The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning

Half-Rome

What, you, Sir, come too? (Just the man I’d meet.)

Be ruled by me and have a care o’the crowd:

This way, while fresh folk go and get their gaze:

I’ll tell you like a book and save your shins.

Fie, what a roaring day we’ve had! Whose fault?

Lorenzo in Lucina — here’s a church

To hold a crowd at need, accommodate

All comers from the Corso! If this crush

Make not its priests ashamed of what they show

10

For temple-room, don’t prick them to draw purse

And down with bricks and mortar, eke us out

The beggarly transept with its bit of apse

Into a decent space for Christian ease,

Why, to-day’s lucky pearl is cast to swine.

Listen and estimate the luck they’ve had!

(The right man, and I hold him.)

        Sir, do you see,

They laid both bodies in the church, this morn

The first thing, on the chancel two steps up,

20

Behind the little marble balustrade;

Disposed them, Pietro the old murdered fool

To the right of the altar, and his wretched wife

On the other side. In trying to count stabs,

People supposed Violante showed the most,

Till somebody explained us that mistake;

His wounds had been dealt out indifferent where,

But she took all her stabbings in the face,

Since punished thus solely for honour’s sake,

Honoris causâ, that’s the proper term.

30

A delicacy there is, our gallants hold,

When you avenge your honour and only then,

That you disfigure the subject, fray the face,

Not just take life and end, in clownish guise.

It was Violante gave the first offence,

Got therefore the conspicuous punishment:

While Pietro, who helped merely, his, mere death

Answered the purpose, so his face went free.

We fancied even, free as you please, that face

Showed itself still intolerably wronged;

40

Was wrinkled over with resentment yet,

Nor calm at all, as murdered faces use,

Once the worst ended: an indignant air

O’ the head there was —’ tis said the body turned

Round and away, rolled from Violante’s side

Where they had laid it loving-husband-like.

If so, if corpses can be sensitive,

Why did not he roll right down altar-step.

Roll on through nave, roll fairly out of church,

Deprive Lorenzo of the spectacle,

50

Pay back thus the succession of affronts

Whereto this church had served as theatre?

For see: at that same altar where he lies,

To that same inch of step, was brought the babe

For blessing after baptism, and there styled

Pompilia, and a string of names beside,

By his bad wife, some seventeen years ago,

Who purchased her simply to palm on him,

Flatter his dotage and defraud the heirs.

Wait awhile! Also to this very step

60

Did this Violante, twelve years afterward,

Bring, the mock-mother, that child-cheat full-grown,

Pompilia in pursuance of her plot.

And there brave God and man a second time

By linking a new victim to the lie.

There, having made a match unknown to him,

She, still unknown to Pietro, tied the knot

Which nothing cuts except this kind of knife;

Yes, made her daughter, as the girl was held,

Marry a man, and honest man beside,

70

And man of birth to boot — clandestinely

Because of this, because of that, because

O’ the devil’s will to work his worst for once —

Confident she could top her part at need

And, when her husband must be told in turn,

Ply the wife’s trade, play off the sex’s trick

And, alternating worry with quiet qualms,

Bravado with submissiveness, quick fool

Her Pietro into patience: so it proved.

Ay, ’tis four years since man and wife they grew,

80

This Guido Franceschini and this same

Pompilia, foolishly thought, falsely declared

A Comparini and the couple’s child:

Just at this altar where, beneath the piece

Of Master Guido Reni, Christ on cross,

Second to nought observable in Rome,

That couple lie now, murdered yestereve.

Even the blind can see a providence here.

From dawn till now that it is growing dusk,

A multitude has flocked and filled the church,

90

Coming and going, coming back again,

Till to count crazed one. Rome was at the show.

People climbed up the columns, fought for spikes

O’ the chapel-rail to perch themselves upon,

Jumped over and so broke the wooden work

Painted like porphyry to deceive the eye;

Serve the priests right! The organ-loft was crammed,

Women were fainting, no few fights ensued,

In short, it was a show repaid your pains:

For, though their room was scant undoubtedly,

100

Yet they did manage matters, to be just,

A little at this Lorenzo. Body o’me!

I saw a body exposed once . . . never mind!

Enough that here the bodies had their due.

No stinginess in wax, a row all round,

And one big taper at each head and foot.

So, people pushed their way, and took their turn,

Saw, threw their eyes up, crossed themselves, gave place

To pressure from behind, since all the world

Knew the old pair, could talk the tragedy

110

Over from first to last: Pompilia too,

Those who had known her — what ’twas worth to them!

Guido’s acquaintance was in less request;

The Count had lounged somewhat too long in Rome,

Made himself cheap; with him were hand and glove

Barbers and blear-eyed, as the ancient sings.

Also he is alive and like to be:

Had he considerately died — aha!

I jostled Luca Cini on his staff,

Mute in the midst, the whole man one amaze,

120

Staring amain and crossing brow and breast.

“How now?” asked I. “’Tis seventy years,” quoth he,

“Since

I first saw, holding my father’s hand,

“Bodies set forth: a many have I seen,

“Yet all was poor to this I live and see.

“Here the world’s wickedness seals up the sum:

“What with Molinos’ doctrine and this deed,

“Antichrist’s surely come and doomsday near.

“May I depart in peace, I have seen my see.”

“Depart then,” I advised, “nor block the road

130

“For youngsters still behindhand with such sights!”

“Why no,” rejoins the venerable sire,

“I know it’s horrid, hideous past belief,

“Burdensome far beyond what eye can bear;

“But they do promise, when Pompilia dies

“I’ the course o’ the day — and she can’t outlive night —

“They’ll bring her body also to expose

“Beside the parents, one, two, three a-breast;

“That were indeed a sight which, might I see,

“I trust I should not last to see the like!”

140

Whereat I bade the senior spare his shanks,

Since doctors give her till to-night to live

And tell us how the butchery happened. “Ah,

“But you can’t know!” sighs he. “I’ll not despair:

“Beside I’m useful at explaining things —

“As, how the dagger laid there at the feet,

“Caused the peculiar cuts; I mind its make,

“Triangular i’ the blade, a Genoese,

“Armed with those little hook-teeth on the edge

“To open in the flesh nor shut again:

150

“I like to teach a novice: I shall stay!”

And stay he did, and stay be sure he will.

A personage came by the private door

At noon to have his look: I name no names:

Well then, His Eminence the Cardinal,

Whose servitor in honourable sort

Guido was once, the same who made the match,

(Will you have the truth?) whereof we see effect.

No sooner whisper ran he was arrived

Than up pops Curate Carlo, a brisk lad,

160

Who never lets a good occasion slip,

And volunteers improving the event.

We looked he’d give the history’s self some help,

Treat us to how the wife’s confession went

(This morning she confessed her crime, we know)

And, may-be, throw in something of the Priest —

If he’s not ordered back, punished anew,

The gallant, Caponsacchi, Lucifer

I’ the garden where Pompilia, Eve-like, lured

Her Adam Guido to his fault and fall.

170

Think you we got a sprig of speech akin

To this from Carlo, with the Cardinal there?

Too wary, he was, too widely awake, I trow.

He did the murder in a dozen words;

Then said that all such outrages crop forth

I’ the course of nature, when Molinos’ tares

Are sown for wheat, flourish and choke the Church:

So slid on to the abominable sect

And the philosophic sin — we’ve heard all that,

And the Cardinal too (who book-made on the same),

180

But, for the murder, left it where he found.

Oh but he’s quick, the Curate, minds his game!

And, after all, we have the main o’ the fact:

Case could not well be simpler — mapped, as it were,

We follow the murder’s maze from source to sea,

By the red line, past mistake: one sees indeed

Not only how all was and must have been,

But cannot other than be to the end of time.

Turn out here by the Ruspoli! Do you hold

Guido was so prodigiously to blame?

190

A certain cousin of yours has told you so?

Exactly! Here’s a friend shall set you right,

Let him but have the handsel of your ear.

These wretched Comparini were once gay

And galiard, of the modest middle class:

Born in this quarter seventy years ago,

And married young, they lived the accustomed life,

Citizens as they were of good repute:

And, childless, naturally took their ease

With only their two selves to care about

200

And use the wealth for: wealthy is the word,

Since Pietro was possessed of house and land —

And specially one house, when good days were,

In Via Vittoria, the aspectable street

Where he lived mainly; but another house

Of less pretension did he buy betimes,

The villa, meant for jaunts and jollity,

I’ the Pauline district, to be private there —

Just what puts murder in an enemy’s head.

Moreover — and here’s the worm i’ the core, the germ

210

O’ the rottenness and ruin which arrived —

He owned some usufruct, had moneys’ use

Lifelong, but to determine with his life

In heirs’ default: so, Pietro craved an heir,

(The story always old and always new)

Shut his fool’s-eyes fast on the visible good

And wealth for certain, opened them owl-wide

On fortune’s sole piece of forgetfulness,

The child that should have been and would not be.

Hence, seventeen years ago, conceive his glee

220

When first Violante, ’twixt a smile and a blush,

With touch of agitation proper too,

Announced that, spite of her unpromising age,

The miracle would in time be manifest,

An heir’s birth was to happen: and it did.

Somehow or other — how, all in good time!

By a trick, a sleight of hand you are to hear —

A child was born, Pompilia, for his joy,

Plaything at once and prop, a fairy-gift,

A saints’ grace or, say, grant of the good God —

230

A fiddle-pin’s end! What imbeciles are we!

Look now: if some one could have prophesied,

“For love of you, for liking to your wife,

“I undertake to crush a snake I spy

“Settling itself i’ the soft of both your breasts.

“Give me yon babe to strangle painlessly!

“She’ll soar to the safe: you’ll have your crying out,

“Then sleep, then wake, then sleep, then end your days

“In peace and plenty, mixed with mild regret,

“Thirty years hence when Christmas takes old folk”—

240

How had old Pietro sprung up, crossed himself,

And kicked the conjuror! Whereas you and I,

Being wise with after-wit, had clapped our hands;

Nay, added, in the old fool’s interest,

“Strangle the black-eyed babe, so far so good,

“But on condition you relieve the man

“O’ the wife and throttle him Violante too —

“She is the mischief!”

        We had hit the mark.

She, whose trick brought the babe into the world,

250

She it was, when the babe was grown a girl,

Judged a new trick should reinforce the old,

Send vigour to the lie now somewhat spent

By twelve years’ service; lest Eve’s rule decline

Over this Adam of hers, whose cabbage-plot

Throve dubiously since turned fools’-paradise,

Spite of a nightingale on every stump.

Pietro’s estate was dwindling day by day,

While he, rapt far above such mundane care,

Crawled all-fours with his baby pick-a-back,

260

Sat at serene cats’-cradle with his child,

Or took the measured tallness, top to toe,

Of what was grown a great girl twelve years old:

Till sudden at the door a tap discreet,

A visitor’s premonitory cough,

And poverty had reached him in her rounds.

This came when he was past the working-time,

Had learned to dandle and forgot to dig,

And who must but Violante cast about,

Contrive and task that head of hers again?

270

She who had caught one fish, could make that catch

A bigger still, in angler’s policy:

So, with an angler’s mercy for the bait,

Her minnow was set wriggling on its barb

And tossed to the mid-stream; that is, this grown girl

With the great eyes and bounty of black hair

And first crisp youth that tempts a jaded taste,

Was whisked i’ the way of a certain man, who snapped.

Count Guido Franceschini the Aretine

Was head of an old noble house enough,

280

Not over-rich, you can’t have everything,

But such a man as riches rub against,

Readily stick to — one with a right to them

Born in the blood: ’twas in his very brow

Always to knit itself against the world,

So be beforehand when that stinted due

Service and suit: the world ducks and defers.

As such folks do, he had come up to Rome

To better his fortune, and, since many years,

Was friend and follower of a cardinal;

290

Waiting the rather thus on providence,

That a shrewd younger poorer brother yet,

The Abate Paolo, a regular priest,

Had long since tried his powers and found he swam

With the deftest on the Galilean pool:

But then he was a web-foot, free o’ the wave,

And no ambiguous dab-chick hatched to strut,

Humbled by any fond attempt to swim

When fiercer fowl usurped his dunghill top —

A whole priest, Paolo, no mere piece of one

300

Like Guido tacked thus to the Church’s tail!

Guido moreover, as the head o’ the house,

Claiming the main prize, not the lesser luck,

The centre lily, no mere chickweed fringe.

He waited and learned waiting, thirty years;

Got promise, missed performance — what would you have?

No petty post rewards a nobleman

For spending youth in splendid lackey-work,

And there’s concurrence for each rarer prize;

When that falls, rougher hand and readier foot

310

Push aside Guido spite of his black looks.

The end was, Guido, when the warning showed,

The first white hair i’ the glass, gave up the game,

Determined on returning to his town,

Making the best of bad incurable

Patching the old palace up and lingering there

The customary life out with his kin,

Where honour helps to spice the scanty bread.

Just as he trimmed his lamp and girt his loins

To go his journey and be wise at home,

320

In the right mood of disappointed worth,

Who but Violante sudden spied her prey

(Where was I with that angler- simile?)

And threw her bait, Pompilia, where he sulked —

A gleam i’ the gloom!

What if he gained thus much,

Wrung out this sweet drop from the bitter Past,

Bore off this rose-bud from the prickly brake,

To justify such torn clothes and scratched hands,

And, after all, brought something back from Rome?

330

Would not a wife serve at Arezzo well

To light the dark house, lend a look of youth

To the mother’s face grown meagre, left alone

And famished with the emptiness of hope,

Old Donna Beatrice? Wife you want

Would you play family representative,

Carry you elder-brotherly, high and right

O’er what may prove the natural petulance

Of the third brother, younger, greedier still,

Girolamo, also a fledgeling priest,

340

Beginning life in turn with callow beak

Agape for luck, no luck had stopped and stilled.

Such were the pinks and greys about the bait

Persuaded Guido gulp down hook and all.

What constituted him so choice a catch,

You question? Past his prime and poor beside?

Ask that of any she who knows the trade.

Why first, here was a nobleman with friends,

A palace one might run to and be safe

When presently the threatened fate should fall,

350

A big-browed master to block door-way up,

Parley with people bent on pushing by

And praying the mild Pietro quick clear scores:

Is birth a privilege and power or no?

Also — but judge of the result desired,

By the price paid and manner of the sale.

The Count was made woo, win and wed at once:

Asked, and was haled for answer, lest the heat

Should cool, to San Lorenzo, one blind eve,

And had Pompilia put into his arms

360

O’ the sly there, by a hasty candle-blink,

With sanction of some priest-confederate

Properly paid to make short work and sure.

So did old Pietro’s daughter change her style

For Guido Franceschini’s lady-wife

Ere Guido knew it well; and why this haste

And scramble and indecent secrecy?

“Lest Pietro, all the while in ignorance,

“Should get to learn, gainsay and break the match:

“His peevishness had promptly put aside

370

“Such honour and refused the proffered boon,

“Pleased to become authoritative once.

“She remedied the wilful man’s mistake —”

Did our discreet Violante. Rather say,

Thus did she, lest the object of her game,

Guido the gulled one, give him but a chance,

A moment’s respite, time for thinking twice,

Might count the cost before he sold himself,

And try the clink of coin they paid him with.

But passed, the bargain struck, the business done,

380

Once the clandestine marriage over thus,

All parties made perforce the best o’ the fact;

Pietro could play vast indignation off,

Be ignorant and astounded, dupe alike

At need, of wife, daughter, and son-in-law,

While Guido found himself in flagrant fault,

Must e’en do suit and service, soothe, subdue

A father not unreasonably chafed,

Bring him to terms by paying son’s devoir.

Pleasant initiation!

390

        The end, this:

Guido’s broad back was saddled to bear all —

Pietro, Violante, and Pompilia too —

Three lots cast confidently in one lap,

Three dead-weights with one arm to lift the three

Out of their limbo up to life again:

The Roman household was to strike fresh root

In a new soil, graced with a novel name,

Gilt with an alien glory, Aretine

Henceforth and never Roman any more,

400

By treaty and engagement: thus it ran:

Pompilia’s dowry for Pompilia’s self

As a thing of course — she paid her own expense;

No loss nor gain there: but the couple, you see,

They, for their part, turned over first of all

Their fortune in its rags and rottenness

To Guido, fusion and confusion, he

And his with them and theirs — whatever rag

With a coin residuary fell on floor

When Brother Paolo’s energetic shake

410

Should do the relics justice: since ’twas thought,

Once vulnerable Pietro out of reach,

That, left at Rome as representative,

The Abate, backed by a potent patron here,

And otherwise with purple flushing him,

Might play a good game with the creditor,

Make up a moiety which, great or small,

Should go to the common stock — if anything,

Guido’s, so far repayment of the cost

About to be — and if, as looked more like,

420

Nothing — why, all the nobler cost were his

Who guaranteed, for better or for worse,

To Pietro and Violante, house and home,

Kith and kin, with the pick of company

And life o’ the fat o’ the land while life should last.

How say you to the bargain at first blush?

Why did a middle-aged not-silly man

Show himself thus besotted all at once?

Quoth Solomon, one black eye does it all.

They went to Arezzo — Pietro and his spouse,

430

With just the dusk o’ the day of life to spend,

Eager to use the twilight, taste a treat,

Enjoy for once with neither stay nor stint

The luxury of Lord-and- lady-ship,

And realise the stuff and nonsense long

A-simmer in their noddles; vent the fume

Born there and bred, the citizen’s conceit

How fares nobility while crossing earth,

What rampart or invisible body- guard

Keeps off the taint of common life from such.

440

They had not fed for nothing on the tales

Of grandees who give banquets worthy Jove,

Spending gold as if Plutus paid a whim,

Served with obeisances as when . . . what God?

I’m at the end of my tether; ’tis enough

You understand what they came primed to see:

While Guido who should minister the sight,

Stay all this qualmish greediness of soul

With apples and with flagons — for his part,

Was set on life diverse as pole from pole:

450

Lust of the flesh, lust of the eye — what else

Was he just now awake from, sick and sage,

After the very debauch they would begin? —

Suppose such stuff and nonsense really were.

That bubble, they were bent on blowing big,

He had blown already till he burst his cheeks,

And hence found soapsuds bitter to the tongue,

He hoped now to walk softly all his days

In soberness of spirit, if haply so,

Pinching and paring he might furnish forth

460

A frugal board, bare sustenance, no more,

Till times, that could not well grow worse, should mend.

Thus minded then, two parties mean to meet

And make each other happy. The first week,

And fancy strikes fact and explodes in full.

“This,” shrieked the Comparini, “this the Count,

“The palace, the signorial privilege,

“The pomp and pageantry were promised us?

“For this have we exchanged our liberty,

“Our competence, our darling of a child?

470

“To house as spectres in a sepulchre

“Under this black stone heap, the street’s disgrace,

“Grimmest as that is of the gruesome town,

“And here pick garbage on a pewter plate

“Or cough at verjuice dripped from earthenware?

“Oh Via Vittoria, oh the other place

“I’ the Pauline, did we give you up for this?

“Where’s the foregone housekeeping good and gay,

“The neighbourliness, the companionship,

“The treat and feast when holidays came round,

480

“The daily feast that seemed no treat at all,

“Called common by the uncommon fools we were!

“Even the sun that used to shine at Rome,

“Where is it? Robbed and starved and frozen too,

“We will have justice, justice if there be!”

Did not they shout, did not the town resound!

Guido’s old lady-mother Beatrice,

Who since her husband, Count Tommaso’s death,

Had held sole sway i’ the house — the doited crone

Slow to acknowledge, curtsey and abdicate —

490

Was recognised of true novercal type,

Dragon and devil. His brother Girolamo

Came next in order: priest was he? The worse!

No way of winning him to leave his mumps

And help the laugh against old ancestry

And formal habits long since out of date,

Letting his youth be patterned on the mode

Approved of where Violante laid down law.

Or did he brighten up by way of change?

Dispose himself for affability?

500

The malapert, too complaisant by half

To the alarmed young novice of a bride!

Let him go buzz, betake himself elsewhere

Nor singe his fly-wings in the candle-flame!

Four months’ probation of this purgatory,

Dog-snap and cat-claw, curse and counterblast,

The devil’s self had been sick of his own din;

And Pietro, after trumpeting huge wrongs

At church and market-place, pillar and post,

Square’s corner, street’s end, now the palace-step

510

And now the wine-house bench — while, on her side,

Violante up and down was voluble

In whatsoever pair of ears would perk

From goody, gossip, cater-cousin and sib,

Curious to peep at the inside of things

And catch in the act pretentious poverty

At its wits’ end to keep appearance up,

Make both ends meet — nothing the vulgar loves

Like what this couple pitched them right and left —

Then, their worst done that way, they struck tent, marched:

— Renounced their share o’ the bargain, flung what dues

521

Guido was bound to pay, in Guido’s face,

Left their hearts’- darling, treasure of the twain

And so forth, the poor inexperienced bride,

To her own devices, bade Arezzo rot

And the life signorial, and sought Rome once more.

I see the comment ready on your lip,

“The better fortune, Guido’s — free at least

“By this defection of the foolish pair,

“He could begin make profit in some sort

530

“Of the young bride and the new quietness,

“Lead his own life now, henceforth breathe unplagued.”

Could he? You know the sex like Guido’s self.

Learn the Violante-nature!

        Once in Rome,

By way of helping Guido lead such life,

Her first act to inaugurate return

Was, she got pricked in conscience: Jubilee

Gave her the hint. Our Pope, as kind as just,

Attained his eighty years, announced a boon

540

Should make us bless the fact, held Jubilee —

Short shrift, prompt pardon for the light offence,

And no rough dealing with the regular crime

So this occasion were not suffered slip —

Otherwise, sins commuted as before,

Without the least abatement in the price.

Now, who had thought it? All this while, it seems,

Our sage Violante had a sin of a sort

She must compound for now or not at all:

Now be the ready riddance! She confessed

550

Pompilia was a fable not a fact:

She never bore a child in her whole life.

Had this child been a changeling, that were grace

In some degree, exchange is hardly theft;

You take your stand on truth ere leap your lie:

Here was all lie, no touch of truth at all,

All the lie hers — not even Pietro guessed

He was as childless still as twelve years since.

The babe had been a find i’ the filth-heap, Sir,

Catch from the kennel! There was found a Rome,

560

Down in the deepest of our social dregs,

A woman who professed the wanton’s trade

Under the requisite thin coverture,

Communis meretrix and washer-wife:

The creature thus conditioned found by chance

Motherhood like a jewel in the muck,

And straightway either trafficked with her prize

Or listened to the tempter and let be —

Made pact abolishing her place and part

In womankind, beast-fellowship indeed —

570

She sold this babe eight months before its birth

To our Violante, Pietro’s honest spouse,

Well-famed and widely-instanced as that crown

To the husband, virtue in a woman’s shape.

She it was, bought and paid for, passed the thing

Off as the flesh and blood and child of her

Despite the flagrant fifty years — and why?

Partly to please old Pietro, fill his cup

With wine at the late hour when lees are left,

And send him from life’s feast rejoicingly —

580

Partly to cheat the rightful heirs, agape,

Each uncle’s cousin’s brother’s son of him,

For that same principal of the usufruct

It vext him he must die and leave behind.

Such was the sin had come to be confessed.

Which of the tales, the first or last, was true?

Did she so sin once, or, confessing now,

Sin for the first time? Either way you will.

One sees a reason for the cheat: one sees

A reason for a cheat in owning cheat

590

Where no cheat had been. What of the revenge?

What prompted the contrition all at once,

Made the avowal easy, the shame slight?

Why, prove they but Pompilia not their child,

No child, no dowry; this, supposed their child,

Had claimed what this, shown alien to their blood,

Claimed nowise: Guido’s claim was through his wife,

Null then and void with hers. The biter bit,

Do you see! For such repayment of the past,

One might conceive the penitential pair

600

Ready to bring their case before the courts,

Publish their infamy to all the world

And, arm in arm, go chuckling thence content.

Is this your view? ’Twas Guido’s anyhow

And colourable: he came forward then,

Protested in his very bride’s behalf

Against this lie and all it led to, least

Of all the loss o’ the dowry; no! From her

And him alike he would expunge the blot,

Erase the brand of such a bestial birth,

610

Participate in no hideous heritage

Gathered from the gutter to be garnered up

And glorified in a palace. Peter and Paul!

But that who likes may look upon the pair

Exposed in yonder church, and show his skill

By saying which is eye and which is mouth

Thro’ those stabs thick and threefold — but for that —

A strong word on the liars and their lie

Might crave expression and obtain it, Sir!

— Though prematurely, since there’s more to come,

620

More than will shake your confidence in things

Your cousin tells you — may I be so bold?

This makes the first act of the farce — anon

The stealing sombre element comes in

Till all is black or blood- red in the piece.

Guido, thus made a laughing-stock abroad,

A proverb for the market-place at home,

Left alone with Pompilia now, this graft

So reputable on his ancient stock,

This plague-seed set to fester his sound flesh,

630

What did the Count? Revenge him on his wife?

Unfasten at all risks to rid himself

The noisome lazar-badge, fall foul of fate,

And, careless whether the poor rag was ware

O’ the part it played, or helped unwittingly,

Bid it go burn and leave his frayed flesh free?

Plainly, did Guido open both doors wide,

Spurn thence the cur-cast creature and clear scores

As man might, tempted in extreme like this?

No, birth and breeding, and compassion too

640

Saved her such scandal. She was young, he thought,

Not privy to the treason, punished most

I’ the proclamation of it; why make her

A party to the crime she suffered by?

Then the black eyes were now her very own,

Not any more Violante’s: let her live,

Lose in a new air, under a new sun,

The taint of the imputed parentage

Truely or falsely, take no more the touch

Of Pietro and his partner anyhow!

650

All might go well yet.

        So she thought, herself,

It seems, since what was her first act and deed

When news came how these kindly ones at Rome

Had stripped her naked to amuse the world

With spots here, spots there, and spots everywhere?

— For I should tell you that they noised abroad

Not merely the main scandal of her birth,

But slanders written, printed, published wide,

Pamphlets which set forth all the pleasantry

660

Of how the promised glory was a dream,

The power a bubble and the wealth — why, dust.

There was a picture, painted to the life,

Of those rare doings, that superlative

Initiation in magnificence

Conferred on a poor Roman family

By favour of Arezzo and her first

And famousest, the Franceschini there.

You had the Countship holding head aloft

Bravely although bespattered, shifts and straits

670

In keeping out o’ the way o’ the wheels o’ the world,

The comic of those home-contrivances

When the old lady-mother’s wit was taxed

To find six clamorous mouths in food more real

Than fruit plucked off the cobwebbed family-tree,

Or acorns shed from its gilt mouldered frame —

Cold glories served up with three-pauls’ worth’s sauce.

What, I ask — when the drunkenness of hate

Hiccuped return for hospitality,

Befouled the table they had feasted on,

680

Or say — God knows I’ll not prejudge the case —

Grievances thus distorted, magnified,

Coloured by quarrel into calumny —

What side did our Pompilia first espouse?

Her first deliberate measure was, she wrote,

Pricked by some loyal impulse, straight to Rome

And her husband’s brother the Abate there,

Who, having managed to effect the match,

Might take men’s censure for its ill success.

She made a clean breast also in her turn;

690

She qualified the couple handsomely!

Since whose departure, hell, she said, was heaven,

And the house, late distracted by their peals,

Quiet as Carmel where the lilies live.

Herself had oftentimes complained: but why?

All her complaints had been their prompting, tales

Trumped up, devices to this very end.

Their game had been to thwart her husband’s love

And cross his will, malign his words and ways,

So reach this issue, furnish this pretence

700

For impudent withdrawal from their bond —

Theft, indeed murder, since they meant no less

Whose last injunction to her simple self

Had been — what parents’- precept do you think?

That she should follow after with all speed,

Fly from her husband’s house clandestinely,

Join them at Rome again, but first of all

Pick up a fresh companion in her flight,

Putting so youth and beauty to fit use,

Some gay, dare-devil, cloak-and-rapier spark

710

Capable of adventure — helped by whom

She, some fine eve when lutes were in the air,

Having put poison in the posset-cup,

Laid hands on money, jewels, and the like,

And, to conceal the thing with more effect,

By way of parting benediction too,

Fired the house — one would finish famously

I’ the tumult, slip out, scurry off and away

And turn up merrily at home once more.

Fact this, and not a dream o’ the devil, Sir!

720

And more than this, a fact none dare dispute,

Word for word, such a letter did she write.

And such the Abate read, nor simply read

But gave all Rome to ruminate upon,

In answer to such charges as, I say,

The couple sought to be beforehand with.

The cause thus carried to the courts at Rome,

Guido away, the Abate had no choice

But stand forth, take his absent brother’s part,

Defend the honour of himself beside.

730

He made what head he might against the pair,

Maintained Pompilia’s birth legitimate

And all her rights intact — hers, Guido’s now —

And so far by his tactics turned their flank,

The enemy being beforehand in the place,

That, though the courts allowed the cheat for fact,

Suffered Violante to parade her shame,

Publish her infamy to heart’s content,

And let the tale o’ the feigned birth pass for proved —

Yet they stopped there, refused to intervene

740

And dispossess the innocents, befooled

By gifts o’ the guilty, at guilt’s new caprice:

They would not take away the dowry now

Wrongfully given at first, nor bar at all

Succession to the aforesaid usufruct,

Established on a fraud, nor play the game

Of Pietro’s child and now not Pietro’s child

As it might suit the gamester’s purpose. Thus

Was justice ever ridiculed in Rome:

Such be the double verdicts favoured here

750

Which send away both parties to a suit

Nor puffed up nor cast down — for each a crumb

Of right, for neither of them the whole loaf.

Whence, on the Comparini’s part, appeal —

Counter-appeal on Guido’s — that’s the game:

And so the matter stands, even to this hour,

Bandied as balls are in a tennis-court,

And so might stand, unless some heart broke first,

Till doomsday.

        Leave it thus, and now revert

760

To the old Arezzo whence we moved to Rome.

We’ve had enough o’ the parents, false or true,

Now for a touch o’ the daughter’s quality.

The start’s fair henceforth — every obstacle

Out of the young wife’s footpath — she’s alone —

Left to walk warily now: how does she walk?

Why, once a dwelling’s doorpost marked and crossed

In rubric by the enemy on his rounds

As eligible, as fit place of prey,

Baffle him henceforth, keep him out who can!

770

Stop up the door at the first hint of hoof,

Presently at the window taps a horn,

And Satan’s by your fireside, never fear!

Pompilia, left alone now, found herself;

Found herself young too, sprightly, fair enough,

Matched with a husband old beyond his age

(Though that was something like four times her own)

Because of cares past, present, and to come:

Found too the house dull and its inmates dead,

So, looked outside for light and life.

780

        And lo

There in a trice did turn up life and light,

The man with the aureole, sympathy made flesh,

The all-consoling Caponsacchi, Sir!

A priest — what else should the consoler be?

With goodly shoulderblade and proper leg,

A portly make and a symmetric shape,

And curls that clustered to the tonsure quite.

This was a bishop in the bud, and now

A canon full-blown so far: priest, and priest

790

Nowise exorbitantly overworked,

The courtly Christian, not so much Saint Paul

As a saint of Cæsar’s household: there posed he

Sending his god-glance after his shot shaft,

Apollos turned Apollo, while the snake

Pompilia writhed transfixed through all her spires.

He, not a visitor at Guido’s house,

Scarce an acquaintance, but in prime request

With the magnates of Arezzo, was seen here,

Heard there, felt everywhere in Guido’s path

800

If Guido’s wife’s path be her husband’s too.

Now he threw comfits at the theatre

Into her lap — what harm in Carnival?

Now he pressed close till his foot touched her gown,

His hand brushed hers — how help on promenade?

And, ever on weighty business, found his steps

Incline to a certain haunt of doubtful fame

Which fronted Guido’s palace by mere chance;

While — how do accidents sometimes combine!

Pompilia chose to cloister up her charms

810

Just in a chamber that o’erlooked the street,

Sat there to pray, or peep thence at mankind.

This passage of arms and wits amused the town.

At last the husband lifted eyebrow — bent

On day-book and the study how to wring

Half the due vintage from the worn-out vines

At the villa, tease a quarter the old rent

From the farmstead, tenants swore would tumble soon —

Pricked up his ear a-singing day and night

With “ruin, ruin;”— and so surprised at last —

820

Why, what else but a titter? Up he jumps.

Back to mind come those scratchings at the grange,

Prints of the paw about the outhouse; rife

In his head at once again are word and wink,

Mum here and budget there, the smell o’ the fox,

The musk o’ the gallant. “Friends, there’s falseness here!”

The proper help of friends in such a strait

Is waggery, the world over. Laugh him free

O’ the regular jealous- fit that’s incident

To all old husbands that wed brisk young wives,

830

And he’ll go duly docile all his days.

“Somebody courts your wife, Count? Where and when?

“How and why? Mere horn-madness: have a care!

“Your lady loves her own room, sticks to it,

“Locks herself in for hours, you say yourself.

“And — what, it’s Caponsacchi means you harm?

“The Canon? We caress him, he’s the world’s,

“A man of such acceptance — never dream,

“Though he were fifty times the fox you fear,

“He’d risk his brush for your particular chick,

“When the wide town’s his hen-roost! Fie o’ the fool!”

841

So they dispensed their comfort of a kind.

Guido at last cried “Something is in the air,

“Under the earth, some plot against my peace:

“The trouble of eclipse hangs overhead,

“How it should come of that officious orb

“Your Canon in my system, you must say:

“I say — that from the pressure of this spring

“Began the chime and interchange of bells,

“Ever one whisper, and one whisper more,

850

“And just one whisper for the silvery last,

“Till all at once a- row the bronze-throats burst

“Into a larum both significant

“And sinister: stop it I must and will.

“Let Caponsacchi take his hand away

“From the wire! — disport himself in other paths

“Than lead precisely to my palace- gate —

“Look where he likes except one window’s way

“Where cheek on hand, and elbow set on sill,

“Happens to lean and say her litanies

860

“Every day and all day long, just my wife —

“Or wife and Caponsacchi may fare the worse!”

Admire the man’s simplicity, “I’ll do this,

“I’ll not have that, I’ll punish and prevent!”—

’Tis easy saying. But to a fray, you see,

Two parties go. The badger shows his teeth:

The fox nor lies down sheep-like nor dares fight.

Oh, the wife knew the appropriate warfare well,

The way to put suspicion to the blush!

At first hint of remonstrance, up and out

I’ the face of the world, you found her: she could speak,

871

State her case — Franceschini was a name,

Guido had his full share of foes and friends —

Why should not she call these to arbitrate?

She bade the Governor do governance,

Cried out on the Archbishop — why, there now,

Take him for sample! Three successive times,

Had he to reconduct her by main force

From where she took her station opposite

His shut door — on the public steps thereto,

880

Wringing her hands, when he came out to see,

And shrieking all her wrongs forth at his foot —

Back to the husband and the house she fled:

Judge if that husband warmed him in the face

Of friends or frowned on foes as heretofore!

Judge if he missed the natural grin of folk,

Or lacked the customary compliment

Of cap and bells, the luckless husband’s fit!

So it went on and on till — who was right?

One merry April morning, Guido woke

890

After the cuckoo, so late, near noonday,

With an inordinate yawning of the jaws,

Ears plugged, eyes gummed together, palate, tongue

And teeth one mud-paste made of poppy-milk;

And found his wife flown, his scrutoire the worse

For a rummage — jewelry that was, was not,

Some money there had made itself wings too —

The door lay wide and yet the servants slept

Sound as the dead, or dosed which does as well.

In short, Pompilia, she who, candid soul,

900

Had not so much as spoken all her life

To the Canon, nay, so much as peeped at him

Between her fingers while she prayed in church —

This lamb-like innocent of fifteen years

(Such she was grown to by this time of day)

Had simply put an opiate in the drink

Of the whole household overnight, and then

Got up and gone about her work secure,

Laid hand on this waif and the other stray,

Spoiled the Philistine and marched out of doors

910

In company of the Canon who, Lord’s love,

What with his daily duty at the church,

Nightly devoir where ladies congregate,

Had something else to mind, assure yourself,

Beside Pompilia, paragon though she be,

Or notice if her nose were sharp or blunt!

Well, anyhow, albeit impossible,

Both of them were together jollily

Jaunting it Rome-ward, half-way there by this,

While Guido was left go and get undrugged,

920

Gather his wits up, groaningly give thanks

When neighbours crowded round him to condole.

“Ah,” quoth a gossip, “well I mind me now,

“The Count did always say he thought he felt

“He feared as if this very chance might fall!

“And when a man of fifty finds his corns

“Ache and his joints throb, and foresees a storm,

“Though neighbours laugh and say the sky is clear,

“Let us henceforth believe him weatherwise!”

Then was the story told, I’ll cut you short:

930

All neighbours knew: no mystery in the world,

The lovers left at nightfall — over night

Had Caponsacchi come to carry off

Pompilia — not alone, a friend of his,

One Guillichini, the more conversant

With Guido’s housekeeping that he was just

A cousin of Guido’s and might play a prank —

(Have you not too a cousin that’s a wag?)

— Lord and a Canon also — what would you have?

Such are the red-clothed milk-swollen poppy-heads

940

That stand and stiffen ’mid the wheat o’ the Church! —

This worthy came to aid, abet his best.

And so the house was ransacked, booty bagged,

The lady led downstairs and out of doors

Guided and guarded till, the city passed,

A carriage lay convenient at the gate

Good-bye to the friendly Canon; the loving one

Could peradventure do the rest himself.

In jumps Pompilia, after her the priest,

“Whip, driver! — Money makes the mare to go,

950

“And we’ve a bagful. Take the Roman road!”

So said the neighbours. This was eight hours since.

Guido heard all, swore the befitting oaths,

Shook off the relics of his poison-drench,

Got horse, was fairly started in pursuit

With never a friend to follow, found the track

Fast enough, ’twas the straight Perugia way,

Trod soon upon their very heels, too late

By a minute only at Camoscia, at

Chiusi, Foligno, ever the fugitives

960

Just ahead, just out as he galloped in,

Getting the good news ever fresh and fresh,

Till, lo, at the last stage of all, last post

Before Rome — as we say, in sight of Rome

And safety (there’s impunity at Rome

For priests, you know) at — what’s the little place?

What some call Castelnuovo, some just call

The Osteria, because o’ the post-house inn,

There, at the journey’s all but end, it seems,

Triumph deceived them and undid them both,

970

Secure they might foretaste felicity

Nor fear surprisal: so, they were surprised.

There did they halt at early evening, there

Did Guido overtake them: ’twas day-break;

He came in time enough, not time too much,

Since in the courtyard stood the Canon’s self

Urging the drowsy stable grooms to haste

Harness the horses, have the journey end,

The trifling four-hour’s-running, so reach Rome.

And the other runaway, the wife? Upstairs,

980

Still on the couch where she had spent the night,

One couch in one room, and one room for both.

So gained they six hours, so were lost thereby.

Sir, what’s the sequel? Lover and beloved

Fall on their knees? No impudence serves here?

They beat their breasts and beg for easy death,

Confess this, that, and the other? — anyhow

Confess there wanted not some likelihood

To the supposition as preposterous,

That, O Pompilia, thy sequestered eyes

990

Had noticed, straying o’er the prayer-book’s edge,

More of the Canon than that black his coat,

Buckled his shoes were, broad his hat of brim:

And that, O Canon, thy religious care

Had breathed too soft a benedicite

To banish trouble from a lady’s breast

So lonely and so lovely, nor so lean!

This you expect? Indeed, then, much you err.

Not to such ordinary end as this

Had Caponsacchi flung the cassock far,

1000

Doffed the priest, donned the perfect cavalier;

The die was cast: over shoes over boots:

And just as she, I presently shall show,

Pompilia, soon looked Helen to the life,

Recumbent upstairs in her pink and white,

So, in the inn-yard, bold as ’twere Troy-town,

There strutted Paris in correct costume,

Cloak, cap and feather, no appointment missed,

Even to a wicked-looking sword at side,

He seemed to find and feel familiar at.

1010

Nor wanted words as ready and as big

As the part he played, the bold abashless one.

“I interposed to save your wife from death,

“Yourself from shame, the true and only shame:

“Ask your own conscience else! — or, failing that,

“What I have done I answer, anywhere,

“Here, if you will; you see I have a sword:

“Or, since I have a tonsure as you taunt,

“At Rome, by all means — priests to try a priest.

“Only, speak where your wife’s voice can reply!”

1020

And then he fingered at the sword again.

So, Guido called, in aid and witness both,

The Public Force. The Commissary came,

Officers also; they secured the priest;

Then, for his more confusion, mounted up

With him, a guard on either side, the stair

To the bed-room where still slept or feigned a sleep

His paramour and Guido’s wife: in burst

The company and bade her wake and rise.

Her defence? This. She woke, saw, sprang upright

1030

I’ the midst and stood as terrible as truth,

Sprang to her husband’s side, caught at the sword

That hung there useless, since they held each hand

O’ the lover, had disarmed him properly.

And in a moment out flew the bright thing

Full in the face of Guido — but for help

O’ the guards who held her back and pinioned her

With pains enough, she had finished you my tale

With a flourish of red all round it, pinked her man

Prettily; but she fought them one to six.

1040

They stopped that — but her tongue continued free:

She spat forth such invective at her spouse,

O’erfrothed him with such foam of murderer,

Thief, pandar — that the popular tide soon turned,

The favour of the very sbirri, straight

Ebbed from the husband, set toward his wife,

People cried “Hands off, pay a priest respect!”

And “persecuting fiend” and “martyred saint”

Began to lead a measure from lip to lip.

But facts are facts and flinch not; stubborn things,

1050

And the question “Prithee, friend, how comes my purse

“I’ the poke of you?”— admits of no reply.

Here was a priest found out in masquerade,

A wife caught playing truant if no more;

While the Count, mortified in mien enough,

And, nose to face, an added palm in length,

Was plain writ “husband” every piece of him:

Capture once made, release could hardly be.

Beside, the prisoners both made appeal,

“Take us to Rome!”

1060

        Taken to Rome they were;

The husband trooping after, piteously,

Tail between legs, no talk of triumph now —

No honour set firm on its feet once more

On two dead bodies of the guilty — nay,

No dubious salve to honour’s broken pate

From chance that, after all, the hurt might seem

A skin-deep matter, scratch that leaves no scar:

For Guido’s first search — ferreting, poor soul,

Here, there, and everywhere in the vile place

1070

Abandoned to him when their backs were turned,

Found — furnishing a last and best regale —

All the love-letters bandied twixt the pair

Since the first timid trembling into life

O’ the love-star till its stand at fiery full.

Mad prose, mad verse, fears, hopes, triumph, despair,

Avowal, disclaimer, plans, dates, names; — was nought

Wanting to prove, if proof consoles at all,

That this had been but the fifth act o’ the piece

Whereof the due proemium, months ago

1080

These playwrights had put forth, and ever since

Matured the middle, added ’neath his nose.

He might go cross himself: the case was clear.

Therefore to Rome with the clear case; there plead

Each party its best, and leave the law do right,

Let her shine forth and show, as God in heaven,

Vice prostrate, virtue pedestalled at last,

The triumph of truth! What else shall glad our gaze

When once authority has knit the brow

And set the brain behind it to decide

1090

Between the wolf and sheep turned litigants?

“This is indeed a business” law shook head:

“A husband charges hard things on a wife,

“The wife as hard o’ the husband: whose fault here?

“A wife that flies her husband’s house, does wrong:

“The male friend’s interference looks amiss,

“Lends a suspicion: but suppose the wife,

“On the other hand, be jeopardised at home —

“Nay, that she simply hold, ill-groundedly,

“An apprehension she is jeopardised —

1100

“And further, if the friend partake the fear,

“And, in a commendable charity

“Which trusteth all, trust her that she mistrusts —

“What do they but obey the natural law?

“Pretence may this be and a cloak for sin,

“And circumstances that concur i’ the close

“Hint as much, loudly — yet scarce loud enough

“To drown the answer ‘strange may yet be true:’

“Innocence often looks like guiltiness.

“The accused declare that in thought, word, and deed,

1110

“Innocent were they both from first to last

“As male-babe haply laid by female-babe

“At church on edge of the baptismal font

“Together for a minute, perfect-pure.

“Difficult to believe, yet possible,

“As witness Joseph, the friend’s patron-saint.

“The night at the inn — there charity nigh chokes

“Ere swallow what they both asseverate;

“Though down the gullet faith may feel it go,

“When mindful of what flight fatigued the flesh

1120

“Out of its faculty and fleshliness,

“Subdued it to the soul, as saints assure:

“So long a flight necessitates a fall

“On the first bed, though in a lion’s den.

“And the first pillow, though the lion’s back:

“Difficult to believe, yet possible.

“Last come the letter’s bundled beastliness —

“Authority repugns give glance to twice,

“Turns head, and almost lets her whip-lash fall;

“Yet here a voice cries ‘Respite!’ from the clouds —

1130

“The accused, both in a tale, protest, disclaim,

“Abominate the horror: ‘Not my hand’

“Asserts the friend —‘Nor mine’ chimes in the wife,

“ ‘Seeing I have no hand, nor write at all.’

“Illiterate — for she goes on to ask,

“What if the friend did pen now verse now prose,

“Commend it to her notice now and then?

“ ’Twas pearls to swine: she read no more than wrote,

“And kept no more than read, for as they fell

“She ever brushed the burr-like things away,

1140

“Or, better, burned them, quenched the fire in smoke.

“As for this fardel, filth, and foolishness,

“She sees it now the first time: burn it too!

“While for his part the friend vows ignorance

“Alike of what bears his name and bear hers:

“ ’Tis forgery, a felon’s masterpiece,

“And, as ’tis the fox still finds the stench,

“Home- manufacturer and the husband’s work.

“Though he confesses, the ingenuous friend,

“That certain missives, letters of a sort,

1150

“Flighty and feeble, which assigned themselves

“To the wife, no less have fallen, far too oft,

“In his path: wherefrom he understood just this —

“That were they verily the lady’s own,

“Why, she who penned them, since he never saw

“Save for one minute the mere face of her,

“Since never had there been the interchange

“Of word with word between them all their life,

“Why, she must be the fondest of the frail,

“And fit she for the ‘apage’ he flung,

1160

“Her letters for the flame they went to feed.

“But, now he sees her face and hears her speech,

“Much he repents him if, in fancy-freak

“For a moment the minutest measurable,

“He coupled her with the first flimsy word

“O’ the self-spun fabric some mean spider- soul

“Furnished forth: stop his films and stamp on him!

“Never was such a tangled knottiness,

“But thus authority cuts the Gordian through,

“And mark how her decision suits the need!

1170

“Here’s troublesomeness, scandal on both sides,

“Plenty of fault to find, no absolute crime:

“Let each side own its fault and make amends!

“What does a priest in cavalier’s attire

“Consorting publicly with vagrant wives

“In quarters close as the confessional

“Though innocent of harm? ’Tis harm enough:

“Let him pay it, and be relegate a good

“Three years, to spend in some place not too far

“Nor yet too near, midway twixt near and far,

1180

“Rome and Arezzo — Civita we choose,

“Where he may lounge away time, live at large,

“Find out the proper function of a priest,

“Nowise an exile — that were punishment,

“But one our love thus keeps out of harm’s way

“Not more from the husband’s anger than, mayhap

“His own . . . say, indiscretion, waywardness,

“And wanderings when Easter eves grow warm.

“For the wife — well, our best step to take with her,

“On her own showing, were to shift her root

1190

“From the old cold shade and unhappy soil

“Into a generous ground that fronts the south:

“Where, since her callow soul, a-shiver late,

“Craved simply warmth and called mere passers-by

“To the rescue, she should have her fill of shine.

“Do house and husband hinder and not help?

“Why then, forget both and stay here at peace,

“Come into our community, enroll

“Herself along with those good Convertites,

“Those sinners saved, those Magdalens re-made,

1200

“Accept their administration, well bestow

“Her body and patiently possess her soul,

“Until we see what better can be done.

“Last for the husband: if his tale prove true,

“Well is he rid of two domestic plagues —

“The wife that ailed, do whatsoever he would,

“And friend of hers that undertook the cure.

“See, what a double load we lift from breast!

“Off he may go, return, resume old life,

“Laugh at the priest here and Pompilia there

1210

“In limbo each and punished for their pains,

“And grateful tell the inquiring neighbourhood —

“In Rome, no wrong but has its remedy.”

The case was closed. Now, am I fair or no

In what I utter? Do I state the facts,

Having forechosen a side? I promised you!

The Canon Caponsacchi, then, was sent

To change his garb, re-trim his tonsure, tie

The clerkly silk round, every plait correct,

Make the impressive entry on his place

1220

Of relegation, thrill his Civita,

As Ovid, a like sufferer in the cause,

Planted a primrose-patch by Pontus: where,

What with much culture of the sonnet-stave

And converse with the aborigines,

Soft savagery of eyes unused to roll,

And hearts that all awry went pit-a-pat

And wanted setting right in charity,

What were a couple of years to while away?

Pompilia, as enjoined, betook herself

1230

To the aforesaid Convertites, the sisterhood

In Via Lungara, where the light ones live,

Spin, pray, then sing like linnets o’er the flax.

“Anywhere, anyhow, out of my husband’s house

“Is heaven,” cried she — was therefore suited so.

But for Count Guido Franceschini, he —

The injured man thus righted — found no heaven

I’ the house when he returned there, I engage,

Was welcomed by the city turned upside down

In a chorus of inquiry. “What, back — you?

1240

“And no wife? Left her with the Penitents?

“Ah, being young and pretty, ’twere a shame

“To have her whipped in public: leave the job

“To the priests who understand! Such priests as yours —

“(Pontifex Maximus whipped Vestals once)

“Our madcap Caponsacchi: think of him!

“So, he fired up, showed fight and skill of fence?

“Ay, you drew also, but you did not fight!

“The wiser, ’tis a word and a blow with him,

“True Caponsacchi, of old Head-i’-the-Sack

1250

“That fought at Fiesole ere Florence was:

“He had done enough, to firk you were too much.

“And did the little lady menace you,

“Make at your breast with your own harmless sword?

“The spitfire! Well, thank God you’re safe and sound,

“Have kept the sixth commandment whether or no

“The lady broke the seventh: I only wish

“I were as saint-like, could contain me so.

“I am a sinner, I fear I should have left

“Sir Priest no nose-tip to turn up at me!”

1260

You, Sir, who listen but interpose no word,

Ask yourself, had you borne a baiting thus?

Was it enough to make a wise man mad?

Oh, but I’ll have your verdict at the end!

Well, not enough, it seems: such mere hurt falls,

Frets awhile, and aches long, then less and less,

And so is done with. Such was not the scheme

O’ the pleasant Comparini: on Guido’s wound

Ever in due succession, drop by drop,

Came slow distilment from the alembic here

1270

Set on to simmer by Canidian hate,

Corrosives keeping the man’s misery raw.

First fire-drop — when he thought to make the best

O’ the bad, to wring from out the sentence passed,

Poor, pitiful, absurd although it were,

Yet what might eke him out result enough

And make it worth his while he had the right

And not the wrong i’ the matter judged at Rome.

Inadequate her punishment, no less

Punished in some slight sort his wife had been;

1280

Then, punished for adultery, what else?

On such admitted crime he thought to seize,

And institute procedure in the courts

Which cut corruption of this kind from man,

Cast loose a wife proved loose and castaway:

He claimed in due form a divorce at least.

This claim was met now by a counterclaim:

Pompilia sought divorce from bed and board

Of Guido, whose outrageous cruelty,

Whose mother’s malice and whose brother’s hate

1290

Were just the white o’ the charge, such dreadful depths

Blackened its centre — hints of worse than hate,

Love from that brother, by that Guido’s guile,

That mother’s prompting. Such reply was made,

So was the engine loaded, wound up, sprung

On Guido, who received the bolt in breast;

But no less bore up, giddily perhaps.

He had the Abate Paolo still in Rome,

Brother and friend and fighter on his side:

They rallied in a measure, met the foe

1300

Manlike, joined battle in the public courts,

As if to shame supine law from her sloth:

And waiting her award, let beat the while

Arezzo’s banter, Rome’s buffoonery,

On this ear and on that ear, deaf alike,

Safe from worse outrage. Let a scorpion nip,

And never mind till he contorts his tail!

But there was sting i’ the creature; thus it struck.

Guido had thought in his simplicity —

That lying declaration of remorse,

1310

That story of the child which was no child

And motherhood no motherhood at all,

— That even this sin might have its sort of good

Inasmuch as no question could be more,

Call it false, call the story true, no claim

Of further parentage pretended now:

The parents had abjured all right, at least,

I’ the woman still his wife: to plead right now

Were to declare the abjuration false:

He was relieved from any fear henceforth

1320

Their hands might touch, their breath defile again

Pompilia with his name upon her yet.

Well, no: the next news was, Pompilia’s health

Demanded change after full three long weeks

Spent in devotion with the Sisterhood —

Rendering sojourn — so the court opined —

Too irksome, since the convent’s walls were high

And windows narrow, nor was air enough

Nor light enough, but all looked prison-like,

The last thing which had come in the court’s head.

1330

Propose a new expedient therefore — this!

She had demanded — had obtained indeed,

By intervention of whatever friends

Or perhaps lovers —(beauty in distress

In one whose tale is the town-talk beside,

Never lacks friendship’s arm about her neck)—

Not freedom, scarce remitted penalty,

Solely the transfer to some private place

Where better air, more light, new food might be —

Incarcerated (call it, all the same)

1340

At some sure friend’s house she must keep inside,

Be found in at requirement fast enough —

Domus pro carcere, in Roman style.

You keep the house i’ the main, as most men do

And all good women: but free otherwise,

Should friends arrive, to lodge and entertain.

And such a domum, such a dwelling-place,

Having all Rome to choose from, where chose she?

What house obtained Pompilia’s preference?

Why, just the Comparini’s — just, do you mark,

1350

Theirs who renounced all part and lot in her

So long as Guido could be robbed thereby,

And only fell back on relationship

And found their daughter safe and sound again

So soon as that might stab him: yes, the pair

Who, as I told you, first had baited hook

With this poor gilded fly Pompilia-thing,

Then caught the fish, pulled Guido to the shore

And gutted him — now found a further use

For the bait, would trail the gauze wings yet again

1360

I’ the way of what new swimmer passed their stand.

They took Pompilia to their hiding-place —

Not in the heart of Rome as formerly,

Under observance, subject to control —

But out o’ the way — or in the way, who knows?

That blind mute villa lurking by the gate

At Via Paulina, not so hard to miss

By the honest eye, easy enough to find

In twilight by marauders: where perchance

Some muffled Caponsacchi might repair,

1370

Employ odd moments when he too tried change,

Found that a friend’s abode was pleasanter

Than relegation, penance, and the rest.

Come, here’s the last drop does its worst to wound,

Here’s Guido poisoned to the bone, you say,

Your boasted still’s full strain and strength: not so!

One master-squeeze from screw shall bring to birth

The hoard i’ the heart o’ the toad, hell’s quintessence.

He learned the true convenience of the change,

And why a convent wants the cheerful hearts

1380

And helpful hands which female straits require,

When, in the blind mute villa by the gate,

Pompilia — what? sang, danced, saw company?

— Gave birth, Sir, to a child, his son and heir,

Or Guido’s heir and Caponsacchi’s son.

I want your word now: what do you say to this?

What would say little Arezzo and great Rome,

And what did God say and the devil say

One at each ear o’ the man, the husband, now

The father? Why, the overburdened mind

1390

Broke down, what was a brain became a blaze.

In fury of the moment —(that first news

Fell on the Count among his vines, it seems,

Doing his farm-work)— why, he summoned steward,

Called in the first four hard hands and stout hearts

From field and furrow, poured forth his appeal,

Not to Rome’s law and gospel any more,

But this clown with a mother or a wife,

That clodpole with a sister or a son:

And, whereas law and gospel held their peace,

1400

What wonder if the sticks and stones cried out?

All five soon somehow found themselves at Rome,

At the villa door: there was the warmth and light —

The sense of life so just an inch inside —

Some angel must have whispered “One more chance!”

He gave it: bade the others stand aside:

Knocked at the door — “Who is it knocks?” cried one.

“I will make,” surely Guido’s angel said,

“One final essay, last experiment,

“Speak the word, name the name from out all names

1410

“Which, if — as doubtless strong illusions are,

“And strange disguisings whence even truth seems false,

“And, for I am a man, I dare not do

“God’s work until assured I see with God —

“If I should bring my lips to breathe that name

“And they be innocent — nay, by one touch

“Of innocence redeemed from utter guilt —

“That name will bar the door and bid fate pass,

“I will not say ‘It is a messenger,

“ ‘A neighbour, even a belated man,

“ ‘Much less your husband’s friend, your husband’s self:’

1421

“At such appeal the door is bound to ope.

“But I will say”— here’s rhetoric and to spare!

Why, Sir, the stumbling- block is cursed and kicked,

Block though it be; the name that brought offence

Will bring offence: the burnt child dreads the fire

Although that fire feed on a taper-wick

Which never left the altar nor singed fly:

And had a harmless man tripped you by chance,

How would you wait him, stand or step aside,

1430

When next you heard he rolled your way? Enough.

“Giuseppe Caponsacchi!” Guido cried;

And open flew the door: enough again.

Vengeance, you know, burst, like a mountain-wave

That holds a monster in it, over the house,

And wiped its filthy four walls free again

With a wash of hell-fire — father, mother, wife,

Killed them all, bathed his name clean in their blood,

And, reeking so, was caught, his friends and he,

Haled hither and imprisoned yesternight

1440

O’ the day all this was.

Now the whole is known,

And how the old couple come to lie in state

Though hacked to pieces — never, the experts say,

So thorough a study of stabbing — while the wife

Viper-like, very difficult to slay,

Writhes still through every ring of her, poor wretch,

At the Hospital hard by — survives, we’ll hope,

To somewhat purify her putrid soul

By full confession, make so much amends

1450

While time lasts; since at day’s end die she must.

For Caponsacchi — why, they’ll have him here,

The hero of the adventure, who so fit

To tell it in the coming Carnival?

’Twill make the fortune of whate’er saloon

Hears him recount, with helpful cheek, and eye

Hotly indignant now, now dewy-dimmed,

The incidents of flight, pursuit, surprise,

Capture, with hints of kisses all between —

While Guido, the most unromantic spouse,

1460

No longer fit to laugh at since the blood

Gave the broad farce an all too brutal air,

Why, he and those our luckless friends of his

May tumble in the straw this bitter day —

Laid by the heels i’ the New Prison, I hear,

To bide their trial, since trial, and for the life,

Follows if but for form’s sake: yes, indeed!

But with a certain issue: no dispute,

“Try him,” bids law: formalities oblige:

But as to the issue — look me in the face! —

1470

If the law thinks to find them guilty, Sir,

Master or men — touch one hair of the five,

Then I say in the name of all that’s left

Of honour in Rome, civility i’ the world

Whereof Rome boasts herself the central source —

There’s an end to all hope of justice more.

Astræa’s gone indeed, let hope go too!

Who is it dares impugn the natural law?

Deny God’s word “the faithless wife shall die?”

What, are we blind? How can we fail to see,

1480

This crowd of miseries make the man a mark,

Accumulate on one devoted head

For our example, yours and mine who read

Its lesson thus —“Henceforward let none dare

“Stand, like a natural in the public way,

“Letting the very urchins twitch his beard

“And tweak his nose, to earn a nickname so,

“Of the male-Grissel or the modern Job!”

Had Guido, in the twinkling of an eye,

Summed up the reckoning, promptly paid himself,

1490

That morning when he came up with the pair

At the wayside inn — exacted his just debt

By aid of what first mattock, pitchfork, axe

Came to hand in the helpful stable- yard,

And with that axe, if providence so pleased,

Cloven each head, by some Rolando-stroke,

In one clean cut from crown to clavicle,

— Slain the priest-gallant, the wife-paramour,

Sticking, for all defence, in each skull’s cleft

The rhyme and reason of the stroke thus dealt,

1500

To-wit, those letters and last evidence

Of shame, each package in its proper place —

Bidding, who pitied, undistend the skulls —

I say, the world had praised the man. But no!

That were too plain, too straight, too simply just!

He hesitates, calls law forsooth to help.

And law, distasteful to who calls in law

When honour is beforehand and would serve,

What wonder if law hesitate in turn,

Plead her disuse to calls o’ the kind, reply

1510

Smiling a little “ ’Tis yourself assess

“The worth of what’s lost, sum of damage done:

“What you touched with so light a finger-tip,

“You whose concern it was to grasp the thing,

“Why must law gird herself and grapple with?

“Law, alien to the actor whose warm blood

“Asks heat from law whose veins run lukewarm milk —

“What you dealt lightly with, shall law make out

“Heinous forsooth?”

        Sir, what’s the good of law

1520

In a case o’ the kind? None, as she all but says.

Call in law when a neighbour breaks your fence,

Cribs from your field, tampers with rent or lease,

Touches the purse or pocket — but wooes your wife?

No: take the old way trod when men were men!

Guido preferred the new path — for his pains,

Stuck in a quagmire, floundered worse and worse

Until he managed somehow scramble back

Into the safe sure rutted road once more,

Revenged his own wrong like a gentleman.

1530

Once back ’mid the familiar prints, no doubt

He made too rash amends for his first fault,

Vaulted too loftily over what barred him late,

And lit i’ the mire again — the common chance,

The natural over-energy: the deed

Maladroit yields three deaths instead of one,

And one life left: for where’s the Canon’s corpse?

All which is the worse for Guido, but, be frank —

The better for you and me and all the world,

Husbands of wives, especially in Rome.

1540

The thing is put right, in the old place — ay,

The rod hangs on its nail behind the door,

Fresh from the brine: a matter I commend

To the notice, during Carnival that’s near,

Of a certain what’s-his-name and jackanapes

Somewhat too civil of eves with lute and song

About a house here, where I keep a wife.

(You, being his cousin, may go tell him so.)

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/browning/robert/ring/book2.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32