to me, as, Whether I could accuse myself of any inward breach of conventual duty? of any thing I had reserved? any thing in my conscience? &c.—and on my answering them in the negative, was suffered to depart. It was on that very night the porter died. My last packet had gone some days before,—all was safe and well. Neither voice or line could bear witness against me now, and hope began to revisit me, as I reflected that my brothers zealous industry would discover some other means for our future communication.
All was profound calm for a few days, but the storm was to come soon enough. On the fourth evening after the confession, I was sitting alone in my cell, when I heard an unusual bustle in the convent. The bell was rung,—the new porter seemed in great agitation,—the Superior hurried to the parlour first, then to his cell,—then some of the elder monks were summoned. The younger whispered in the galleries,—shut their doors violently,—all seemed in agitation. In a domestic building, occupied by the smallest family, such circumstances would hardly be noticed, but, in a convent, the miserable monotony of what may be called their internal existence, gives an importance,—an interest, to the most trivial external circumstance in common life. I felt all this. I said to myself, Something is going on.—I added, Something is going on against me. I was right in both my conjectures. Late in the evening I was ordered to attend the Superior in his own apartment,—I said I was ready to go. Two minutes after the order was reversed, and I was desired to remain in my cell, and await the approach of the Superior,—I answered I was willing to obey. But this sudden change of orders filled me with an indefinite fear; and in all the changes of my life, and vicissitude of my feelings, I have never felt any fear so horrible. I walked up and down, I repeated incessantly, My God protect me! my God strengthen me! Then I dreaded to ask the protection of God, doubting whether the cause in which I was engaged merited his protection. My ideas, however, were all scattered by the sudden entrance of the Superior and the four monks who had attended him on the visit previous to the confession. At their entrance I rose,—no one desired me to sit down. The Superior advanced with a look of fury, and, dashing some papers on my table, said, Is that your writing? I threw a hurried and terrified eye over the papers,—they were a copy of my memorial. I had presence of mind enough to say, That is not my writing. Wretch! you equivocate, it is a copy of your writing.—I was silent.—Here is a proof of it, he added, throwing down another paper. It was a copy of the memoir of the advocate, addressed to me, and which, by the influence of a superior court, they had not the power of withholding from me. I was expiring with anxiety to examine it, but I did not dare to glance at it. The Superior unfolded page after page. He said, Read, wretch! read,—look into it, examine it line by line. I approached trembling,—I glanced at it,—in the very first lines I read hope. My courage revived.—I said, My father, I acknowledge this to be the copy of my memorial. I demand your permission to read the answer of the advocate, you cannot refuse me this right. Read it, said the Superior, and he flung it towards me.
You may readily believe, Sir, that, under such circumstances, I could not read with very steady eyes; and my penetration was not at all quickened by the four monks disappearing from the cell, at a signal I did not see. The Superior and I were now alone. He walked up and down my cell, while I appeared to hang over the advocates memoir. Suddenly he stopped;—he struck his hand with violence on the table,—the pages I was trembling over quivered from the violence of the blow,—I started from my chair. Wretch, said the Superior, when have such papers as those profaned the convent before? When, till your unhallowed entrance, were we insulted with the memoirs of legal advocates? How comes it that you have dared to — Do what, my father? Reclaim your vows, and expose us to all the scandal of a civil court and its proceedings. I weighed it all against my own misery. Misery! is it thus you speak of a conventual life, the only life that can promise tranquillity here, or ensure salvation hereafter. These words, uttered by a man convulsed by the most frantic passion, were their own refutation. My courage rose in proportion to his fury; and besides, I was driven to a point, and forced to act on my defence. The sight of the papers added to my confidence. I said, My father, it is in vain to endeavour to diminish my repugnance to the monastic life; the proof that that repugnance is invincible lies before you. If I have been guilty of a step that violates the decorum of a convent, I am sorry,—but I am not reprehensible. Those who forced me into a convent, are guilty of the violence which is falsely ascribed to me. I am determined, if it be possible, to change my situation. You see the efforts I have already made, be assured they will never cease. Disappointment will only redouble their energy; and if it be in the power of heaven or earth to procure the annulment of my vows, there is no power in either I will not have recourse to. I expected he would not have heard me out, but he did. He even listened with calmness, and I prepared myself to encounter and repel that alternation of reproach and remonstrance, of solicitation and menace, which they so well know how to employ in a convent. Your repugnance to a conventual life is then invincible? It is. But to what do you object?—not to your duties, for you perform them with the most edifying punctuality,—not to the treatment you receive, for it has been the most indulgent that our discipline admits of,—not to the community itself, who are all disposed to cherish and love you;—of what do you complain? Of the life itself,—that comprehends every thing. I am not fit to be a monk. Remember, I implore you, that though the forms of earthly courts must be obeyed, from the necessity that makes us dependent on human institutions, in all matters between man and man, they never can be available in matters between God and man. Be assured, my deluded child, that if all the courts on earth pronounced you absolved from your vows this moment, your own conscience never can absolve you. All your ignominious life, it will continue to reproach you with the violation of a vow, whose breach man has connived at, but God has not. And, at your last hour, how horrible will those reproaches be! Not so horrible as at the hour I took that vow, or rather at the hour when it was extorted. Extorted! Yes, my father, yes,—I take Heaven to witness against you. On that disastrous morning, your anger, your remonstrances, your pleadings, were as ineffectual as they are now, till you flung the body of my mother before my feet. And do you reproach me with my zeal in the cause of your salvation? I do not wish to reproach you. You know the step I have taken, you must be aware I will pursue it with all the powers of nature,—that I will never rest till my vows are annulled, while a hope of it remains,—and that a soul, determined as mine, can convert despair itself into hope. Surrounded, suspected, watched as I have been, I yet found the means of conveying my papers to the hands of the advocate. Calculate the strength of that resolution which could effectuate such a measure in the very heart of a convent. Judge of the futility of all future opposition, when you failed in defeating, or even detecting, the first steps of my design. At these words the Superior was silent. I believed I had made an impression on him. I added, If you wish to spare the community the disgrace of my prosecuting my appeal within its walls, the alternative is easy. Let the door he left unguarded some day, connive at my escape, and my presence shall never molest or dishonour you another hour. How! would you make me not only a witness, but an accomplice in your crime? Apostate from God, and plunged in perdition as you are, do you repay the hand stretched out to save you, by seizing it, that you may drag me into the infernal gulph along with you? and he walked up and down the cell in the most violent agitation. This unlucky proposal operated on his master-passion, (for he was exemplarily rigid in discipline), and produced only convulsions of hostility. I stood waiting till this fresh burst had subsided, while he continued to exclaim incessantly, My God, for what offence am I thus humiliated?—for what inconceivable crime is this disgrace precipitated on the whole convent? What will become of our character? What will all Madrid say? My father, whether an obscure monk lives, dies, or recalls his vows, is an object of little importance beyond the walls of his convent. They will forget me soon, and you will be consoled by the restored harmony of the discipline, in which I should always be a jarring note. Besides, all Madrid, with all the interest you ascribe to it, could never be made responsible for my salvation. He continued to walk up and down, repeating, What will the world say? What will become of us? till he had worked himself into a state of fury; and, suddenly turning on me, he exclaimed, Wretch! renounce your horrible resolution,—renounce it this moment! I give you but five minutes for consideration. Five thousand would make no change. Tremble, then, lest you should not have life spared to see the fulfilment of your impious purposes.
As he uttered these words he rushed from my cell. The moments I passed during his absence were, I think, the most horrible of my life. Their terror was aggravated by darkness, for it was now night, and he had carried away the light along with him. My agitation did not at first permit me to observe this. I felt I was in the dark, but knew not how or why. A thousand images of indescribable horror rushed in a host on me. I had heard much of the terrors of convents,—of their punishments, often carried to the infliction of death, or of reducing their victim to a state in which death would have been a blessing. Dungeons, chains, and scourges, swam before my eyes in a fiery mist. The threatening words of the Superior appeared emblazoned on the darkened walls of my cell in characters of flame. I shuddered,—I cried aloud, though conscious that my voice would be echoed by no friendly answering tones in a community of sixty persons,—such is the sterility of humanity in a convent. At last my very fears recovered me by their excess. I said to myself, They dare not murder me,—they dare not incarcerate me;—they are answerable to the court to which I have appealed for my forthcoming,—they dare not be guilty of any violence. Just as I had come to this comfortable conclusion, which indeed was the triumph of the sophistry of hope, the door of my cell was thrown open, and the Superior, attended by his four satellites re-entered. My eyes were dim from the darkness in which I had been left, but I could distinguish that they carried with them a rope and a piece of sackcloth. I drew the most frightful presages from this apparatus. I altered my reasoning in a moment, and instead of saying they dare not do so and so, I instantly argued What dare they not do? I am in their power,—they know it. I have provoked them to the utmost,—what is it monks will not do in the impotence of their malignity?—what is to become of me? They advanced, and I imagined the rope was to strangle me, and the sackcloth to inclose my murdered body. A thousand images of blood swam before me,—a gush of fire choaked up my respiration. The groans of a thousand victims seemed to rise from the vaults of the convent, to which they had been hurried by a fate like mine. I know not what is death, but I am convinced I suffered the agonies of many deaths in that moment. My first impulse was to throw myself on my knees. I said, I am in your power,—I am guilty in your eyes,—accomplish your purpose, but do not keep me long in pain. The Superior, without heeding, or perhaps hearing me, said, Now you are in the posture that becomes you. At hearing these words, which sounded less dreadful than I had feared, I prostrated myself to the ground. A few moments before I would have thought this a degradation, but fear is very debasing. I had a dread of violent means,—I was very young, and life was not the less attractive from its being arrayed only in the brilliant drapery of imagination. The monks observed my posture,—they feared its effect on the Superior. They said, in that choral monotony,—that discordant unison that had frozen my blood when I knelt in the same posture but a few nights before, Reverend father, do not suffer yourself to be imposed on by this prostituted humiliation,—the time for mercy is past. You gave him his moments of deliberation,—he refused to avail himself of them. You come now not to listen to pleadings, but to inflict justice. At these words, that announced every thing horrible, I went on my knees from one to the other, as they all stood in a grim and executioner-like row. I said to each with tears, Brother Clement,—Brother Justin,—why do you try to irritate the Superior against me? Why do you precipitate a sentence which, whether just or not, must be severe, since you are to be the executioners? What have I done to offend you? I interceded for you when you were guilty of any slight deviation—Is this my return? This is wasting time, said the monks. Hold, said the Superior; give him leave to speak. Will you avail yourself of the last moment of indulgence I can ever afford you, to renounce your horrible resolution of recalling your vows? Those words renewed all my energies. I stood upright before them all. I said, in a loud distinct voice, Never—I stand at the bar of God. Wretch! you have renounced God. Well, then, my father, I have only to hope that God will not renounce me. I have appealed to a bar also, over which you have no power. But we have power here, and that you shall feel. He made a signal, and the four monks approached. I uttered one short cry of fear, but submitted the next moment. I felt convinced it was to be my last. I was astonished, when, instead of fastening the cords round my neck, they bound my arms with them. They then took off my habit, and covered me with the sackcloth. I made no resistance; but shall I confess to you, Sir, I felt some disappointment. I was prepared for death, but something worse than death appeared threatened in these preparations. When we are driven to the precipice of mortality, we spring forward with resolution, and often defeat the triumph of our murderers, by merging it in our own. But when we are led to it step by step, held often over it, and then withdrawn, we lose our resolution along with our patience; and feel, that the last blow would be mercy, compared with its long-suspended, slowly descending, wavering, mutilating, hesitating stroke. I was prepared for every thing but what followed. Bound with this rope as fast as a felon, or a galley-slave, and covered only with the sackcloth, they dragged me along the gallery. I uttered no cry, made no resistance. They descended the stairs that led to the church. I followed, or rather was dragged after them. They crossed the aisle; there was a dark passage near it which I had never observed before. We entered it. A low door at the end presented a frightful perspective. At sight of it I cried aloud, You will not immure me? You will not plunge me in that horrible dungeon, to be withered by damps, and devoured by reptiles? No, you will not,—remember you are answerable for my life. At these words, they surrounded me; then, for the first time, I struggled,—I called for help;—this was the moment they waited for; they wanted some repugnance on my part. The signal was instantly given to a lay-brother, who waited in the passage,—the bell was rung,—that terrible bell, that requires every member of a convent to plunge into his cell, as something extraordinary is going on in the house. At the first toll I lost all hope. I felt as if not a living being was in existence but those who surrounded me, and who appeared, in the livid light of one taper burning faintly in that dismal passage, like spectres hurrying a condemned soul to his doom. They hurried me down the steps to this door, which was considerably below the level of the passage. It was a long time before they could open it; many keys were tried; perhaps they might have felt some agitation at the thoughts of the violence they were going to commit. But this delay increased my terrors beyond expression; I imagined this terrible vault had never been unclosed before; that I was to be the first victim inhumed within it; and that their determination was, I should never quit it alive. As these thoughts occurred, in unutterable agony I cried aloud, though I felt I was beyond all human hearing; but my cries were drowned in the jarring of the heavy door, as it yielded to the efforts of the monks, who, uniting their strength, pushed it with extended arms, grating all the way against the floor of stone. The monks hurried me in, while the Superior stood at the entrance with the light, appearing to shudder at the view it disclosed. I had time to view all the furniture of what I thought my last abode. It was of stone; the roof formed an arch; a block of stone supported a crucifix, and a deaths head, with a loaf and a pitcher of water. There was a mat on the floor, to lie on; another rolled up at the end of it formed a pillow. They flung me on it, and prepared to depart. I no longer struggled, for I knew escape was in vain, but I supplicated them at least to leave me a light; and I petitioned for this with as much earnestness as I could have done for my liberty. Thus it is that misery always breaks down the mind into petty details. We have not strength to comprehend the whole of our calamity. We feel not the mountain which is heaped on us, but the nearest grains press on and grind us. I said, In Christian mercy leave me a light, if it be but to defend myself against the reptiles that must swarm here. And already I saw this was true, for some of extraordinary size, disturbed by the phenomenon of the light, came crawling down the walls. All this time the monks were straining their strength to close the heavy door; they did not utter a word. I adjure you to leave me light, if it is but to gaze on that skull; fear not the exercise of sight can be any indulgence in this place; but still let me have a light; think that when I wish to pray, I must feel my way to that crucifix. As I spoke, the door was with difficulty closed and locked, and I heard their departing steps. You will hardly believe, Sir, that I slept profoundly; yet I did; but I would rather never sleep again, than awake so horribly. I awoke in the darkness of day. I was to behold the light no more; nor to watch those divisions of time, which, by measuring our portions of suffering, appear to diminish them. When the clock strikes, we know an hour of wretchedness is past, never to return. My only time-keeper was the approach of the monk, who every day renewed my allowance of bread and water; and had he been the object I loved most on earth, the sound of his steps could not have made more delicious music. These æras by which we compute the hours of darkness and inanity are inconceivable to any but those who are situated as I was. You have heard, Sir, no doubt, that the eye which, on its being first immersed into darkness, appears deprived of the power of vision for ever, acquires, imperceptibly, a power of accommodating itself to its darkened sphere, and even of distinguishing objects by a kind of conventional light. The mind certainly possesses the same power, otherwise, how could I have had the power to reflect, to summon some resolution, and even to indulge some hope, in this frightful abode? Thus it is, when all the world seems sworn to hostility against us, we turn friends to ourselves with all the obstinacy of despair;—and while all the world is flattering and deifying us, we are the perpetual victims of lassitude and self-reproach.
The prisoner whose hours are visited by a dream of emancipation, is less a prey to ennui than the sovereign on a throne, begirt with adulation, voluptuousness, and satiety. I reflected that all my papers were safe,—that my cause was prosecuting with vigour,—that, owing to my brothers zeal, I had the ablest advocate in Madrid,—that they dared not murder me, and were answerable with the whole credit of the house for my re-appearance whenever the courts demanded it,—that the very rank of my family was a powerful protection, though none of them but my generous fiery Juan was probably favourable to me;—that if I was permitted to receive and read the advocates first memoir, even through the hands of the Superior, it was absurd to imagine that I could be denied intercourse with him in a more advanced and important stage of the business. These were the suggestions of my hope, and they were plausible enough. What were the suggestions of my despair, I shudder even at this moment to reflect on. The most terrible of all was, that I might be murdered conventually before it was possible that my liberation could be accomplished.
Such, Sir, were my reflections; you may ask, what were my occupations? My situation supplied me with those, and, revolting as they were, they were still occupations. I had my devotions to perform; religion was my only resource in solitude and darkness, and while I prayed only for liberty and peace, I felt I was not at least insulting God by the prayers of hypocrisy, which I would have been compelled to utter in the choir. There I was obliged to join in a sacrifice that was odious to me, and offensive to him;—in my dungeon I offered up the sacrifice of my heart, and felt it was not unacceptable. During the glimpse of light afforded me by the approach of the monk who brought me bread and water, I arranged the crucifix so as that I could feel it when I awoke. This was very often, and not knowing whether it was day or night, I uttered my prayers at random. I knew not whether it was matins or vespers; there was neither morning or evening for me, but it was like a talisman to me to touch the crucifix, and I said as I felt for it, My God is with me in the darkness of my dungeon; he is a God who has suffered, and can pity me. My extremest point of wretchedness can be nothing to what this symbol of divine humiliation for the sins of man, has undergone for mine!—and I kissed the sacred image (with lips wandering from the darkness) with more emotion than I had ever felt when I saw it illuminated by the blaze of tapers, amid the elevation of the Host, the tossing of the perfumed censers, the gorgeous habits of the priests, and the breathless prostration of the faithful. I had other occupations less dignified, but quite as necessary. The reptiles, who filled the hole into which I had been thrust, gave me opportunity for a kind of constant, miserable, ridiculous hostility. My mat had been placed in the very seat of warfare;—I shifted it,—still they pursued me;—I placed it against the wall,—the cold crawling of their bloated limbs often awoke me from my sleep, and still oftener made me shudder when awake. I struck at them;—I tried to terrify them by my voice, to arm myself against them by the help of my mat; but above all, my anxiety was ceaseless to defend my bread from their loathsome incursions, and my pitcher of water from their dropping into it. I adopted a thousand precautions, trivial as they were inefficacious, but still there was occupation. I do assure you, Sir, I had more to do in my dungeon than in my cell. To be fighting with reptiles in the dark appears the most horrible struggle that can be assigned to man; but what is it compared to his combat with those reptiles which his own heart hourly engenders in a cell, and of which, if his heart be the mother, solitude is the father. I had another employment,—I cannot call it occupation. I had calculated with myself, that sixty minutes made an hour, and sixty seconds a minute. I began to think I could keep time as accurately as any clock in a convent, and measure the hours of my confinement or—my release. So I sat and counted sixty; a doubt always occurred to me, that I was counting them faster than the clock. Then I wished to be the clock, that I might have no feeling, no motive for hurrying on the approach of time. Then I reckoned slower. Sleep sometimes overtook me in this exercise, (perhaps I adopted it from that hope); but when I awoke, I applied to it again instantly. Thus I oscillated, reckoned, and measured time on my mat, while time withheld its delicious diary of rising and setting suns,—of the dews of dawn and of twilight,—of the glow of morning and the shades of the evening. When my reckoning was broken by my sleep, (and I knew not whether I slept by day or by night), I tried to eke it out by my incessant repetition of minutes and seconds, and I succeeded; for I always consoled myself, that whatever hour it was, sixty minutes must go to an hour. Had I led this life much longer, I might have been converted into the idiot, who, as I have read, from the habit of watching a clock, imitated its mechanism so well, that when it was down, he sounded the hour as faithfully as ear could desire. Such was my life. On the fourth day, (as I reckoned by the visits of the monk), he placed my bread and water on the block of stone as usual, but hesitated for some time before he departed. In fact, he felt a repugnance at delivering an intimation of hope; it was not consonant either to his profession, or the office which, in the wantonness of monastic malignity, he had accepted as penance. You shudder at this, Sir, but it is nevertheless true; this man thought he was doing service to God, by witnessing the misery of a being incarcerated amid famine, darkness, and reptiles. He recoiled when his penance terminated. Alas! how false is that religion which makes our aggravating the sufferings of others our mediator with that God who willeth all men to be saved. But this is a question to be solved in convents. This man hesitated long, struggled with the ferocity of his nature, and at last departed and bolted the door, that he might indulge it a few moments longer. Perhaps in those moments he prayed to God, and ejaculated a petition, that this protraction of my sufferings might be accepted as a melioration of his own. I dare say he was very sincere; but if men were taught to look to the one great Sacrifice, would they be so ready to believe that their own, or those of others, could ever be accepted as a commutation for it? You are surprised, Sir, at these sentiments from a Catholic; but another part of my story will disclose the cause of my uttering them. At length this man could delay his commission no longer. He was obliged to tell me that the Superior was moved by my sufferings, that God had touched his heart in my behalf, and that he permitted me to quit my dungeon. The words were scarce out of his mouth, before I rose, and rushed out with a shout that electrified him. Emotion is very unusual in convents, and the expression of joy a phenomenon. I had gained the passage before he recovered his surprise; and the convent walls, which I had considered as those of a prison, now appeared the area of emancipation. Had its doors been thrown open to me that moment, I dont think I could have felt a more exquisite sensibility of liberty. I fell on my knees in the passage to thank God. I thanked him for the light, for the air, for the restored power of respiration. As I was uttering these effusions, (certainly not the least sincere that were ever poured forth within those walls), suddenly I became sick,—my head swam round,—I had feasted on the light to excess. I fell to the ground, and remember nothing for many hours afterwards. When I recovered my senses, I was in my cell, which appeared just as I had left it; it was day-light, however; and I am persuaded that circumstance contributed more to my restoration, than the food and cordials with which I was now liberally supplied. All that day I heard nothing, and had time to meditate on the motives of the indulgence with which I had been treated. I conceived that an order might have been issued to the Superior to produce me, or, at all events, that he could not prevent those interviews between the advocate and me, which the former might insist on as necessary while my cause was carrying on. Towards evening some monks entered my cell; they talked of indifferent matters,—affected to consider my absence as the result of indisposition, and I did not undeceive them. They mentioned, as if incidentally, that my father and mother, overwhelmed with grief at the scandal I had brought on religion by appealing against my vows, had quitted Madrid. At this intelligence I felt much more emotion than I showed. I asked them how long I had been ill? They answered, Four days. This confirmed my suspicions with regard to the cause of my liberation, for the advocates letter had mentioned, that on the fifth day he would require an interview with me on the subject of my appeal. They then departed; but I was soon to receive another visitor. After vespers, (from which I was excused), the Superior entered my cell alone. He approached my bed. I attempted to rise, but he desired me to compose myself, and sat down near me with a calm but penetrating look. He said, You have now found we have it in our power to punish.—I never doubted it.—Before you tempt that power to an extremity, which, I warn you, you will not be able to endure, I come to demand of you to resign this desperate appeal against your vows, which can terminate only in dishonouring God, and disappointing yourself.—My father, without entering into details, which the steps taken on both sides have rendered wholly unnecessary, I can only reply, that I will support my appeal with every power Providence puts within my reach, and that my punishment has only confirmed my resolution.—And this is your final determination?—It is, and I implore you to spare me all further importunity,—it will be useless. He was silent for a long time; at length he said, And you will insist on your right to an interview with the advocate to-morrow?—I shall claim it.—It will not be necessary, however, to mention to him your late punishment. These words struck me. I comprehended the meaning which he wished to conceal in them, and I answered, It may not be necessary, but it will probably be expedient.—How?—would you violate the secrets of the house, while you are yet within its walls?—Pardon me, my father, for saying, that you must be conscious of having exceeded your duty, to be so anxious for its concealment. It is not, then, the secrets of your discipline, but the violation of it, I shall have to disclose.—He was silent, and I added, If you have abused your power, though I have been the sufferer, it is you who are guilty.—The Superior rose, and quitted my cell in silence. The next morning I attended matins. Service went on as usual, but at its conclusion, when the community were about to rise from their knees, the Superior, striking the desk violently with his hand, commanded them all to remain in the same posture. He added, in a thundering voice, The intercession of this whole community with God is supplicated for a monk who, abandoned by the Spirit of God, is about to commit an act dishonourable to Him, disgraceful to the church, and infallibly destructive of his own salvation. At these terrible sounds the monks, all shuddering, sunk on their knees again. I was kneeling among them, when the Superior, calling me by my name, said aloud, Rise, wretch! rise, and pollute not our incense with your unhallowed breath! I rose trembling and confounded, and shrunk to my cell, where I remained till I was summoned by a monk to the parlour, to meet the advocate, who waited for me there. This interview was rendered quite ineffective by the presence of the monk, who was desired by the Superior to witness our conference, and whom the advocate could not order away. When we entered into details, he interrupted us with declarations, that his duty would not permit such a violation of the rules of the parlour. When I asserted a fact, he contradicted it, gave me the lie repeatedly, and finally disturbed the purpose of our conference so completely, that in mere self-defence, I spoke of the subject of my punishment, which he could not deny, and to which my livid looks bore a testimony invincible. The moment I spoke on this subject the monk became silent, (he was treasuring every word for the Superior), and the advocate redoubled his attention. He took minutes of every thing I said, and appeared to lay more stress on the matter than I had imagined, or indeed wished for. When the conference was over, I retired again to my cell. The advocates visits were repeated for some days, till he had obtained the information requisite for carrying on my suit; and during this time, my treatment in the convent was such as to give me no cause of complaint; and this doubtless was the motive of their forbearance. But the moment those visits ceased, the warfare of persecution commenced. They considered me as one with whom no measures were to be kept, and they treated me accordingly. I am convinced it was their intention that I should not survive the event of my appeal; at least it is certain they left nothing unaccomplished that could verify that intention. This began, as I mentioned, on the day of the advocates last visit. The bell rung for refection;—I was going to take my place as usual, when the Superior said, Hold,—place a mat for him in the midst of the hall. This was done, and I was required to sit down on it, and supplied with bread and water. I eat a little, which I moistened with my tears. I foresaw what I had to undergo, and did not attempt to expostulate. When grace was about to be said, I was desired to stand without the door, lest my presence should frustrate the benediction they implored.
I retired, and when the bell rung for vespers, I presented myself among the rest at the door of the church. I was surprised to find it shut, and they all assembled. When the bell ceased, the Superior appeared, the door was opened, and the monks hurried in. I was following, when the Superior repelled me, exclaiming, You, wretch, you! Remain where you are. I obeyed; and the whole community entered the church, while I remained at the door. This species of excommunication produced its full effect of terror on me. As the monks slowly came out, and cast on me looks of silent horror, I thought myself the most abject being on earth; I could have hid myself under the pavement till the event of my appeal was over.
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