PseudoPod 800: The Parricide’s Tale
The Parricide’s Tale
by Charles Robert Maturin
It was in the midst of one of his most licentious songs, that my companion suddenly paused. He gazed about him for some time; and faint and dismal as the light was by which we beheld each other, I thought I could observe an extraordinary expression overshadow his countenance. I did not venture to notice it. “Do you know where we are?” he whispered.
“Too well;—in the vault of a convent, beyond the help or reach of man,—without food, without light, and almost without hope.”
“Aye, so its last inhabitants might well say.”
“Its last inhabitants!—who were they?”
“I can tell you, if you can bear it.”
“I cannot bear it,” I cried, stopping my ears, “I will not listen to it. I feel by the narrator it must be something horrid.”
“It was indeed a horrid night,” said he, unconsciously adverting to some circumstance in the narrative; and his voice sunk into mutterings, and he forbore to mention the subject further. I retired as far from him as the limits of the vault admitted; and, burying my head between my knees, tried to forbear to think. What a state of mind must that be, in which we are driven to wish we no longer had one!—when we would willingly become “as the beasts that perish,” to forget that privilege of humanity, which only seems an undisputed title to superlative misery! To sleep was impossible. Though sleep seems to be only a necessity of nature, it always requires an act of the mind to concur in it. And if I had been willing to rest, the gnawings of hunger, which now began to be exchanged for the most deadly sickness, would have rendered it impossible. Amid this complication of physical and mental suffering, it is hardly credible, Sir, but it is not the less true, that my principal one arose from the inanity, the want of occupation, inevitably attached to my dreary situation. To inflict a suspension of the action on a being conscious of possessing the powers of action, and burning for their employment,—to forbid all interchange of mutual ideas, or acquirement of new ones to an intellectual being,—to do this, is to invent a torture that might make Phalaris blush for his impotence of cruelty.
I rose, and supplicated my companion to relate the circumstance he had alluded to, as connected with our dreadful abode. His ferocious good nature took part with this request in a moment; and though I could see that his strong frame had suffered more than my comparatively feeble one, from the struggles of the night and the privations of the day, he prepared himself with a kind of grim alacrity for the effort. He was now in his element. He was enabled to daunt a feeble mind by the narration of horrors, and to amaze an ignorant one with a display of crimes;—and he needed no more to make him commence. “I remember,” said he, “an extraordinary circumstance connected with this vault. I wondered how I felt so familiar with this door, this arch, at first.—I did not recollect immediately, so many strange thoughts have crossed my mind every day, that events which would make a life-lasting impression on others, pass like shadows before me, while thoughts appear like substances. Emotions are my events—you know what brought me to this cursed convent—well, don’t shiver or look paler—you were pale before. However it was, I found myself in the convent, and I was obliged to subscribe to its discipline. A part of it was, that extraordinary criminals should undergo what they called extraordinary penance; that is, not only submit to every ignominy and rigor of conventual life, (which, fortunately for its penitents, is never wanting in such amusing resources), but act the part of executioner whenever any distinguished punishment was to be inflicted or witnessed. They did me the honor to believe me particularly qualified for this species of recreation, and perhaps they did not flatter me. I had all the humility of a saint on trial; but still I had a kind of confidence in my talents of this description, provided they were put to a proper test; and the monks had the goodness to assure me, that I never could long be without one in a convent. This was a very tempting picture of my situation, but I found these worthy people had not in the least exaggerated. An instance occurred a few days after I had the happiness to become a member of this amiable community, of whose merits you are doubtless sensible. I was desired to attach myself to a young monk of distinguished family, who had lately taken the vows, and who performed his duties with that heartless punctuality that intimated to the community that his heart was elsewhere. I was soon put in possession of the business; from their ordering me to attach myself to him, I instantly conceived I was bound to the most deadly hostility against him. The friendship of convents is always a treacherous league—we watch, suspect, and torment each other, for the love of God. This young monk’s only crime was, that he was suspected of cherishing an earthly passion. He was, in fact, as I have stated, the son of a distinguished family, who (from the fear of his contracting what is called a degrading marriage, i. e. of marrying a woman of inferior rank whom he loved, and who would have made him happy, as fools, that is, half mankind, estimate happiness) forced him to take the vows. He appeared at times broken-hearted, but at times there was a light of hope in his eye, that looked somewhat ominous in the eyes of the community. It is certain, that hope not being an indigenous plant in the parterre of a convent, must excite suspicion with regard both to its origin and its growth.
“Some time after, a young novice entered the convent. From the moment she did so, a change of the most striking took place in the young monk. He and the novice became inseparable companions—there was something suspicious in that. My eyes were on the watch in a moment. Eyes are particularly sharpened in discovering misery when they can hope to aggravate it. The attachment between the young monk and the novice went on. They were forever in the garden together—they inhaled the odors of the flowers—they cultivated the same cluster of carnations—they entwined themselves as they walked together—when they were in the choir, their voices were like mixed incense. Friendship is often carried to excess in conventual life, but this friendship was too like love. For instance, the psalms sung in the choir sometimes breathe a certain language; at these words, the young monk and the novice would direct their voices to each other in sounds that could not be misunderstood. If the least correction was inflicted, one would intreat to undergo it for the other. If a day of relaxation was allowed, whatever presents were sent to the cell of one, were sure to be found in the cell of the other. This was enough for me. I saw that secret of mysterious happiness, which is the greatest misery to those who never can share it. My vigilance was redoubled, and it was rewarded by the discovery of a secret—a secret that I had to communicate and raise my consequence by. You cannot guess the importance attached to the discovery of a secret in a convent, (particularly when the remission of our own offences depends on the discovery of those of others.)
“One evening as the young monk and his darling novice were in the garden, the former plucked a peach, which he immediately offered to his favorite; the latter accepted it with a movement I thought rather awkward—it seemed like what I imagined would be the reverence of a female. The young monk divided the peach with a knife; in doing so, the knife grazed the finger of the novice, and the monk, in agitation inexpressible, tore his habit to bind up the wound. I saw it all—my mind was made up on the business—I went to the Superior that very night. The result may be conceived. They were watched, but cautiously at first. They were probably on their guard; for, for some time it defied even my vigilance to make the slightest discovery. It is a situation incomparably tantalizing, when suspicion is satisfied of her own suggestions, as of the truth of the gospel, but still wants the little fact to make them credible to others. One night that I had, by direction of the Superior, taken my station in the gallery, (where I was contented to remain hour after hour, and night after night, amid solitude, darkness, and cold, for the chance of the power of retaliating on others the misery inflicted on myself)—One night, I thought I heard a step in the gallery—I have told you that I was in the dark—a light step passed me. I could hear the broken and palpitating respiration of the person. A few moments after, I heard a door open, and knew it to be the door of the young monk. I knew it; for by long watching in the dark, and accustoming myself to number the cells, by the groan from one, the prayer from another, the faint shriek of restless dreams from a third, my ear had become so finely graduated, that I could instantly distinguish the opening of that door, from which (to my sorrow) no sound had ever before issued. I was provided with a small chain, by which I fastened the handle of the door to a contiguous one, in such a manner, that it was impossible to open either of them from the inside. I then hastened to the Superior, with a pride of which none but the successful tracer of a guilty secret in convents, can have any conception. I believe the Superior was himself agitated by the luxury of the same feelings, for he was awake and up in his apartment, attended by four monks, whom you may remember.” I shuddered at the remembrance. “I communicated my intelligence with a voluble eagerness, not only unsuited to the respect I owed these persons, but which must have rendered me almost unintelligible, yet they were good enough not only to overlook this violation of decorum, which would in any other case have been severely punished, but even to supply certain pauses in my narrative, with a condescension and facility truly miraculous. I felt what it was to acquire importance in the eyes of a Superior, and gloried in all the dignified depravity of an informer. We set out without losing a moment,—we arrived at the door of the cell, and I pointed out with triumph the chain unremoved, though a slight vibration, perceptible at our approach, showed the wretches within were already apprised of their danger. I unfastened the door,—how they must have shuddered! The Superior and his satellites burst into the cell, and I held the light. You tremble,—why? I was guilty, and I wished to witness guilt that palliated mine, at least in the opinion of the convent. I had only violated the laws of nature, but they had outraged the decorum of a convent, and, of course, in the creed of a convent, there was no proportion between our offences. Besides, I was anxious to witness misery that might perhaps equal or exceed my own, and this is a curiosity not easily satisfied. It is actually possible to become amateurs in suffering. I have heard of men who have travelled into countries where horrible executions were to be daily witnessed, for the sake of that excitement which the sight of suffering never fails to give, from the spectacle of a tragedy, or an auto da fe, down to the writhings of the meanest reptile on whom you can inflict torture, and feel that torture is the result of your own power. It is a species of feeling of which we never can divest ourselves,—a triumph over those whose sufferings have placed them below us, and no wonder,—suffering is always an indication of weakness,—we glory in our impenetrability. I did, as we burst into the cell. The wretched husband and wife were locked in each other’s arms. You may imagine the scene that followed. Here I must do the Superior reluctant justice. He was a man (of course from his conventual feelings) who had no more idea of the intercourse between the sexes, than between two beings of a different species. The scene that he beheld could not have revolted him more, than if he had seen the horrible loves of the baboons and the Hottentot women, at the Cape of Good Hope; or those still more loathsome unions between the serpents of South America and their human victims, when they can catch them, and twine round them in folds of unnatural and ineffable union. He really stood as much astonished and appalled, to see two human beings of different sexes, who dared to love each other in spite of monastic ties, as if he had witnessed the horrible conjunctions I have alluded to. Had he seen vipers engendering in that frightful knot which seems the pledge of mortal hostility, instead of love, he could not have testified more horror,—and I do him the justice to believe he felt all he testified. Whatever affectation he might employ on points of conventual austerity, there was none here. Love was a thing he always believed connected with sin, even though consecrated by the name of a sacrament, and called marriage, as it is in our church. But, love in a convent!—Oh, there is no conceiving his rage; still less is it possible to conceive the majestic and overwhelming extent of that rage, when strengthened by principle, and sanctified by religion. I enjoyed the scene beyond all power of description. I saw those wretches, who had triumphed over me, reduced to my level in a moment,—their passions all displayed, and the display placing me a hero triumphant above all. I had crawled to the shelter of their walls, a wretched degraded outcast, and what was my crime? Well,—you shudder, I have done with that. I can only say want drove me to it. And here were beings whom, a few months before, I would have knelt to as to the images round the shrine,—to whom, in the moments of my desperate penitence, I would have clung as to the “horns of the altar,” all brought as low, and lower than myself. “Sons of the morning,” as I deemed them in the agonies of my humiliation, “how were they fallen!” I feasted on the degradation of the apostate monk and novice,—I enjoyed, to the core of my ulcerated heart, the passion of the Superior,—I felt that they were all men like myself. Angels, as I had thought them, they had all proved themselves mortal; and, by watching their motions, and flattering their passions, and promoting their interest, or setting up my own in opposition to them all, while I made them believe it was only theirs I was intent on, I might make shift to contrive as much misery to others, and to carve out as much occupation to myself, as if I were actually living in the world. Cutting my father’s throat was a noble feat certainly, (I ask your pardon, I did not mean to extort that groan from you), but here were hearts to be cut,—and to the core, every day, and all day long, so I never could want employment.”
Here he wiped his hard brow, drew his breath for a moment, and then said, “I do not quite like to go through the details by which this wretched pair were deluded into the hope of effecting their escape from the convent. It is enough that I was the principal agent,—that the Superior connived at it,—that I led them through the very passages you have traversed tonight, they trembling and blessing me at every step,—that——”
“Stop,” I cried; “wretch! you are tracing my course this night step by step.”
“What?” he retorted, with a ferocious laugh, “you think I am betraying you, then; and if it were true, what good would your suspicions do you,—you are in my power? My voice might summon half the convent to seize you this moment,—my arm might fasten you to that wall, till those dogs of death, that wait but my whistle, plunged their fangs into your very vitals. I fancy you would not find their bite less keen, from their tusks being so long sharpened by an immersion in holy water.” Another laugh, that seemed to issue from the lungs of a demon, concluded this sentence.
“I know I am in your power,” I answered; “and were I to trust to that, or to your heart, I had better dash out my brains at once against these walls of rock, which I believe are not harder than the latter. But I know your interests to be some way or other connected with my escape, and therefore I trust you,—because I must. Though my blood, chilled as it is by famine and fatigue, seems frozen in every drop while I listen to you, yet listen I must, and trust my life and liberation to you. I speak to you with the horrid confidence our situation has taught me,—I hate,—I dread you. If we were to meet in life, I would shrink from you with loathings of unspeakable abhorrence, but here mutual misery has mixed the most repugnant substances in unnatural coalition. The force of that alchemy must cease at the moment of my escape from the convent and from you; yet, for these miserable hours, my life is as much dependent on your exertions and presence, as my power of supporting them is on the continuance of your horrible tale,—go on, then. Let us struggle through this dreadful day. Day! a name unknown here, where noon and night shake hands that never unlock. Let us struggle through it, ‘hateful and hating one another;’ and when it has passed, let us curse and part.”
As I uttered these words, Sir, I felt that terrible confidence of hostility which the worst beings are driven to in the worst of circumstances, and I question whether there is a more horrible situation than that in which we cling to each other’s hate, instead of each other’s love,—in which, at every step of our progress, we hold a dagger to our companion’s breast, and say, “If you faulter for a moment, this is in your heart. I hate,—I fear, but I must bear with you.” It was singular to me, though it would not be so to those who investigate human nature, that, in proportion as my situation inspired me with a ferocity quite unsuited to our comparative situations, and which must have been the result of the madness of despair and famine, my companion’s respect for me appeared to increase. After a long pause, he asked, might he continue his story? I could not speak, for, after the slightest exertion, the sickness of deadly hunger returned on me, and I could only signify, by a feeble motion of my hand, that he might go on.
“They were conducted here,” he continued; “I had suggested the plan, and the Superior consented to it. He would not be present, but his dumb nod was enough. I was the conductor of their (intended) escape; they believed they were departing with the connivance of the Superior. I led them through those very passages that you and I have trod. I had a map of this subterranean region, but my blood ran cold as I traversed it; and it was not at all inclined to resume its usual temperament, as I felt what was to be the destination of my attendants. Once I turned the lamp, on pretense of trimming it, to catch a glimpse of the devoted wretches. They were embracing each other,—the light of joy trembled in their eyes. They were whispering to each other hopes of liberation and happiness, and blending my name in the interval they could spare from their prayers for each other. That sight extinguished the last remains of compunction with which my horrible task had inspired me. They dared to be happy in the sight of one who must be forever miserable,—could there be a greater insult? I resolved to punish it on the spot. This very apartment was near,—I knew it, and the map of their wanderings no longer trembled in my hand. I urged them to enter this recess, (the door was then entire), while I went to examine the passage. They entered it, thanking me for my precaution,—they knew not they were never to quit it alive. But what were their lives for the agony their happiness cost me? The moment they were enclosed, and clasping each other, (a sight that made me grind my teeth), I closed and locked the door. This movement gave them no immediate uneasiness,—they thought it a friendly precaution. The moment they were secured, I hastened to the Superior, who was on fire at the insult offered to the sanctity of his convent, and still more to the purity of his penetration, on which the worthy Superior piqued himself as much as if it had ever been possible for him to acquire the smallest share of it. He descended with me to the passage,—the monks followed with eyes on fire. In the agitation of their rage, it was with difficulty they could discover the door after I had repeatedly pointed it out to them. The Superior, with his own hands, drove several nails, which the monks eagerly supplied, into the door, that effectually joined it to the staple, never to be disjoined; and every blow he gave, doubtless he felt as if it was a reminiscence to the accusing angel, to strike out a sin from the catalogue of his accusations. The work was soon done,—the work never to be undone. At the first sound of steps in the passage, and blows on the door, the victims uttered a shriek of terror. They imagined they were detected, and that an incensed party of monks were breaking open the door. These terrors were soon exchanged for others,—and worse,—as they heard the door nailed up, and listened to our departing steps. They uttered another shriek, but O how different was the accent of its despair!—they knew their doom!
“It was my penance (no,—my delight) to watch at the door, under the pretense of precluding the possibility of their escape, (of which they knew there was no possibility); but, in reality, not only to inflict on me the indignity of being the convent jailer, but of teaching me that callosity of heart, and induration of nerve, and stubbornness of eye, and apathy of ear, that were best suited to my office. But they might have saved themselves the trouble,—I had them all before ever I entered the convent. Had I been the Superior of the community, I should have undertaken the office of watching the door. You will call this cruelty, I call it curiosity,—that curiosity that brings thousands to witness a tragedy, and makes the most delicate female feast on groans and agonies. I had an advantage over them,—the groan, the agony I feasted on, were real. I took my station at the door—that door which, like that of Dante’s hell, might have borne the inscription, “Here is no hope,”—with a face of mock penitence, and genuine—cordial delectation. I could hear every word that transpired. For the first hours they tried to comfort each other,—they suggested to each other hopes of liberation,—and as my shadow, crossing the threshold, darkened or restored the light, they said, “That is he;”—then, when this occurred repeatedly, without any effect, they said, “No,—no, it is not he,” and swallowed down the sick sob of despair, to hide it from each other. Towards night a monk came to take my place, and to offer me food. I would not have quitted my place for worlds; but I talked to the monk in his own language, and told him I would make a merit with God of my sacrifices, and was resolved to remain there all night, with the permission of the Superior. The monk was glad of having a substitute on such easy terms, and I was glad of the food he left me, for I was hungry now, but I reserved the appetite of my soul for richer luxuries. I heard them talking within. While I was eating, I actually lived on the famine that was devouring them, but of which they did not dare to say a word to each other. They debated, deliberated, and, as misery grows ingenious in its own defense, they at last assured each other that it was impossible the Superior had locked them in there to perish by hunger. At these words I could not help laughing. This laugh reached their ears, and they became silent in a moment. All that night, however, I heard their groans,—those groans of physical suffering, that laugh to scorn all the sentimental sighs that are exhaled from the hearts of the most intoxicated lovers that ever breathed. I heard them all that night. I had read French romances, and all their unimaginable nonsense. Madame Sevignè herself says she would have been tired of her daughter in a long tete-a-tete journey, but clap me two lovers into a dungeon, without food, light, or hope, and I will be damned (that I am already, by the bye) if they do not grow sick of each other within the first twelve hours. The second day hunger and darkness had their usual influence. They shrieked for liberation, and knocked loud and long at their dungeon door. They exclaimed they were ready to submit to any punishment; and the approach of the monks, which they would have dreaded so much the preceding night, they now solicited on their knees. What a jest, after all, are the most awful vicissitudes of human life!—they supplicated now for what they would have sacrificed their souls to avert four-and-twenty hours before. Then the agony of hunger increased, they shrunk from the door, and groveled apart from each other. Apart!—how I watched that. They were rapidly becoming objects of hostility to each other,—oh what a feast to me! They could not disguise from each other the revolting circumstances of their mutual sufferings. It is one thing for lovers to sit down to a feast magnificently spread, and another for lovers to couch in darkness and famine,—to exchange that appetite which cannot be supported without dainties and flattery, for that which would barter a descended Venus for a morsel of food. The second night they raved and groaned; and, amid their agonies, (I must do justice to women, whom I hate as well as men), the man often accused the female as the cause of all his sufferings, but the woman never,—never reproached him. Her groans might indeed have reproached him bitterly, but she never uttered a word that could have caused him pain. There was a change which I well could mark, however, in their physical feelings. The first day they clung together, and every movement I felt was like that of one person. The next the man alone struggled, and the woman moaned in helplessness. The third night,—how shall I tell it?—but you have bid me go on. All the horrible and loathsome excruciations of famine had been undergone; the disunion of every tie of the heart, of passion, of nature, had commenced. In the agonies of their famished sickness they loathed each other,—they could have cursed each other, if they had had breath to curse. It was on the fourth night that I heard the shriek of the wretched female,—her lover, in the agony of hunger, had fastened his teeth in her shoulder;—that bosom on which he had so often luxuriated, became a meal to him now.”
“Monster! and you laugh?”
“Yes, I laugh at all mankind, and the imposition they dare to practice when they talk of hearts. I laugh at human passions and human cares,—vice and virtue, religion and impiety; they are all the result of petty localities, and artificial situation. One physical want, one severe and abrupt lesson from the tintless and shriveled lip of necessity, is worth all the logic of the empty wretches who have presumed to prate it, from Zeno down to Burgersdicius. Oh! it silences in a second all the feeble sophistry of conventional life, and ascetic passion. Here were a pair who would not have believed all the world on their knees, even though angels had descended to join in the attestation, that it was possible for them to exist without each other. They had risked everything, trampled on everything human and divine, to be in each other’s sight and arms. One hour of hunger undeceived them. A trivial and ordinary want, whose claims at another time they would have regarded as a vulgar interruption of their spiritual intercourse, not only, by its natural operation, sundered it forever, but, before it ceased, converted that intercourse into a source of torment and hostility inconceivable, except among cannibals. The bitterest enemies on earth could not have regarded each other with more abhorrence than these lovers. Deluded wretches! you boasted of having hearts, I boast I have none, and which of us gained most by the vaunt, let life decide. My story is nearly finished, and so I hope is the day. When I was last here I had something to excite me;—talking of those things is poor employment to one who has been a witness to them. On the sixth day all was still. The door was unnailed, we entered,—they were no more. They lay far from each other, farther than on that voluptuous couch into which their passion had converted the mat of a convent bed. She lay contracted in a heap, a lock of her long hair in her mouth. There was a slight scar on her shoulder,—the rabid despair of famine had produced no farther outrage. He lay extended at his length,—his hand was between his lips; it seemed as if he had not strength to execute the purpose for which he had brought it there. The bodies were brought out for interment. As we removed them into the light, the long hair of the female, falling over a face no longer disguised by the novice’s dress, recalled a likeness I thought I could remember. I looked closer, she was my own sister,—my only one,——and I had heard her voice grow fainter and fainter. I had heard——”
And his own voice grew fainter—it ceased.
About the Author
Charles Robert Maturin
Charles Robert Maturin, also known as C. R. Maturin (1780–1824) was an Irish Protestant clergyman and a writer of Gothic plays and novels, and was married to the acclaimed singer of the time, Henrietta Kingsbury. His best known work is the novel Melmoth the Wanderer. His first three works were Gothic novels published under the pseudonym Dennis Jasper Murphy, and were critical and commercial failures. They did, however, catch the attention of Sir Walter Scott, who recommended Maturin’s work to Lord Byron. With their help, Maturin’s play Bertram was staged in 1816 at the Drury Lane for 22 nights (Samuel Taylor Coleridge publicly denounced the play as dull and loathsome, and “melancholy proof of the depravation of the public mind”). The Church of Ireland took note of these and earlier criticisms and, having discovered the identity of Bertram‘s author (Maturin had shed his nom de plume to collect the profits from the play), subsequently barred Maturin’s further clerical advancement. Forced to support his wife and four children by writing, he switched back from playwright to novelist after a string of his plays met with failure. The exaggerated effectiveness of Maturin’s preaching can be gauged from the two series of sermons that he published. On the occasion of the death of Princess Charlotte, he declared: “Life is full of death; the steps of the living cannot press the earth without disturbing the ashes of the dead – we walk upon our ancestors – the globe itself is one vast churchyard.” In his obituary it was said that, ‘did he leave no other monument whereon to rest his fame, these sermons alone would be sufficient’.” Maturin died in Dublin on 30 October 1824. A writer in the University Magazine was later to sum up his character as “eccentric almost to insanity and compounded of opposites – an insatiable reader of novels; an elegant preacher; an incessant dancer; a coxcomb in dress and manners.” Charles Baudelaire was also an admirer of Maturin’s novel, equating it with the poetry of Byron and Edgar Allan Poe.
About the Narrator
Kurt Kuersteiner is an author, publisher, and maker of radio dramas and short films. He can be seen in the 2019 documentary, “J.R. Bob Dobbs and the Church of the Subgenius” as the “Minister of Sinister” Papa Joe Mama. His books include “Old Time Radio’s History of Horror”, “113 Tales of Terror”, and “The Unofficial Guide to The Art of Jack T. Chick.” He produces sci-fi and horror trading cards at Monsterwax.com, including a series devoted to the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. He also produces a commercial haunted attraction every October, the infamous Terror of Tallahassee haunted house. He is currently the co-host on Alpha Control, a Lost In Space podcast, which is heard on all the audio streaming services, and found on the web at LostInSpacePodcast.com.