The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning

The Other Half-Rome

Another day that finds her living yet,

Little Pompilia, with the patient brow

And lamentable smile on those poor lips,

And, under the white hospital-array,

A flower-like body, to frighten at a bruise

You’d think, yet now, stabbed through and through again,

Alive i’ the ruins. ’Tis a miracle.

It seems that, when her husband struck her first,

She prayed Madonna just that she might live

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So long as to confess and be absolved;

And whether it was that, all her sad life long,

Never before successful in a prayer,

This prayer rose with authority too dread —

Or whether, because earth was hell to her,

By compensation, when the blackness broke

She got one glimpse of quiet and the cool blue,

To show her for a moment such things were —

Or else — as the Augustinian Brother thinks,

The friar who took confession from her lip —

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When a probationary soul that moves

From nobleness to nobleness, as she,

Over the rough way of the world, succumbs,

Bloodies its last thorn with unflinching foot,

The angels love to do their work betimes,

Staunch some wounds here nor leave so much for God.

Who knows? However it be, confessed, absolved,

She lies, with overplus of life beside

To speak and right herself from first to last,

Right the friend also, lamb-pure, lion-brave,

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Care for the boy’s concerns, to save the son

From the sire, her two-weeks’ infant orphaned thus,

And — with best smile of all reserved for him —

Pardon that sire and husband from the heart.

A miracle, so tell your Molinists!

There she lies in the long white lazar-house.

Rome has besieged, these two days, never doubt,

Saint Anna’s where she waits her death, to hear

Though but the chink o’ the bell, turn o’ the hinge

When the reluctant wicket opes at last,

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Lets in, on now this and now that pretence,

Too many by half — complain the men of art —

For a patient in such plight. The lawyers first

Paid the due visit — justice must be done;

They took her witness, why the murder was;

Then the priests followed properly — a soul

To shrive; ’twas Brother Celestine’s own right,

The same who noises thus her gifts abroad:

But many more, who found they were old friends,

Pushed in to have their stare and take their talk

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And go forth boasting of it and to boast.

Old Monna Baldi chatters like a jay,

Swears — but that, prematurely trundled out

Just as she felt the benefit begin,

The miracle was snapped up by somebody —

Her palsied limb ’gan prick and promise life

At touch o’ the bedclothes merely — how much more

Had she but brushed the body as she tried!

Cavalier Carlo — well, there’s some excuse

For him — Maratta who paints Virgins so —

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He too must fee the porter and slip by

With pencil cut and paper squared, and straight

There was he figuring away at face —

“A lovelier face is not in Rome,” cried he,

“Shaped like a peacock’s egg, the pure as pearl,

“That hatches you anon a snow-white chick.”

Then, oh that pair of eyes, that pendent hair,

Black this, and black the other! Mighty fine —

But nobody cared ask to paint the same,

Nor grew a poet over hair and eyes

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Four little years ago when, ask and have,

The woman who wakes all this rapture leaned

Flower-like from out her window long enough,

As much uncomplimented as uncropped

By comers and goers in Via Vittoria: eh?

’Tis just a flower’s fate: past parterre we trip,

Till peradventure some one plucks our sleeve —

“Yon blossom at the briar’s end, that’s the rose

“Two jealous people fought for yesterday

“And killed each other: see, there’s undisturbed

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“A pretty pool at the root, of rival red!”

Then cry we, “Ah, the perfect paragon!”

Then crave we, “Just one keepsake-leaf for us!”

Truth lies between: there’s anyhow a child

Of seventeen years, whether a flower or weed,

Ruined: who did it shall account to Christ —

Having no pity on the harmless life

And gentle face and girlish form he found,

And thus flings back: go practise if you please

With men and women: leave a child alone

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For Christ’s particular love’s sake! — so I say.

Somebody, at the bedside, said much more,

Took on him to explain the secret cause

O’ the crime: quoth he, “Such crimes are very rife,

“Explode nor make us wonder now-a-days,

“Seeing that Antichrist disseminates

“That doctrine of the Philosophic Sin:

“Molinos’ sect will soon make earth too hot!”

“Nay,” groaned the Augustinian, “what’s there new?

“Crime will not fail to flare up from men’s hearts

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“While hearts are men’s and so born criminal

“Which one fact, always old yet ever new,

“Accounts for so much crime that, for my part,

“Molinos may go whistle to the wind

“That waits outside a certain church, you know!”

Though really it does seem as if she here,

Pompilia, living so and dying thus,

Has undue experience how much crime

A heart can hatch. Why was she made to learn

— Not you, not I, not even Molinos’ self —

What

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Guido Franceschini’s heart could hold?

Thus saintship is effected probably;

No sparing saints the process! — which the more

Tends to the reconciling us, no saints,

To sinnership, immunity and all.

For see now: Pietro and Violante’s life

Till seventeen years ago, all Rome might note

And quote for happy — see the signs distinct

Of happiness as we yon Triton’s trump.

What could they be but happy? — balanced so,

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Nor low i’ the social scale nor yet too high,

Nor poor nor richer than comports with ease,

Nor bright and envied, nor obscure and scorned,

Nor so young that their pleasures fell too thick,

Nor old past catching pleasure when it fell,

Nothing above, below the just degree,

All at the mean where joy’s components mix.

So again, in the couple’s very souls

You saw the adequate half with half to match,

Each having and each lacking somewhat, both

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Making a whole that had all and lacked nought;

The round and sound, in whose composure just

The acquiescent and recipient side

Was Pietro’s, and the stirring striving one

Violante’s: both in union gave the due

Quietude, enterprise, craving and content,

Which go to bodily health and peace of mind.

But, as ’tis said a body, rightly mixed,

Each element in equipoise, would last

Too long and live for ever — accordingly

Holds a germ — sand-grain weight too much i’ the scale —

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Ordained to get predominance one day

And so bring all to ruin and release —

Not otherwise a fatal germ lurked here:

“With mortals much must go, but something stays;

“Nothing will stay of our so happy selves.”

Out of the very ripeness of life’s core

A worm was bred —“Our life shall leave no fruit.”

Enough of bliss, they thought, could bliss bear seed,

Yield its like, propagate a bliss in turn

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And keep the kind up; not supplant themselves

But put in evidence, record they were,

Show them, when done with, i’ the shape of a child.

“’Tis in a child, man and wife grow complete,

“One flesh: God says so: let him do his work!”

Now, one reminder of this gnawing want,

One special prick o’ the maggot at the core,

Always befell when, as the day came round,

A certain yearly sum — our Pietro being,

As the long name runs, an usufructuary —

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Dropped in the common bag as interest

Of money, his till death, not afterward,

Failing an heir: an heir would take and take,

A child of theirs be wealthy in their place

To nobody’s hurt — the stranger else seized all.

Prosperity rolled river-like and stopped,

Making their mill go; but when wheel wore out,

The wave would find a space and sweep on free

And, half-a-mile off, grind some neighbour’s corn.

Adam-like, Pietro sighed and said no more:

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Eve saw the apple was fair and good to taste,

So, plucked it, having asked the snake advice.

She told her husband God was merciful,

And his and her prayer granted at the last:

Let the old mill-stone moulder — wheel unworn,

Quartz from the quarry, shot into the stream

Adroitly, should go bring grist as before —

Their house continued to them by an heir,

Their vacant heart replenished with a child.

We have her own confession at full length

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Made in the first remorse: ’twas Jubilee

Pealed in the ear o’ the conscience and it woke.

She found she had offended God no doubt,

So much was plain from what had happened since,

Misfortune on misfortune; but she harmed

No one i’ the world, so far as she could see.

The act had gladdened Pietro to the height,

Her husband — God himself must gladden so

Or not at all —(thus much seems probable

From the implicit faith, or rather say

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Stupid credulity of the foolish man

Who swallowed such a tale nor strained a whit

Even at his wife’s far- over-fifty years

Matching his sixty-and-under.) Him she blessed,

And as for doing any detriment,

To the veritable heir — why, tell her first

Who was he? Which of all the hands held up

I’ the crowd, would one day gather round their gate,

Did she so wrong by intercepting thus

The ducat, spendthrift fortune thought to fling

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For a scramble just to make the mob break shins?

She kept it, saved them kicks and cuffs thereby.

While at the least one good work had she wrought,

Good, clearly and incontestably! Her cheat —

What was it to its subject, the child’s self,

But charity and religion? See the girl!

A body most like — a soul too probably —

Doomed to death, such a double death as waits

The illicit offspring of a common trull,

Sure to resent and forthwith rid herself

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Of a mere interruption to sin’s trade,

In the efficacious way old Tiber knows.

Was not so much proved by the ready sale

O’ the child, glad transfer of this irksome chance?

Well then, she had caught up this castaway:

This fragile egg, some careless wild bird dropped,

She had picked from where it waited the foot-fall,

And put in her own breast till forth broke finch

Able to sing God praise on mornings now.

What so excessive harm was done? — she asked.

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To which demand the dreadful answer comes —

For that same deed, now at Lorenzo’s church,

Both agents, conscious and inconscious, lie;

While she, the deed was done to benefit,

Lies also, the most lamentable of things,

Yonder where curious people count her breaths,

Calculate how long yet the little life

Unspilt may serve their turn nor spoil the show,

Give them their story, then the church its group.

Well, having gained Pompilia, the girl grew

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I’ the midst of Pietro here, Violante there,

Each, like a semicircle with stretched arms,

Joining the other round her preciousness —

Two walls that go about a garden-plot

Where a chance sliver, branchlet slipt from bole

Of some tongue-leaved eye-figured Eden tree,

Filched by two exiles and borne far away,

Patiently glorifies their solitude —

Year by year mounting, grade by grade surmounts

The builded brick-work, yet is compassed still,

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Still hidden happily and shielded safe —

Else why should miracle have graced the ground?

But on the twelfth sun that brought April there

What meant that laugh? The coping-stone was reached;

Nay, a light tuft of bloom towered above

To be toyed with by butterfly or bee,

Done good to or else harm to from outside:

Pompilia’s root, stem, and a branch or two

Home enclosed still, the rest would be the world’s.

All which was taught our couple though obtuse,

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Since walls have ears, when one day brought a priest,

Smooth-mannered soft-speeched sleek-cheeked visitor,

The notable Abate Paolo — known

As younger brother of a Tuscan house

Whereof the actual representative,

Count Guido, had employd his youth and age

In culture of Rome’s most productive plant —

A cardinal: but years pass and change comes,

In token of which, here was our Paolo brought

To broach a weighty business. Might he speak?

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Yes — to Violante somehow caught alone

While Pietro took his after-dinner doze,

And the young maiden, busily as befits,

Minded her broider-frame three chambers off.

So — giving now his great flap-hat a gloss

With flat o’ the hand between-whiles, soothing now

The silk from out its creases o’er the calf,

Setting the stocking clerical again,

But never disengaging, once engaged,

The thin clear grey hold of his eyes on her —

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He dissertated on that Tuscan house,

Those Franceschini — very old they were —

Not rich however — oh, not rich, at least,

As people look to be who, low i’ the scale

One way, have reason, rising all they can

By favour of the money-bag: ’tis fair —

Do all gifts go together? But don’t suppose

That being not so rich means all so poor!

Say rather, well enough — i’ the way, indeed,

Ha, ha, to better fortune than the best,

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Since if his brother’s patron-friend kept faith,

Put into promised play the Cardinalate,

Their house might wear the red cloth that keeps warm,

Would but the Count have patience — there’s the point!

For he was slipping into years apace,

And years make men restless — they needs must see

Some certainty, some sort of end assured,

Sparkle, tho’ from the topmost beacon-tip

That warrants life a harbour through the haze.

In short, call him fantastic as you choose,

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Guido was home-sick, yearned for the old sights

And usual faces — fain would settle himself

And have the patron’s bounty when it fell

Irrigate far rather than deluge near,

Go fertilise Arezzo, not flood Rome.

Sooth to say, ’twas the wiser wish: the Count

Proved wanting in ambition — let us avouch,

Since truth is best — in callousness of heart,

Winced at those pin-pricks whereby honours hang

A ribbon o’er each puncture: his — no soul

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Ecclesiastic (here the hat was brushed)

Humble but self-sustaining, calm and cold,

Having, as one who puts his hand to the plough,

Renounced the over-vivid family-feel —

Poor brother Guido! All too plain, he pined

Amid Rome’s pomp and glare for dinginess

And that dilapidated palace-shell

Vast as a quarry and, very like, as bare —

Since to this comes old grandeur now-a-days —

Or that absurd wild villa in the waste

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O’ the hill side, breezy though, for who likes air,

Vittiano, nor unpleasant with its vines,

Outside the city and the summer heats.

And now his harping on this one tense chord

The villa and the palace, palace this

And villa the other, all day and all night

Creaked like the implacable cicala’s cry

And made one’s ear- drum ache: nought else would serve

But that, to light his mother’s visage up

With second youth, hope, gaiety again,

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He must find straightway, woo and haply win

And bear away triumphant back, some wife.

Well now, the man was rational in his way —

He, the Abate — ought he to interpose?

Unless by straining still his tutelage

(Priesthood leaps over elder-brothership)

Across this difficulty: then let go,

Leave the poor fellow in peace! Would that be wrong?

There was no making Guido great, it seems,

Spite of himself: then happy be his dole!

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Indeed, the Abate’s little interest

Was somewhat nearly touched i’ the case, they saw:

Since if his simple kinsman so were bent,

Began his rounds in Rome to catch a wife,

Full soon would such unworldliness surprise

The rare bird, sprinkle salt on phœnix’ tail,

And so secure the nest a sparrow- hawk.

No lack of mothers here in Rome — no dread

Of daughters lured as larks by looking-glass!

The first name-pecking credit-scratching fowl

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Would drop her unfledged cuckoo in our nest

To gather greyness there, give voice at length

And shame the brood.. but it was long ago

When crusades were, and we sent eagles forth!

No, that at least the Abate could forestall.

He read the thought within his brother’s word,

Knew what he purposed better than himself.

We want no name and fame — having our own:

No worldly aggrandisement — such we fly:

But if some wonder of a woman’s-heart

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Were yet untainted on this grimy earth,

Tender and true — tradition tells of such —

Prepared to pant in time and tune with ours —

If some good girl (a girl, since she must take

The new bent, live new life, adopt new modes)

Not wealthy — Guido for his rank was poor —

But with whatever dowry came to hand,

There were the lady-love predestinate!

And somehow the Abate’s guardian eye —

Scintillant, rutilant, fraternal fire —

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Roving round every way had seized the prize

— The instinct of us, we, the spiritualty!

Come, cards on table; was it true or false

That here — here in this very tenement —

Yea, Via Vittoria did a marvel hide,

Lily of a maiden, white with intact leaf

Guessed thro’ the sheath that saved it from the sun?

A daughter with the mother’s hands still clasped

Over her head for fillet virginal,

A wife worth Guido’s house and hand and heart?

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He came to see; had spoken, he could no less —

(A final cherish of the stockinged calf)

If harm were — well, the matter was off his mind.

Then with the great air did he kiss, devout,

Violante’s hand, and rise up his whole height

(A certain purple gleam about the black)

And go forth grandly — as if the Pope came next.

And so Violante rubbed her eyes awhile,

Got up too, walked to wake her Pietro soon

And pour into his ear the mighty news

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How somebody had somehow somewhere seen

Their tree-top-tuft of bloom above the wall,

And came now to apprise them the tree’s self

Was no such crab-sort as should feed the swine,

But veritable gold, the Hesperian ball

Ordained for Hercules to haste and pluck,

And bear and give the Gods to banquet with —

Hercules standing ready at the door.

Whereon did Pietro rub his eyes in turn,

Look very wise, a little woeful too,

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Then, periwig on head, and cane in hand,

Sally forth dignifiedly into the Square

Of Spain across Babbuino the six steps,

Toward the Boat-fountain where our idlers lounge —

Ask, for form’s sake, who Hercules might be,

And have congratulation from the world.

Heartily laughed the world in his fool’s-face

And told him Hercules was just the heir

To the stubble once a corn-field, and brick-heap

Where used to be a dwelling-place now burned.

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Guido and Franceschini; a Count — ay:

But a cross i’ the poke to bless the Countship? No!

All gone except sloth, pride, rapacity,

Humours of the imposthume incident

To rich blood that runs thin — nursed to a head

By the rankly-salted soil — a cardinal’s court

Where, parasite and picker-up of crumbs,

He had hung on long, and now, let go, said some,

But shaken off, said others — in any case

Tired of the trade and something worse for wear,

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Was wanting to change town for country quick,

Go home again: let Pietro help him home!

The brother, Abate Paolo, shrewder mouse,

Had pricked for comfortable quarters, inched

Into the core of Rome, and fattened so;

But Guido, over-burly for rat’s hole

Suited to clerical slimness, starved outside,

Must shift for himself: and so the shift was this!

What, was the snug retreat of Pietro tracked,

The little provision for his old age snuffed?

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“Oh, make your girl a lady, an you list,

“But have more mercy on our wit than vaunt

“Your bargain as we burgesses who brag!

“Why, Goodman Dullard, if a friend must speak,

“Would the Count, think you, stoop to you and yours

“Were there the value of one penny-piece

“To rattle ’twixt his palms — or likelier laugh,

“Bid your Pompilia help you black his shoe?”

Home again, shaking oft the puzzled pate,

Went Pietro to announce a change indeed,

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Yet point Violante where some solace lay

Of a rueful sort — the taper, quenched so soon,

Had ended merely in a snuff, not stink —

Congratulate there was one hope the less

Not misery the more: and so an end.

The marriage thus impossible, the rest

Followed: our spokesman, Paolo, heard his fate,

Resignedly Count Guido bore the blow:

Violante wiped away the transient tear,

Renounced the playing Danae to gold dreams,

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Praised much her Pietro’s prompt sagaciousness,

Found neighbours’ envy natural, lightly laughed

At gossips’ malice, fairly wrapped herself

In her integrity three folds about,

And, letting pass a little day or two,

Threw, even over that integrity,

Another wrappage, namely one thick veil

That hid her, matron-wise, from head to foot,

And, by the hand holding a girl veiled too,

Stood, one dim end of a December day,

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In Saint Lorenzo on the altar-step —

Just where she lies now and that girl will lie —

Only with fifty candles’ company

Now — in the place of the poor winking one

Which saw — doors shut and sacristan made sure —

A priest — perhaps Abate Paolo — wed

Guido clandestinely, irrevocably

To his Pompilia aged thirteen years

And five months — witness the church register —

Pompilia (thus become Count Guido’s wife

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Clandestinely, irrevocably his, ),

Who all the while had borne, from first to last,

As brisk a part i’ the bargain, as yon lamb,

Brought forth from basket and set out for sale,

Bears while they chaffer, wary market-man

And voluble housewife, o’er it — each in turn

Patting the curly calm inconscious head,

With the shambles ready round the corner there,

When the talk’s talked out and a bargain struck.

Transfer complete, why, Pietro was apprised.

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Violante sobbed the sobs and prayed the prayers

And said the serpent tempted so she fell,

Till Pietro had to clear his brow apace

And make the best of matters: wrath at first —

How else? pacification presently,

Why not? — could flesh withstand the impurpled one,

The very Cardinal, Paolo’s patron-friend?

Who, justifiably surnamed “a hinge,”

Knew where the mollifying oil should drop

To cure the creak o’ the valve — considerate

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For frailty, patient in a naughty world,

He even volunteered to supervise

The rough draught of those marriage-articles

Signed in a hurry by Pietro, since revoked:

Trust’s politic, suspicion does the harm,

There is but one way to brow-beat this world,

Dumbfounder doubt, and repay scorn in kind —

To go on trusting, namely, till faith move

Mountains.

And faith here made the mountains move.

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Why, friends whose zeal cried “Caution ere too late!”—

Bade “Pause ere jump, with both feet joined, on slough! —

Counselled “If rashness then, now temperance!”—

Heard for their pains that Pietro had closed eyes,

Jumped and was in the middle of the mire,

Money and all, just what should sink a man.

By the mere marriage, Guido gained forthwith

Dowry, his wife’s right; no rescinding there:

But Pietro, why must he needs ratify

One gift Violante gave, pay down one doit

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Promised in first fool’s-flurry? Grasp the bag

Lest the son’s service flag — is reason and rhyme,

Above all when the son’s a son-in-law.

Words to the wind! The parents cast their lot

Into the lap o’ the daughter: and the son

Now with a right to lie there, took what fell,

Pietro’s whole having and holding, house and field,

Goods, chattels and effects, his worldly worth

Present and in perspective, all renounced

In favour of Guido. As for the usufruct —

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The interest now, the principal anon,

Would Guido please to wait, at Pietro’s death:

Till when, he must support the couple’s charge,

Bear with them, housemates, pensionaries, pawned

To an alien for fulfilment of their pact.

Guido should at discretion deal them orts,

Bread-bounty in Arezzo the strange place —

They who had lived deliciously and rolled

Rome’s choicest comfit ’neath the tongue before.

Into this quag, “jump” bade the Cardinal!

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And neck-deep in a minute there flounced they.

But they touched bottom at Arezzo: there —

Four months’ experience of how craft and greed,

Quickened by penury and pretentious hate

Of plain truth, brutify and bestialise —

Four months’ taste of apportioned insolence,

Cruelty graduated, dose by dose

Of ruffianism dealt out at bed and board,

And lo, the work was done, success clapped hands.

The starved, stripped, beaten brace of stupid dupes

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Broke at last in their desperation loose,

Fled away for their lives, and lucky so;

Found their account in casting coat afar

And bearing off a shred of skin at least:

Left Guido lord o’ the prey, as the lion is,

And, careless what came after, carried their wrongs

To Rome — I nothing doubt, with such remorse

As folly feels, since pain can make it wise,

But crime, past wisdom, which is innocence,

Needs not be plagued with till a later day.

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Pietro went back to beg from door to door,

In hope that memory not quite extinct

Of cheery days and festive nights would move

Friends and acquaintance — after the natural laugh,

And tributary “Just as we foretold —”

To show some bowels, give the dregs o’ the cup,

Scraps of the trencher, to their host that was,

Or let him share the mat with the mastiff, he

Who lived large and kept open house so long.

Not so Violante: ever a-head i’ the march,

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Quick at the bye-road and the cut-across,

She went first to the best adviser, God —

Whose finger unmistakably was felt

In all this retribution of the past.

Here was the prize of sin, luck of a lie!

But here too was the Holy Year would help,

Bound to rid sinners of sin vulgar, sin

Abnormal, sin prodigious, up to sin

Impossible and supposed for Jubilee’ sake:

To lift the leadenest of lies, let soar

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The soul unhampered by a feather-weight.

“I will,” said she, “go burn out this bad hole

“That breeds the scorpion, baulk the plague at least

“Its hope of further creeping progeny:

“I will confess my fault, be punished, yes,

“But pardoned too: Saint Peter pays for all.”

So, with the crowd she mixed, made for the dome,

Through the great door new-broken for the nonce

Marched, muffled more than ever matron-wise,

Up the left nave to the formidable throne,

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Fell into file with this the poisoner

And that the parricide, and reached in turn

The poor repugnant Penitentiary

Set at this gully-hole o’ the world’s discharge

To help the frightfullest of filth have vent,

And then knelt down and whispered in his ear

How she had bought Pompilia, palmed the babe

On Pietro, passed the girl off as their child

To Guido, and defrauded of his due

This one and that one — more than she could name,

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Until her solid piece of wickedness

Happened to split and spread woe far and wide:

Contritely now she brought the case for cure.

Replied the throne —“Ere God forgive the guilt,

“Make man some restitution! Do your part!

“The owners of your husband’s heritage,

“Barred thence by this pretended birth and heir —

“Tell them, the bar came so, is broken so,

“Theirs be the due reversion as before!

“Your husband who, no partner in the guilt,

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“Suffers the penalty, led blindfold thus

“By love of what he thought his flesh and blood

“To alienate his all in her behalf —

“Tell him too such contract is null and void!

“Last, he who personates your son-in-law,

“Who with sealed eyes and stopped ears, tame and mute,

“Took at your hand that bastard of a whore

“You called your daughter and he calls his wife —

“Tell him, and bear the anger which is just!

“Then, penance so performed, may pardon be!”

Who could gainsay this just and right award?

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Nobody in the world: but, out o’ the world,

Who knows? — might timid intervention be

From any makeshift of an angel-guide,

Substitute for celestial guardianship,

Pretending to take care of the girl’s self:

“Woman, confessing crime is healthy work,

“And telling truth relieves a liar like you,

“But what of her my unconsidered charge?

“No thought of, while this good befalls yourself,

610

“What in the way of harm may find out her?”

No least thought, I assure you: truth being truth,

Tell it and shame the devil!

        Said and done:

Home went Violante and disbosomed all:

And Pietro who, six months before, had borne

Word after word of such a piece of news

Like so much cold steel inched through his breast-blade,

Now at its entry gave a leap for joy,

As who — what did I say of one in a quag? —

620

Should catch a hand from heaven and spring thereby

Out of the mud, on ten toes stand once more.

“What? All that used to be, may be again?

“My money mine again, my house, my land,

“My chairs and tables, all mine evermore?

“What, the girl’s dowry never was the girl’s,

“And, unpaid yet, is never now to pay?

“Then the girl’s self, my pale Pompilia child

“That used to be my own with her great eyes —

“He who drove us forth, why should he keep her

630

“When proved as very a pauper as himself?

“Will she come back, with nothing changed at all,

“And laugh ‘But how you dreamed uneasily!

“ ‘I saw the great drops stand here on your brow —

“ ‘Did I do wrong to wake you with a kiss?’

“No, indeed, darling! No, for wide awake

“I see another outburst of surprise:

“The lout-lord, bully-beggar, braggart-sneak,

“Who not content with cutting purse, crops ear —

“Assuredly it shall be salve to mine

640

“When this great news red-letters him, the rogue!

“Ay, let him taste the teeth o’ the trap, this fox,

“Give us our lamb back, golden fleece and all,

“Let her creep in and warm our breasts again!

“What care for the past? — we three are our old selves,

“Who know now what the outside world is worth.”

And so, he carried case before the courts;

And there Violante, blushing to the bone,

Made public declaration of her fault,

Renounced her motherhood, and prayed the law

650

To interpose, frustrate of its effect

Her folly, and redress the injury done.

Whereof was the disastrous consequence,

That though indisputably clear the case

(For thirteen years are not so large a lapse,

And still six witnesses survived in Rome

To prove the truth o’ the tale)— yet, patent wrong

Seemed Guido’s; the first cheat had chanced on him:

Here was the pity that, deciding right,

Those who began the wrong would gain the good.

660

Guido pronounced the story one long lie

Lied to do robbery and take revenge:

Or say it were no lie at all but truth,

Then, it both robbed the right heirs and shamed him

Without revenge to humanise the deed:

What had he done when first they shamed him thus?

But that were too fantastic: losels they,

And leasing this world’s-wonder of a lie,

They lied to blot him though it brand themselves.

So answered Guido through the Abate’s mouth.

670

Wherefore the court, its customary way,

Inclined to the middle course the sage affect —

They held the child to be a changeling — good:

But, lest the husband got no good thereby,

They willed the dowry, though not hers at all,

Should yet be his, if not by right then grace —

Part-payment for the plain injustice done.

But then, that other contract, Pietro’s work,

Renunciation of his own estate,

That must be cancelled — give him back his goods,

680

He was no party to the cheat at least!

So ran the judgment:— whence a prompt appeal

On both sides, seeing right is absolute.

Cried Pietro, “Is Pompilia not my child?

“Why give her my child’s dowry?”—“Have I right

“To the dowry, why not to the rest as well?”

Cried Guido, or cried Paolo in his name:

Till law said “Reinvestigate the case!”

And so the matter pends, unto this day.

Hence new disaster — that no outlet seemed;

690

Whatever the fortune of the battle-field,

No path whereby the fatal man might march

Victorious, wreath on head and spoils in hand,

And back turned full upon the baffled foe —

Nor cranny whence, desperate and disgraced,

Stripped to the skin, he might be fain to crawl

Worm- like, and so away with his defeat

To other fortune and the novel prey.

No, he was pinned to the place there, left alone

With his immense hate and, the solitary

700

Subject to satisfy that hate, his wife.

“Cast her off? Turn her naked out of doors?

“Easily said! But still the action pends,

“Still dowry, principal and interest,

“Pietro’s possessions, all I bargained for —

“Any good day, be but my friends alert,

“May give them me if she continue mine.

“Yet, keep her? Keep the puppet of my foes —

“Her voice that lisps me back their curse — her eye

“They lend their leer of triumph to — her lip

710

“I touch and taste their very filth upon?”

In short, he also took the middle course

Rome taught him — did at last excogitate

How he might keep the good and leave the bad

Twined in revenge, yet extricable — nay

Make the very hate’s eruption, very rush

Of the unpent sluice of cruelty relieve

His heart first, then go fertilise his field.

What if the girl-wife, tortured with due care,

Should take, as though spontaneously, the road

720

It were impolitic to thrust her on?

If, goaded, she broke out in full revolt,

Followed her parents i’ the face o’ the world,

Branded as runaway not castaway,

Self-sentenced and self-punished in the act?

So should the loathed form and detested face

Launch themselves into hell and there be lost

While he looked o’er the brink with folded arms;

So should the heaped-up shames go shuddering back

O’ the head o’ the heapers, Pietro and his wife,

730

And bury in the breakage three at once:

While Guido, left free, no one right renounced,

Gain present, gain prospective, all the gain,

None of the wife except her rights absorbed.

Should ask law what it was law paused about —

If law were dubious still whose word to take,

The husband’s — dignified and derelict,

Or the wife’s — the . . . what I tell you. It should be.

Guido’s first step was to take pen, indite

A letter to the Abate — not his own,

740

His wife’s — she should re- write, sign, seal, and send.

She liberally told the household-news,

Rejoiced her vile progenitors were fled,

Revealed their malice — how they even laid

A last injunction on her, when they fled,

That she should forthwith find a paramour,

Complot with him to gather spoil enough

Then burn the house down — taking previous care

To poison all its inmates overnight —

And so companioned, so provisioned too,

750

Follow to Rome and all join fortunes gay.

This letter, traced in pencil-characters,

Guido as easily got retraced in ink

By his wife’s pen, guided from end to end,

As it had been just so much Hebrew, Sir:

For why? That wife could broider, sing perhaps,

Pray certainly, but no more read than write

This letter “which yet write she must,” he said,

“Being half courtesy and compliment,

“Half sisterliness: take the thing on trust!”

760

She had as readily re-traced the words

Of her own death-warrant — in some sort ’twas so.

This letter the Abate in due course

Communicated to such curious souls

In Rome as needs must pry into the cause

Of quarrel, why the Comparini fled

The Franceschini, whence the grievance grew,

What the hubbub meant: “Nay — see the wife’s own word,

“Authentic answer! Tell detractors too

“There’s a plan formed, a programme figured here

770

“— Pray God no after-practice put to proof,

“This letter cast no light upon, one day!”

So much for what should work in Rome — back now

To Arezzo, go on with the project there,

Forward the next step with as bold a foot,

And plague Pompilia to the height, you see!

Accordingly did Guido set himself

To worry up and down, across, around,

The woman, hemmed in by her household-bars —

Chased her about the coop of daily life,

780

Having first stopped each outlet thence save one

Which, like bird with a ferret in her haunt,

She needs must seize as sole way of escape

Though there was tied and twittering a decoy

To seem as if it tempted — just the plume

O’ the popinjay, and not a respite there

From tooth and claw of something in the dark —

Giuseppe Caponsacchi.

        Now begins

The tenebrific passage of the tale:

790

How hold a light, display the cavern’s gorge?

How, in this phase of the affair, show truth?

Here is the dying wife who smiles and says

“So it was — so it was not — how it was,

“I never knew nor ever care to know —”

Till they all weep, physician, man of law,

Even that poor old bit of battered brass

Beaten out of all shape by the world’s sins,

Common utensil of the lazar-house —

Confessor Celestino groans “’Tis truth,

800

“All truth, and only truth: there’s something else,

“Some presence in the room beside us all,

“Something that every lie expires before:

“No question she was pure from first to last.”

So far is well and helps us to believe:

But beyond, she the helpless, simple- sweet

Or silly-sooth, unskilled to break one blow

At her good fame by putting finger forth —

How can she render service to the truth?

The bird says “So I fluttered where a springe

810

“Caught me: the springe did not contrive itself,

“That I know: who contrived it, God forgive!”

But we, who hear no voice and have dry eyes,

Must ask — we cannot else, absolving her —

How of the part played by that same decoy

I’ the catching, caging? Was himself caught first?

We deal here with no innocent at least,

No witless victim — he’s a man of the age

And a priest beside — persuade the mocking world

Mere charity boiled over in this sort!

820

He whose own safety too — (the Pope’s apprised —

Good-natured with the secular offence,

The pope looks grave on priesthood in a scrape)

Our priest’s own safety therefore, may-be life,

Hangs on the issue! You will find it hard.

Guido is here to meet you with fixed foot,

Stiff like a statue —“Leave what went before!

“My wife fled i’ the company of a priest,

“Spent two days and two nights alone with him:

“Leave what came after!” He is hard to throw.

830

Moreover priests are merely flesh and blood;

When we get weakness, and no guilt beside,

We have no such great ill-fortune: finding grey,

We gladly call that white which might be black,

Too used to the double-dye. So, if the priest,

Moved by Pompilia’s youth and beauty, gave

Way to the natural weakness. . . . Anyhow

Here be facts, charactery; what they spell

Determine, and thence pick what sense you may!

There was a certain young bold handsome priest

840

Popular in the city, far and wide

Famed, for Arezzo’s but a little place,.

As the best of good companions, gay and grave

At the decent minute; settled in his stall,

Or sideling, lute on lap, by lady’s couch,

Ever the courtly Canon: see in such

A star shall climb apace and culminate,

Have its due handbreadth of the heaven at Rome,

Though meanwhile pausing on Arezzo’s edge,

As modest candle ’mid the mountain fog,

850

To rub off redness and rusticity

Ere it sweep chastened, gain the silver-sphere.

Whether through Guido’s absence or what else,

This Caponsacchi, favourite of the town,

Was yet no friend of his nor free o’ the house,

Though both moved in the regular magnates’ march —

Each must observe the other’s tread and halt

At church, saloon, theatre, house of play.

Who could help noticing the husband’s slouch,

The black of his brow — or miss the news that buzzed

860

Of how the little solitary wife

Wept and looked out of window all day long?

What need of minute search into such springs

As start men, set o’ the move? — machinery

Old as earth, obvious as the noonday sun.

Why, take men as they come — an instance now —

Of all those who have simply gone to see

Pompilia on her deathbed since four days,

Half at the least are, call it how you please,

In love with her — I don’t except the priests

870

Nor even the old confessor whose eyes run

Over at what he styles his sister’s voice

Who died so early and weaned him from the world.

Well, had they viewed her ere the paleness pushed

The last o’ the red o’ the rose away, while yet

Some hand, adventurous ’twixt the wind and her,

Might let the life run back and raise the flower

Rich with reward up to the guardian’s face —

Would they have kept that hand employed the same

At fumbling on with prayer-book pages? No!

880

Men are men: why then need I say one word

More than this, that our man the Canon here

Saw, pitied, loved Pompilia?

        This is why;

This startling why: that Caponsacchi’s self —

Whom foes and friends alike avouch, for good

Or ill, a man of truth whate’er betide,

Intrepid altogether, reckless too

How his own fame and fortune, tossed to the winds,

Suffer by any turn the adventure take,

890

Nay, more — not thrusting, like a badge to hide,

’Twixt shirt and skin a joy which shown is shame —

But flirting flag-like i’ the face o’ the world

This tell-tale kerchief, this conspicuous love

For the lady — oh, called innocent love, I know!

Only, such scarlet fiery innocence

As most men would try muffle up in shade —

’Tis strange then that this else abashless mouth

Should yet maintain, for truth’s sake which is God’s,

That it was not he made the first advance,

900

That, even ere word had passed between the two,

Pompilia penned him letters, passionate prayers,

If not love, then so simulating love

That he, no novice to the taste of thyme,

Turned from such over-luscious honey-clot

At end o’ the flower, and would not lend his lip

Till . . . but the tale here frankly outsoars faith:

There must be falsehood somewhere. For her part,

Pompilia quietly constantly avers

She never penned a letter in her life

910

Nor to the Canon nor any other man,

Being incompetent to write and read:

Nor had she ever uttered word to him, nor he

To her till that same evening when they met,

She on her window-terrace, he beneath

I’ the public street, as was their fateful chance,

And she adjured him in the name of God

Find out and bring to pass where, when and how

Escape with him to Rome might be contrived.

Means found, plan laid and time fixed, she avers,

920

And heart assured to heart in loyalty,

All at an impulse! All extemporised

As in romance-books! Is that credible?

Well, yes: as she avers this with calm mouth

Dying, I do think “Credible!” you’d cry —

Did not the priest’s voice come to break the spell:

They questioned him apart, as the custom is,

When first the matter made a noise at Rome,

And he, calm, constant then as she is now,

For truth’s sake did assert and reassert

930

Those letters called him to her and he came,

— Which damns the story credible otherwise.

Why should this man — mad to devote himself,

Careless what comes of his own fame, the first —

Be studious thus to publish and declare

Just what the lightest nature loves to hide,

Nor screen a lady from the byword’s laugh

“First spoke the lady, last the cavalier!”

— I say — why should the man tell truth just here

When graceful lying meets such ready shrift?

940

Or is there a first moment for a priest

As for a woman, when invaded shame

Must have its first and last excuse to show?

Do both contrive love’s entry in the mind

Shall look, i’ the manner of it, a surprise,

That after, once the flag o’ the fort hauled down,

Effrontery may sink drawbridge, open gate,

Welcome and entertain the conqueror?

Or what do you say to a touch of the devil’s worst?

Can it be that the husband, he who wrote

950

The letter to his brother I told you of,

I’ the name of her it meant to criminate —

What if he wrote those letters to the priest?

Further the priest says, when it first befell,

This folly o’ the letters, that he checked the flow,

Put them back lightly each with its reply.

Here again vexes new discrepancy:

There never reached her eye a word from him;

He did write but she could not read — she could

Burn what offended wifehood, womanhood,

960

So did burn: never bade him come to her,

Yet when it proved he must come, let him come,

And when he did come though uncalled, she spoke

Prompt by an inspiration: thus it was.

Will you go somewhat back to understand?

When first, pursuant to his plan, there sprung,

Like an uncaged beast, Guido’s cruelty

On the weak shoulders of his wife, she cried

To those whom law appoints resource for such,

The secular guardian — that’s the Governor,

970

And the Archbishop — that’s the spiritual guide,

And prayed them take the claws from out her flesh.

Now, this is ever the ill consequence

Of being noble, poor, and difficult,

Ungainly, yet too great to disregard —

That the born peers and friends hereditary

Though disinclined to help from their own store

The opprobrious wight, put penny in his poke

From purse of theirs or leave the door ajar

When he goes wistful by at dinner-time —

980

Yet, if his needs conduct him where they sit

Smugly in office, judge this, bishop that,

Dispensers of the shine and shade o’ the place —

And if, the friend’s door shut and purse undrawn,

The potentate may find the office-hall

Do as good service at no cost — give help

By- the-bye, pay up traditional dues at once

Just through a feather-weight too much i’ the scale,

A finger-tip forgot at the balance-tongue —

Why, only churls refuse, or Molinists.

990

Thus when, in the first roughness of surprise

At Guido’s wolf-face whence the sheepskin fell,

The frightened couple, all bewilderment,

Rushed to the Governor — who else rights wrong?

Told him their tale of wrong and craved redress —

Why, then the Governor woke up to the fact

That Guido was a friend of old, poor Count! —

So, promptly paid his tribute, promised the pair,

Wholesome chastisement should soon cure their qualms

Next time they came and prated and told lies:

1000

Which stopped all prating, sent them dumb to Rome.

Well, now it was Pompilia’s turn to try:

The troubles pressing on her, as I said,

Three times she rushed, maddened by misery,

To the other mighty man, sobbed out her prayer

At footstool of the Archbishop — fast the friend

Of her husband also! Oh, good friends of yore!

So, the Archbishop, not to be outdone

By the Governor, break custom more than he,

Thrice bade the foolish woman stop her tongue,

1010

Unloosed her hands from harassing his gout,

Coached her and carried her to the Count again,

— His old friend should be master in his house,

Rule his wife and correct her faults at need!

Well, driven from post to pillar in this wise,

She, as a last resource, betook herself

To one, should be no family-friend at least,

A simple friar o’ the city; confessed to him,

Then told how fierce temptation of release

By self-dealt death was busy with her soul,

1020

And urged that he put this in words, write plain

For one who could not write, set down her prayer

That Pietro and Violante, parent-like

If somehow not her parents, should for love

Come save her, pluck from out the flame the brand

Themselves had thoughtlessly thrust in so deep

To send gay- coloured sparkles up and cheer

Their seat at the chimney-corner. The good friar

Promised as much at the moment; but, alack,

Night brings discretion: he was no one’s friend,

1030

Yet presently found he could not turn about

Nor take a step i’ the case and fail to tread

On someone’s toe who either was a friend,

Or a friend’s friend, or friend’s friend thrice-removed,

And woe to friar by whom offences come!

So, the course being plain — with a general sigh

At matrimony the profound mistake —

He threw reluctantly the business up,

Having his other penitents to mind.

If then, all outlets thus secured save one,

1040

At last she took to the open, stood and stared

With her wan face to see where God might wait —

And there found Caponsacchi wait as well

For the precious something at perdition’s edge.

He only was predestinate to save —

And if they recognised in a critical flash

From the zenith, each the other, her need of him,

His need of . . . say, a woman to perish for,

The regular way o’ the world, yet break no vow,

Do no harm save to himself — if this were thus?

1050

How do you say? It were improbable;

So is the legend of my patron-saint.

Anyhow, whether, as Guido states the case,

Pompilia — like a starving wretch i’ the street

Who stops and rifles the first passenger

In the great right of an excessive wrong —

Did somehow call this stranger and he came —

Or whether the strange sudden interview

Blazed as when star and star must needs go close

Till each hurts each and there is loss in heaven —

1060

Whatever way in this strange world it was —

Pompilia and Caponsacchi met, in fine,

She at her window, he i’ the street beneath,

And understood each other at first look.

All was determined and performed at once

And on a certain April evening, late

I’ the month, this girl of sixteen, bride and wife

Three years and over — she who hitherto

Had never taken twenty steps in Rome

Beyond the church, pinned to her mother’s gown,

1070

Nor, in Arezzo, knew her way through street

Except what led to the Archbishop’s door —

Such an one rose up in the dark, laid hand

On what came first, clothes and a trinket or two,

Belongings of her own in the old day —

Stole from the side o’ the sleeping spouse — who knows?

Sleeping perhaps, silent for certain — slid

Ghost-like from great dark room to great dark room,

In through the tapestries and out again

And onward, unembarrassed as a fate,

1080

Descended staircase, gained last door of all,

Sent it wide open at first push of palm,

And there stood, first time, last and only time,

At liberty, alone in the open street —

Unquestioned, unmolested found herself

At the city gate, by Caponsacchi’s side,

Hope there, joy there, life and all good again,

The carriage there, the convoy there, light there

Broadening into a full blaze at Rome

And breaking small what long miles lay between;

1090

Up she sprang, in he followed, they were safe.

The husband quotes this for incredible,

All of the story from first word to last:

Sees the priest’s hand throughout upholding hers,

Traces his foot to the alcove, that night,

Whither and whence blindfold he knew the way,

Proficient in all craft and stealthiness;

And cites for proof a servant, eye that watched

And ear that opened to purse secrets up,

A woman-spy — suborned to give and take

1100

Letters and tokens, do the work of shame

The more adroitly that herself, who helped

Communion thus between a tainted pair,

Had long since been a leper thick in spot,

A common trull o’ the town: she witnessed all,

Helped many meetings, partings, took her wage

And then told Guido the whole matter. Lies!

The woman’s life confutes her word — her word

Confutes itself: “Thus, thus and thus I lied.”

“And thus, no question, still you lie,” we say.

1110

“Ay, but at last, e’en have it how you will,

“Whatever the means, whatever the way, explodes

“The consummation”— the accusers shriek:

“Here is the wife avowedly found in flight,

“And the companion of her flight, a priest;

“She flies her husband, he the church his spouse:

“What is this?”

        Wife and priest alike reply

“This is the simple thing it claims to be,

“A course we took for life and honour’s sake,

1120

“Very strange, very justifiable.”

She says, “God put it in my head to fly,

“As when the martin migrates: autumn claps

“Her hands, cries ‘Winter’s coming, will be here,

“‘Off with you ere the white teeth overtake!

“‘Flee!’ So I fled: this friend was the warm day,

“The south wind and whatever favours flight;

“I took the favour, had the help, how else?

“And so we did fly rapidly all night,

“All day, all night — a longer night — again,

1130

“And then another day, longest of days,

“And all the while, whether we fled or stopped,

“I scarce know how or why, one thought filled both,

“‘Fly and arrive!’ So long as I found strength

“I talked with my companion, told him much,

“Knowing that he knew more, knew me, knew God

“And God’s disposal of me — but the sense

“O’ the blessed flight absorbed me in the main,

“And speech became mere talking through a sleep,

“Till at the end of that last longest night

1140

“In a red daybreak, when we reached an inn

“And my companion whispered ‘Next stage — Rome!’

“Sudden the weak flesh fell like piled-up cards,

“All the frail fabric at a finger’s touch,

“And prostrate the poor soul too, and I said,

“‘But though Count Guido were a furlong off,

“‘Just on me, I must stop and rest awhile!’

“Then something like a white wave o’ the sea

“Broke o’er my brain and buried me in sleep

“Blessedly, till it ebbed and left me loose,

1150

“And where was I found but on a strange bed

“In a strange room like hell, roaring with noise,

“Ruddy with flame, and filled with men, in front

“Whom but the man you call my husband, ay —

“Count Guido once more between heaven and me,

“For there my heaven stood, my salvation, yes —

“That Caponsacchi all my heaven of help,

“Helpless himself, held prisoner in the hands

“Of men who looked up in my husband’s face

“To take the fate thence he should signify,

1160

“Just as the way was at Arezzo: then,

“Not for my sake but his who had helped me —

“I sprang up, reached him with one bound, and seized

“The sword o’ the felon, trembling at his side,

“Fit creature of a coward, unsheathed the thing

“And would have pinned him through the poison-bag

“To the wall and left him there to palpitate,

“As you serve scorpions, but men interposed —

“Disarmed me, gave his life to him again

“That he might take mine and the other lives,

1170

“And he has done so. I submit myself!”

The priest says — oh, and in the main result

The facts asseverate, he truly says,

As to the very act and deed of him,

However you mistrust the mind o’ the man —

The flight was just for flight’s sake, no pretext

For aught except to set Pompilia free:

He says “I cite the husband’s self’s worst charge

“In proof of my best word for both of us.

“Be it conceded that so many times

1180

“We took our pleasure in his palace: then,

“What need to fly at all? — or flying no less,

“What need to outrage the lips sick and white

“Of a woman, and bring ruin down beside,

“By halting when Rome lay one stage beyond?”

So does he vindicate Pompilia’s fame,

Confirm her story in all points but one —

This; that, so fleeing and so breathing forth

Her last strength in the prayer to halt awhile,

She makes confusion of the reddening white

1190

Which was the sunset when her strength gave way,

And the next sunrise and its whitening red

Which she revived in when her husband came:

She mixes both times, morn and eve, in one,

Having lived through a blank of night ’twixt each

Though dead-asleep, unaware as a corpse,

She on the bed above; her friend below

Watched in the doorway of the inn the while,

Stood i’ the red o’ the morn, that she mistakes,

In act to rouse and quicken the tardy crew

1200

And hurry out the horses, have the stage

Over, the last league, reach Rome and be safe:

When up came Guido.

        Guido’s tale begins —

How he and his whole household, drunk to death

By some enchanted potion, poppied drugs

Plied by the wife, lay powerless in gross sleep

And left the spoilers unimpeded way,

Could not shake off their poison and pursue,

Till noontide, then made shift to get on horse

1210

And did pursue: which means, he took his time,

Pressed on no more than lingered after, step

By step, just making sure o’ the fugitives,

Till at the nick of time, he saw his chance,

Seized it, came up with and surprised the pair.

How he must needs have gnawn lip and gnashed teeth,

Taking successively at tower and town,

Village and roadside, still the same report,

“Yes, such a pair arrived an hour ago,

“Sat in the carriage just where your horse stands,

1220

“While we got horses ready — turned deaf ear

“To all entreaty they would even alight;

“Counted the minutes and resumed their course.”

Would they indeed escape, arrive at Rome,

Leave no least loop to let damnation through,

And foil him of his captured infamy,

Prize of guilt proved and perfect? So it seemed:

Till, oh the happy chance, at last stage, Rome

But two short hours off, Castelnuovo reached,

The guardian angel gave reluctant place,

1230

Satan stepped forward with alacrity,

Pompilia’s flesh and blood succumbed, perforce

A halt was, and her husband had his will,

Perdue he couched, counted out hour by hour

Till he should spy in the east a signal-streak —

Night had been, morrow was, triumph would be.

Do you see the plan deliciously complete?

The rush upon the unsuspecting sleep,

The easy execution, the outcry

Over the deed, “Take notice all the world!

1240

“These two dead bodies, locked still in embrace —

“The man is Caponsacchi and a priest,

“The woman is my wife: they fled me late,

“Thus have I found and you behold them thus,

“And may judge me: do you approve or no?”

Success did seem not so improbable,

But that already Satan’s laugh was heard,

His back turned on Guido — left i’ the lurch,

Or rather, baulked of suit and service now,

That he improve on both by one deed more,

1250

Burn up the better at no distant day,

Body and soul one holocaust to hell.

Anyhow, of this natural consequence

Did just the last link of the long chain snap:

For his eruption was o’ the priest, alive

And alert, calm, resolute, and formidable,

Not the least look of fear in that broad brow —

One not to be disposed of by surprise,

And armed moreover — who had guessed as much?

Yes, there stood he in secular costume

1260

Complete from head to heel, with sword at side,

He seemed to know the trick of perfectly.

There was no prompt suppression of the man

As he said calmly, “I have saved your wife

“From death; there was no other way but this;

“Of what do I defraud you except death?

“Charge any wrong beyond, I answer it.”

Guido, the valorous, had met his match,

Was forced to demand help instead of fight,

Bid the authorities o’ the place lend aid

1270

And make the best of a broken matter so.

They soon obeyed the summons — I suppose,

Apprized and ready, or not far to seek —

Laid hands on Caponsacchi, found in fault,

A priest yet flagrantly accoutred thus —

Then, to make good Count Guido’s further charge,

Proceeded, prisoner made lead the way,

In a crowd, upstairs to the chamber-door

Where wax-white, dead asleep, deep beyond dream,

As the priest laid her, lay Pompilia yet.

1280

And as he mounted step by step with the crowd

How I see Guido taking heart again!

He knew his wife so well and the way of her —

How at the outbreak she would shroud her shame

In hell’s heart, would it mercifully yawn —

How, failing that, her forehead to his foot,

She would crouch silent till the great doom fell,

Leave him triumphant with the crowd to see!

Guilt motionless or writhing like a worm?

No! Second misadventure, this worm turned,

1290

I told you: would have slain him on the spot

With his own weapon, but they seized her hands:

Leaving her tongue free, as it tolled the knell

Of Guido’s hope so lively late. The past

Took quite another shape now. She who shrieked

“At least and for ever I am mine and God’s,

“Thanks to his liberating angel Death —

“Never again degraded to be yours

“The ignoble noble, the unmanly man,

“The beast below the beast in brutishness!”—

1300

This was the froward child, “the restif lamb

“Used to be cherished in his breast,” he groaned —

“Eat from his hand and drink from out his cup,

“The while his fingers pushed their loving way

“Through curl on curl of that soft coat — alas,

“And she all silverly baaed gratitude

“While meditating mischief!”— and so forth.

He must invent another story now!

The ins and outs of the room were searched: he found

Or showed for found the abominable prize —

1310

Love-letters from his wife who cannot write,

Love-letters in reply o’ the priest — thank God! —

Who can write and confront his character

With this, and prove the false thing forged throughout:

Spitting whereat he needs must spatter who

But Guido’s self? — that forged and falsified

One letter called Pompilia’s, past dispute:

Then why not these to make sure still more sure?

So was the case concluded then and there:

Guido preferred his charges in due form,

1320

Called on the law to adjudicate, consigned

The accused ones to the Prefect of the place.

(Oh mouse-birth of that mountain-like revenge!)

And so to his own place betook himself

After the spring that failed — the wildcat’s way.

The captured parties were conveyed to Rome;

Investigation followed here i’ the court —

Soon to review the fruit of its own work,

From then to now being eight months and no more.

Guido kept out of sight and safe at home:

1330

The Abate, brother Paolo, helped most

At words when deeds were out of question, pushed

Nearest the purple, best played deputy,

So, pleaded, Guido’s representative

At the court shall soon try Guido’s self — what’s more,

The court that also took — I told you, Sir —

That statement of the couple, how a cheat

Had been i’ the birth of the babe, no child of theirs.

That was the prelude; this, the play’s first act:

Whereof we wait what comes, crown, close of all.

1340

Well, the result was something of a shade

On the parties thus accused — how otherwise?

Shade, but with shine as unmistakable.

Each had a prompt defence: Pompilia first —

“Earth was made hell to me who did no harm:

“I only could emerge one way from hell

“By catching at the one hand held me, so

“I caught at it and thereby stepped to heaven:

“If that be wrong, do with me what you will!”

Then Caponsacchi with a grave grand sweep

1350

O’ the arm as though his soul warned baseness off —

“If as a man, then much more as a priest

“I hold me bound to help weak innocence:

“If so my worldly reputation burst,

“Being the bubble it is, why, burst it may:

“Blame I can bear though not blameworthiness.

“But use your sense first, see if the miscreant here

“The man who tortured thus the woman, thus

“Have not both laid the trap and fixed the lure

“Over the pit should bury body and soul!

1360

“His facts are lies: his letters are the fact —

“An infiltration flavoured with himself!

“As for the fancies — whether . . . what is it you say?

“The lady loves me, whether I love her

“In the forbidden sense of your surmise —

“If, with the midday blaze of truth above,

“The unlidded eye of God awake, aware,

“You needs must pry about and track the course

“Of each stray beam of light may traverse earth,

“To the night’s sun and Lucifer himself,

1370

“Do so, at other time, in other place,

“Not now nor here! Enough that first to last

“I never touched her lip nor she my hand

“Nor either of us thought a thought, much less

“Spoke a word which the Virgin might not hear.

“Be that your question, thus I answer it.”

Then the court had to make its mind up, spoke.

“It is a thorny question, and a tale

“Hard to believe, but not impossible:

“Who can be absolute for either side?

1380

“A middle course is happily open yet.

“Here has a blot surprised the social blank —

“Whether through favour, feebleness, or fault,

“No matter, leprosy has touched our robe

“And we’re unclean and must be purified.

“Here is a wife makes holiday from home,

“A priest caught playing truant to his church,

“In masquerade moreover: both allege

“Enough excuse to stop our lifted scourge

“Which else would heavily fall. On the other hand,

1390

“Here is a husband, ay and man of mark,

“Who comes complaining here, demands redress

“As if he were the pattern of desert —

“The while those plaguy allegations frown,

“Forbid we grant him the redress he seeks.

“To all men be our moderation known!

“Rewarding none while compensating each,

“Hurting all round though harming nobody,

“Husband, wife, priest, scot-free not one shall ’scape,

“Yet priest, wife, husband, boast the unbroken head

1400

“From application of our excellent oil:

“So that whatever be the fact, in fine,

“It makes no miss of justice in a sort.

“First, let the husband stomach as he may,

“His wife shall neither be returned him, no —

“Nor branded, whipped, and caged, but just consigned

“To a convent and the quietude she craves;

“So is he rid of his domestic plague:

“What better thing can happen to a man?

“Next, let the priest retire — unshent, unshamed,

1410

“Unpunished as for perpetrating crime,

“But relegated (not imprisoned, Sirs!)

“Sent for three years to clarify his youth

“At Civita, a rest by the way to Rome:

“There let his life skim off its last of lees

“Nor keep this dubious colour. Judged the cause:

“All parties may retire, content, we hope.”

That’s Rome’s way, the traditional road of law;

Whither it leads is what remains to tell.

The priest went to his relegation-place,

1420

The wife to her convent, brother Paolo

To the arms of brother Guido with the news

And this beside — his charge was countercharged;

The Comparini, his old brace of hates,

Were breathed and vigilant and venomous now —

Had shot a second bolt where the first stuck,

And followed up the pending dowry-suit

By a procedure should release the wife

From so much of the marriage-bond as barred

Escape when Guido turned the screw too much

1430

On his wife’s flesh and blood, as husband may.

No more defence, she turned and made attack,

Claimed now divorce from bed and board, in short:

Pleaded such subtle strokes of cruelty,

Such slow sure siege laid to her body and soul,

As, proved — and proofs seemed coming thick and fast —

Would gain both freedom and the dowry back

Even should the first suit leave them in his grasp:

So urged the Comparini for the wife.

Guido had gained not one of the good things

1440

He grasped at by his creditable plan

O’ the flight and following and the rest: the suit

That smouldered late was fanned to fury new,

This adjunct came to help with fiercer fire,

While he had got himself a quite new plague —

Found the world’s face an universal grin

At this last best of the Hundred Merry Tales

Of how a young and spritely clerk devised

To carry off a spouse that moped too much,

And cured her of the vapours in a trice:

1450

And how the husband, playing Vulcan’s part,

Told by the Sun, started in hot pursuit

To catch the lovers, and came halting up,

Cast his net and then called the Gods to see

The convicts in their rosy impudence —

Whereat said Mercury, “Would that I were Mars!”

Oh it was rare, and naughty all the same!

Brief, the wife’s courage and cunning — the priest’s show

Of chivalry and adroitness — last not least,

The husband — how he ne’er showed teeth at all,

1460

Whose bark had promised biting; but just sneaked

Back to his kennel, tail ’twixt legs, as ’twere —

All this was hard to gulp down and digest.

So pays the devil his liegeman, brass for gold.

But this was at Arezzo: here in Rome

Brave Paolo bore up against it all —

Battled it out, nor wanting to himself

Nor Guido nor the House whose weight he bore

Pillar-like, not by force of arm but brain.

He knew his Rome, what wheels we set to work;

1470

Plied influential folk, pressed to the ear

Of the efficacious purple, pushed his way

To the old Pope’s self — past decency indeed —

Praying him take the matter in his hands

Out of the regular court’s incompetence;

But times are changed and nephews out of date

And favouritism unfashionable: the Pope

Said “Render Cæsar what is Cæsar’s due!”

As for the Comparini’s counter-plea,

He met that by a counter- plea again,

1480

Made Guido claim divorce — with help so far

By the trial’s issue: for, why punishment

However slight unless for guiltiness

However slender? — and a molehill serves

Much as a mountain of offence this way.

So was he gathering strength on every side

And growing more and more to menace — when

All of a terrible moment came the blow

That beat down Paolo’s fence, ended the play

O’ the foil and brought Mannaia on the stage.

1490

Five months had passed now since Pompilia’s flight,

Months spent in peace among the Convert nuns:

This — being, as it seemed, for Guido’s sake

Solely, what pride might call imprisonment

And quote as something gained, to friends at home —

This naturally was at Guido’s charge:

Grudge it he might, but penitential fare,

Prayers, preachings, who but he defrayed the cost?

So, Paolo dropped, as proxy, doit by doit

Like heart’s blood, till — what’s here? What notice comes?

1500

The Convent’s self makes application bland

That, since Pompilia’s health is fast o’ the wane,

She may have leave to go combine her cure

Of soul with cure of body, mend her mind

Together with her thin arms and sunk eyes

That want fresh air outside the convent-wall,

Say in a friendly house — and which so fit

As a certain villa in the Pauline way,

That happens to hold Pietro and his wife,

The natural guardians? “Oh, and shift the care

1510

“You shift the cost, too; Pietro pays in turn,

“And lightens Guido of a load! And then,

“Villa or convent, two names for one thing,

“Always the sojourn means imprisonment,

Domum pro carcere — nowise we relax,

“Nothing abate: how answers Paolo?”

You,

What would you answer? All so smooth and fair,

Even Paul’s astuteness sniffed no harm i’ the world.

He authorised the transfer, saw it made,

1520

And, two months after, reaped the fruit of the same,

Having to sit down, rack his brain and find

What phrase should serve him best to notify

Our Guido that by happy providence

A son and heir, a babe was born to him

I’ the villa — go tell sympathising friends!

Yes, such had been Pompilia’s privilege:

She, when she fled, was one month gone with child,

Known to herself or unknown, either way

Availing to explain (say men of art)

1530

The strange and passionate precipitance

Of maiden startled into motherhood

Which changes body and soul by nature’s law.

So when the she-dove breeds, strange yearnings come

For the unknown shelter by undreamed-of shores,

And there is born a blood-pulse in her heart

To fight if needs be, though with flap of wing,

For the wool-flock or the fur- tuft, though a hawk

Contest the prize — wherefore, she knows not yet.

Anyhow, thus to Guido came the news.

1540

“I shall have quitted Rome ere you arrive

“To take the one step left,”— wrote Paolo.

Then did the winch o’ the winepress of all hate,

Vanity, disappointment, grudge, and greed,

Take the last turn that screws out pure revenge

With a bright bubble at the brim beside —

By an heir’s birth he was assured at once

O’ the main prize, all the money in dispute:

Pompilia’s dowry might revert to her

Or stay with him as law’s caprice should point —

1550

But now — now — what was Pietro’s shall be hers,

What was hers shall remain her own — if hers,

Why then — oh, not her husband’s but — her heir’s!

That heir being his too, all grew his at last

By this road or by that road, since they join.

Before, why, push he Pietro out o’ the world —

The current of the money stopped, you see,

Pompilia being proved no Pietro’s child:

Or let it be Pompilia’s life he quenched,

Again the current of the money stopped —

1560

Guido debarred his rights as husband soon,

So the new process threatened; — now, the chance,

Now, the resplendent minute! Clear the earth,

Cleanse the house, let the three but disappear

A child remains, depositary of all,

That Guido may enjoy his own again!

Repair all losses by a master-stroke,

Wipe out the past, all done and left undone,

Swell the good present to best evermore,

Die into new life, which let blood baptise!

1570

So, i’ the blue of a sudden sulphur-blaze,

And why there was one step to take at Rome,

And why he should not meet with Paolo there,

He saw — the ins and outs to the heart of hell —

And took the straight line thither swift and sure.

He rushed to Vittiano, found four sons o’ the soil,

Brutes of his breeding, with one spark i’ the clod

That served for a soul, the looking up to him

Or aught called Franceschini as life, death,

Heaven, hell — lord paramount, assembled these,

1580

Harangued, equipped, instructed, pressed each clod

With his will’s imprint; then took horse, plied spur,

And so arrived, all five of them, at Rome

On Christmas-Eve, and forthwith found themselves

Installed i’ the vacancy and solitude

Left them by Paolo, the considerate man

Who, good as his word, disappeared at once

As if to leave the stage free. A whole week

Did Guido spend in study of his part,

Then played it fearless of a failure. One,

1590

Struck the year’s clock whereof the hours are days,

And off was rung o’ the little wheels the chime

“Goodwill on earth and peace to man:” but, two,

Proceeded the same bell and, evening come,

The dreadful five felt finger-wise their way

Across the town by blind cuts and black turns

To the little lone suburban villa; knocked —

“Who may be outside?” called a well-known voice.

“A friend of Caponsacchi’s bringing friends

“A letter.”

That’s a test, the excusers say:

1600

        Ay, and a test conclusive, I return.

What? Had that name brought touch of guilt or taste

Of fear with it, aught to dash the present joy

With memory of the sorrow just at end —

She, happy in her parents’ arms at length

With the new blessing of the two weeks’ babe —

How had that name’s announcement moved the wife?

Or, as the other slanders circulate,

Were Caponsacchi no rare visitant

On nights and days whither safe harbour lured,

1610

What bait had been i’ the name to ope the door?

The promise of a letter? Stealthy guests

Have secret watchwords, private entrances:

The man’s own self might have been found inside

And all the scheme made frustrate by a word.

No: but since Guido knew, none knew so well,

The man had never since returned to Rome

Nor seen the wife’s face more than villa’s front,

So, could not be at hand to warn or save —

For that, he took this sure way to the end.

1620

“Come in,” bade poor Violante cheerfully,

Drawing the door-bolt: that death was the first,

Stabbed through and through. Pietro, close on her heels,

Set up a cry —“Let me confess myself!

“Grant but confession!” Cold steel was the grant.

Then came Pompilia’s turn.

Then they escaped.

The noise o’ the slaughter roused the neighbourhood.

They had forgotten just the one thing more

Which saves i’ the circumstance, the ticket to-wit

1630

Which puts post-horses at a traveller’s use:

So, all on foot, desperate through the dark

Reeled they like drunkards along open road,

Accomplished a prodigious twenty miles

Homeward, and gained Baccano very near,

Stumbled at last, deaf, dumb, blind through the feat,

Into a grange and, one dead heap, slept there

Till the pursuers hard upon their trace

Reached them and took them, red from head to heel,

And brought them to the prison where they lie.

1640

The couple were laid i’ the church two days ago,

And the wife lives yet by miracle.

All is told.

You hardly need ask what Count Guido says,

Since something he must say. “I own the deed —”

(He cannot choose — but —) “I declare the same

“Just and inevitable — since no way else

“Was left me, but by this of taking life,

“To save my honour which is more than life.

“I exercised a husband’s rights.” To which

1650

The answer is as prompt —“There was no fault

“In any one o’ the three to punish thus:

“Neither i’ the wife, who kept all faith to you,

“Nor in the parents, whom yourself first duped,

“Robbed and maltreated, then turned out of doors.

“You wronged and they endured wrong; yours the fault.

“Next, had endurance overpassed the mark

“And turned resentment needing remedy —

“Nay, put the absurd impossible case, for once —

“You were all blameless of the blame alleged

1660

“And they blameworthy where you fix all blame,

“Still, why this violation of the law?

“Yourself elected law should take its course,

“Avenge wrong, or show vengeance not your right;

“Why, only when the balance in law’s hand

“Trembles against you and inclines the way

“O’ the other party, do you make protest,

“Renounce arbitrament, flying out of court,

“And crying ‘Honour’s hurt the sword must cure?’

“Aha, and so i’ the middle of each suit

1670

“Trying i’ the courts — and you had three in play

“With an appeal to the Pope’s self beside —

“What, you may chop and change and right your wrongs

“Leaving the law to lag as she thinks fit?”

That were too temptingly commodious, Count!

One would have still a remedy in reserve

Should reach the safest oldest sinner, you see!

One’s honour forsooth? Does that take hurt alone

From the extreme outrage? I who have no wife,

Being yet sensitive in my degree

1680

As Guido — must discover hurt elsewhere

Which, half compounded-for in days gone by,

May profitably break out now afresh,

Need cure from my own expeditious hands.

The lie that was, as it were, imputed me

When you objected to my contract’s clause —

The theft as good as, one may say, alleged,

When you, co-heir in a will, excepted, Sir,

To my administration of effects,

— Aha, do you think law disposed of these?

1690

My honour’s touched and shall deal death around!

Count, that were too commodious, I repeat!

If any law be imperative on us all,

Of all are you the enemy: out with you

From the common light and air and life of man!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/browning/robert/ring/book3.html

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