In the autumn of 1816, John Melmoth, a student at Trinity College, Dublin, leaves his school to visit an uncle, his only surviving relative, who is dying. Melmoth’s uncle is particularly glad to see his young nephew, for the old man is fearfully afraid of something that he has not revealed to anyone else. The uncle dies and leaves all of his money and property to the young Melmoth. A note at the end of the will tells Melmoth to destroy the hidden portrait of an earlier John Melmoth, a painting dated 1646, and also a packet of letters to be found in a secret drawer.
The day after his uncle’s death, young Melmoth makes inquiries to learn whether his uncle had been a man of superstitious nature. He is told that the uncle was not superstitious, but that in recent months, he had insisted that a strange man had appeared and disappeared around the manor house.
Young Melmoth destroys the portrait as the will requested, but he opens the packet of manuscript, which contains a strange story about the man whose portrait he destroyed. The document tells how the original John Melmoth had been seen many times after his reported death in Germany and had been written of by an Englishman named Stanton, who had met Melmoth the Wanderer in Spain. The Wanderer, apparently angered by Stanton’s curiosity, had prophesied that Stanton would be confined in Bedlam, although he is sane. The prediction having come true, the Wanderer appeared to Stanton in his misery and promised the miserable man his freedom if he would sell his soul to the devil. Stanton refused, and the Wanderer disappeared. Stanton wrote down his experiences and left the manuscript with the Melmoth family when he visited Ireland to discover more about the man who had tempted him.
After reading the manuscript, young Melmoth goes to bed. That night he also sees the Wanderer. His strange ancestor pays the young man a visit and, as proof of his appearance, leaves a bruise on young Melmoth’s wrist. The next night, a ship is wrecked on the Irish coast not far from the Melmoth estate. When young Melmoth and his retainers leave to help rescue the sailors, Melmoth sees the Wanderer high on a rock overlooking the ruined ship and hears him laugh derisively. Young Melmoth tries to ascend the rock but falls into the sea, from which he is rescued by Alonzo Moncada, a Spaniard who had escaped from the doomed ship. Young Melmoth and the Spaniard return to the manor house. A few days later, the Spaniard discloses that he, too, knew the Wanderer.
Moncada tells young Melmoth a series of stories about the activities of the Wanderer in Spain. The first story is about the Spaniard himself, who is an exile from his country, although he is descended from a noble family. Moncada had been born out of wedlock and thus cannot inherit the ducal title of his ancestors. As a means of getting him out of the way so that his presence will not tarnish the proud...
(The entire section is 1193 words.)