John took the key from his uncle’s hand; the dying man pressed it as he did so, and John, interpreting this as a mark of kindness, returned the pressure. He was undeceived by the whisper that followed,–’John, my lad, don’t drink any of that wine while you are there.’ ‘Good God!’ said John, indignantly throwing the key on the bed; then, recollecting that the miserable being before him was no object of resentment, he gave the promise required, and entered the closet, which no foot but that of old Melmoth had entered for nearly sixty years. He had some difficulty in finding out the wine, and indeed staid long enough to justify his uncle’s suspicions,–but his mind was agitated, and his hand unsteady. He could not but remark his uncle’s extraordinary look, that had the ghastliness of fear superadded to that of death, as he gave him permission to enter his closet. He could not but see the looks of horror which the women exchanged as he approached it. And, finally, when he was in it, his memory was malicious enough to suggest some faint traces of a story, too horrible for imagination, connected with it. He remembered in one moment most distinctly, that no one but his uncle had ever been known to enter it for many years.
Before he quitted it, he held up the dim light, and looked around him with a mixture of terror and curiosity. There was a great deal of decayed and useless lumber, such as might be supposed to be heaped up to rot in a miser’s closet; but John’s eyes were in a moment, and as if by magic, rivetted on a portrait that hung on the wall, and appeared, even to his untaught eye, far superior to the tribe of family pictures that are left to moulder on the walls of a family mansion. It represented a man of middle age. There was nothing remarkable in the costume, or in the countenance, but the eyes, John felt, were such as one feels they wish they had never seen, and feels they can never forget. Had he been acquainted with the poetry of Southey, he might have often exclaimed in his after-life,
‘Only the eyes had life,
They gleamed with demon light.’–THALABA.
From an impulse equally resistless and painful, he approached the portrait, held the candle towards it, and could distinguish the words on the border of the painting, – Jno. Melmoth, anno 1646. John was neither timid by nature, or nervous by constitution, or superstitious from habit, yet he continued to gaze in stupid horror on this singular picture, till, aroused by his uncle’s cough, he hurried into his room. The old man swallowed the wine. He appeared a little revived; it was long since he had tasted such a cordial,–his heart appeared to expand to a momentary confidence. ‘John, what did you see in that room?’ ‘Nothing, Sir.’ ‘That’s a lie; every one wants to cheat or to rob me.’ ‘Sir, I don’t want to do either.’ ‘Well, what did you see that you–you took notice of?’ ‘Only a picture, Sir.’ ‘A picture, Sir! – the original is still alive.’ John, though under the impression of his recent feelings, could not but look incredulous. ‘John,’ whispered his uncle; – ‘John, they say I am dying of this and that; and one says it is for want of nourishment, and one says it is for want of medicine,–but, John,’ and his face looked hideously ghastly, ‘I am dying of a fright. That man,’ and he extended his meagre arm toward the closet, as if he was pointing to a living being; ‘that man, I have good reason to know, is alive still.’ ‘How is that possible, Sir?’ said John involuntarily, ‘the date on the picture is 1646.’ ‘You have seen it, – you have noticed it,’ said his uncle. ‘Well,’–he rocked and nodded on his bolster for a moment, then, grasping John’s hand with an unutterable look, he exclaimed, ‘You will see him again, he is alive.’ Then, sinking back on his bolster, he fell into a kind of sleep or stupor, his eyes still open, and fixed on John.
The house was now perfectly silent, and John had time and space for reflection. More thoughts came crowding on him than he wished to welcome, but they would not be repulsed. He thought of his uncle’s habits and character, turned the matter over and over again in his mind, and he said to himself, ‘The last man on earth to be superstitious. He never thought of any thing but the price of stocks, and the rate of exchange, and my college expenses, that hung heavier at his heart than all; and such a man to die of a fright, – a ridiculous fright, that a man living 150 years ago is alive still, and yet–he is dying.’ John paused, for facts will confute the most stubborn logician. ‘With all his hardness of mind, and of heart, he is dying of a fright. I heard it in the kitchen, I have heard it from himself, – he could not be deceived. If I had ever heard he was nervous, or fanciful, or superstitious, but a character so contrary to all these impressions; – a man that, as poor Butler says, in his Remains, of the Antiquarian, would have ‘sold Christ over again for the numerical piece of silver which Judas got for him,’–such a man to die of fear! Yet he is dying,’ said John, glancing his fearful eye on the contracted nostril, the glazed eye, the dropping jaw, the whole horrible apparatus of the facies Hippocratica displayed, and soon to cease its display.
Old Melmoth at this moment seemed to be in a deep stupor; his eyes lost that little expression they had before, and his hands, that had convulsively been catching at the blankets, let go their short and quivering grasp, and lay extended on the bed like the claws of some bird that had died of hunger, – so meagre, so yellow, so spread. John, unaccustomed to the sight of death, believed this to be only a sign that he was going to sleep; and, urged by an impulse for which he did not attempt to account to himself, caught up the miserable light, and once more ventured into the forbidden room, – the blue chamber of the dwelling. The motion roused the dying man; – he sat bolt upright in his bed. This John could not see, for he was now in the closet; but he heard the groan, or rather the choaked and guggling rattle of the throat, that announces the horrible conflict between muscular and mental convulsion. He started, turned away; but, as he turned away, he thought he saw the eyes of the portrait, on which his own was fixed, move, and hurried back to his uncle’s bedside.
Old Melmoth died in the course of that night, and died as he had lived, in a kind of avaricious delirium. John could not have imagined a scene so horrible as his last hours presented. He cursed and blasphemed about three half-pence, missing, as he said, some weeks before, in an account of change with his groom, about hay to a starving horse that he kept. Then he grasped John’s hand, and asked him to give him the sacrament. ‘If I send to the clergyman, he will charge me something for it, which I cannot pay, – I cannot. They say I am rich, – look at this blanket; – but I would not mind that, if I could save my soul.’ And, raving, he added, ‘Indeed, Doctor, I am a very poor man. I never troubled a clergyman before, and all I want is, that you will grant me two trifling requests, very little matters in your way, – save my soul, and (whispering) make interest to get me a parish coffin, – I have not enough left to bury me. I always told every one I was poor, but the more I told them so, the less they believed me.’
John, greatly shocked, retired from the bed-side, and sat down in a distant corner of the room. The women were again in the room, which was very dark. Melmoth was silent from exhaustion, and there was a death-like pause for some time. At this moment John saw the door open, and a figure appear at it, who looked round the room, and then quietly and deliberately retired, but not before John had discovered in his face the living original of the portrait. His first impulse was to utter an exclamation of terror, but his breath felt stopped. He was then rising to pursue the figure, but a moment’s reflection checked him. What could be more absurd, than to be alarmed or amazed at a resemblance between a living man and the portrait of a dead one! The likeness was doubtless strong enough to strike him even in that darkened room, but it was doubtless only a likeness; and though it might be imposing enough to terrify an old man of gloomy and retired habits, and with a broken constitution, John resolved it should not produce the same effect on him.
But while he was applauding himself for this resolution, the door opened, and the figure appeared at it, beckoning and nodding to him, with a familiarity somewhat terrifying. John now started up, determined to pursue it; but the pursuit was stopped by the weak but shrill cries of his uncle, who was struggling at once with the agonies of death and his housekeeper. The poor woman, anxious for her master’s reputation and her own, was trying to put on him a clean shirt and nightcap, and Melmoth, who had just sensation enough to perceive they were taking something from him, continued exclaiming feebly, ‘They are robbing me, – robbing me in my last moments,–robbing a dying man. John, won’t you assist me,–I shall die a beggar; they are taking my last shirt,–I shall die a beggar.’ – And the miser died.
As the attorney who read the will concluded, he added, ‘There are some words here, at the corner of the parchment, which do not appear to be part of the will, as they are neither in the form of a codicil, nor is the signature of the testator affixed to them; but, to the best of my belief, they are in the hand-writing of the deceased.’ As he spoke he shewed the lines to Melmoth, who immediately recognized his uncle’s hand, (that perpendicular and penurious hand, that seems determined to make the most of the very paper, thriftily abridging every word, and leaving scarce an atom of margin), and read, not without some emotion, the following words: ‘I enjoin my nephew and heir, John Melmoth, to remove, destroy, or cause to be destroyed, the portrait inscribed J. Melmoth, 1646, hanging in my closet. I also enjoin him to search for a manuscript, which I think he will find in the third and lowest left-hand drawer of the mahogany chest standing under that portrait , –it is among some papers of no value, such as manuscript sermons, and pamphlets on the improvement of Ireland, and such stuff; he will distinguish it by its being tied round with a black tape, and the paper being very mouldy and discoloured. He may read it if he will; – I think he had better not. At all events, I adjure him, if there be any power in the adjuration of a dying man, to burn it.’
Charles Robert Maturin, 1782-1824. Melmoth the Wanderer, 1820
Image: Francisco de Goya, Study for: El sueno de la razon produce monstrous, Los Caprichos, 1799 / The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799. Los Caprichos