The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning

Tertium Quid

True, Excellency — as his Highness says,

Though she’s not dead yet, she’s as good as stretched

Symmetrical beside the other two;

Though he’s not judged yet, he’s the same as judged,

So do the facts abound and superabound:

And nothing hinders, now, we lift the case

Out of the shade into the shine, allow

Qualified persons to pronounce at last,

Nay, edge in an authoritative word

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Between this rabble’s-brabble of dolts and fools

Who make up reasonless unreasoning Rome.

“Now for the Trial!” they roar: “the Trial to test

“The truth, weigh husband and weigh wife alike

“I’ the scales of law, make one scale kick the beam!”

Law’s a machine from which, to please the mob,

Truth the divinity must needs descend

And clear things at the play’s fifth act — aha!

Hammer into their noddles who was who

And what was what. I tell the simpletons

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“Could law be competent to such a feat

“’Twere done already: what begins next week

“Is end o’ the Trial, last link of a chain

“Whereof the first was forged three years ago

“When law addressed herself to set wrong right,

“And proved so slow in taking the first step

“That ever some new grievance — tort, retort,

“On one or the other side — o’ertook i’ the game,

“Retarded sentence, till this deed of death

“Is thrown in, as it were, last bale to boat

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“Crammed to the edge with cargo — or passengers?

“‘Trecentos inseris: ohe, jam satis est!

“‘Huc appelle!’— passengers, the word must be.”

Long since, the boat was loaded to my eyes.

To hear the rabble and brabble, you’d call the case

Fused and confused past human finding out.

One calls the square round, t’other the round square —

And pardonably in that first surprise

O’ the blood that fell and splashed the diagram:

But now we’ve used our eyes to the violent hue

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Can’t we look through the crimson and trace lines?

It makes a man despair of history,

Eusebius and the established fact — fig’s end!

Oh, give the fools their Trial, rattle away

With the leash of lawyers, two on either side —

One barks, one bites — Masters Arcangeli

And Spreti — that’s the husband’s ultimate hope

Against the Fisc and the other kind of Fisc,

Bound to do barking for the wife: bow — wow!

Why, Excellency, we and his Highness here

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Would settle the matter as sufficiently

As ever will Advocate This and Fiscal That

And Judge the Other, with even — a word and a wink —

We well know who for ultimate arbiter.

Let us beware o’ the basset-table — lest

We jog the elbow of Her Eminence,

Jostle his cards — he’ll rap you out a.. st!

By the window-seat! And here’s the Marquis too!

Indulge me but a moment: if I fail

— Favoured with such an audience, understand! —

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To set things right, why, class me with the mob

As understander of the mind of man!

The mob — now, that’s just how the error comes!

Bethink you that you have to deal with plebs,

The commonalty; this is an episode

In burgess-life — why seek to aggrandise,

Idealise, denaturalise the class?

People talk just as if they had to do

With a noble pair that . . . Excellency, your ear!

Stoop to me, Highness — listen and look yourselves!

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This Pietro, this Violante, live their life

At Rome in the easy way that’s far from worst

Even for their betters — themselves love themselves,

Spend their own oil in feeding their own lamp

That their own faces may grow bright thereby.

They get to fifty and over: how’s the lamp?

Full to the depth o’ the wick — moneys so much;

And also with a remnant — so much more

Of moneys — which there’s no consuming now,

But, when the wick shall moulder out some day,

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Failing fresh twist of tow to use up dregs,

Will lie a prize for the passer-by — to-wit

Any one that can prove himself the heir,

Seeing the couple are wanting in a child:

Meantime their wick swims in the safe broad bowl

O’ the middle rank — not raised a beacon’s height

For wind to ravage, nor swung till lamp graze ground

As watchman’s cresset, he pokes here and there,

Going his rounds to probe the ruts i’ the road

Or fish the luck o’ the puddle. Pietro’s soul

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Was satisfied when crony smirked, “No wine

“Like Pietro’s, and he drinks it every day!”

His wife’s heart swelled her boddice, joyed its fill

When neighbours turned heads wistfully at church,

Sighed at the load of lace that came to pray.

Well, having got through fifty years of flare,

They burn out so, indulge so their dear selves,

That Pietro finds himself in debt at last,

As he were any lordling of us all:

And, for the dark begins to creep on day,

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Creditors grow uneasy, talk aside,

Take counsel, then importune all at once.

For if the good fat rosy careless man,

Who has not laid a ducat by, decease —

Let the lamp fall, no heir at hand to catch —

Why, being childless, there’s a spilth i’ the street

O’ the remnant, there’s a scramble for the dregs

By the stranger: so, they grant him no longer day

But come in a body, clamour to be paid.

What’s his resource? He asks and straight obtains

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The customary largess, dole dealt out

To what we call our “poor dear shame-faced ones,”

In secret once a month to spare the shame

O’ the slothful and the spendthrift — pauper-saints

The Pope puts meat i’ the mouth of, ravens they,

And providence he — just what the mob admires!

That is, instead of putting a prompt foot

On selfish worthless human slugs whose slime

Has failed to lubricate their path in life,

Why, the Pope picks the first ripe fruit that falls

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And gracious puts it in the vermin’s way.

Pietro could never save a dollar? Straight

He must be subsidised at our expense:

And for his wife — the harmless household sheep

One ought not to see harassed in her age —

Judge, by the way she bore adversity,

O’ the patient nature you ask pity for!

How long, now, would the roughest marketman,

Handling the creatures huddled to the knife,

Harass a mutton ere she made a mouth

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Or menaced biting? Yet the poor sheep here,

Violante, the old innocent burgess-wife,

In her first difficulty showed great teeth

Fit to crunch up and swallow a good round crime.

She meditates the tenure of the Trust,

Fidei commissum is the lawyer-phrase,

These funds that only want an heir to take —

Goes o’er the gamut o’ the creditor’s cry

By semitones from whine to snarl high up

And growl down low, one scale in sundry keys —

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Pauses with a little compunction for the face

Of Pietro frustrate of its ancient cheer —

Never a bottle now for friend at need —

Comes to a stop on her own frittered lace

And neighbourly condolences thereat,

Then makes her mind up, sees the thing to do:

And so, deliberately snaps house-book clasp,

Posts off to vespers, missal beneath arm,

Passes the proper San Lorenzo by,

Dives down a little lane to the left, is lost

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In a labyrinth of dwellings best unnamed,

Selects a certain blind one, black at base,

Blinking at top — the sign of we know what —

One candle in a casement set to wink

Streetward, do service to no shrine inside —

Mounts thither by the filthy flight of stairs,

Holding the cord by the wall, to the tip-top,

Gropes for the door i’ the dark, ajar of course,

Raps, opens, enters in: up starts a thing

Naked as needs be —“What, you rogue, ’tis you?

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“Back — how can I have taken a farthing yet?

“Mercy on me, poor sinner that I am!

“Here’s . . . why, I took you for Madonna’s self

“With all that sudden swirl of silk i’ the place!

“What may your pleasure be, my bonny dame?”

Your Excellency supplies aught left obscure?

One of those women that abound in Rome,

Whose needs oblige them eke out one poor trade

By another vile one: her ostensible work

Was washing clothes, out in the open air

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At the cistern by Citorio; but true trade —

Whispering to idlers when they stopped and praised

The ancles she let liberally shine

In kneeling at the slab by the fountain-side,

That there was plenty more to criticise

At home, that eve, i’ the house where candle blinked

Decorously above, and all was done

I’ the holy fear of God and cheap beside.

Violante, now, had seen this woman wash,

Noticed and envied her propitious shape,

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Tracked her home to her house- top, noted too,

And now was come to tempt her and propose

A bargain far more shameful than the first

Which trafficked her virginity away

For a melon and three pauls at twelve years old.

Five minutes’ talk with this poor child of Eve,

Struck was the bargain, business at an end —

“Then, six months hence, that person whom you trust,

“Comes, fetches whatsoever babe it be;

“I keep the price and secret, you the babe,

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“Paying beside for mass to make all straight:

“Meantime, I pouch the earnest-money-piece.”

Downstairs again goes fumbling by the rope

Violante, triumphing in a flourish of fire

From her own brain, self-lit by such success —

Gains church in time for the “Magnificat

And gives forth “My reproof is taken away,

“And blessed shall mankind proclaim me now,”

So that the officiating priest turns round

To see who proffers the obstreperous praise:

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Then home to Pietro, the enraptured-much

But puzzled-more when told the wondrous news —

How orisons and works of charity,

(Beside that pair of pinners and a coif,

Birthday surprise last Wednesday was five weeks)

Had borne fruit in the Autumn of his life —

They, or the Orvieto in a double dose.

Anyhow, she must keep house next six months,

Lie on the settle, avoid the three-legged stool,

And, chiefly, not be crossed in wish or whim,

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And the result was like to be an heir.

Accordingly, when time was come about,

He found himself the sire indeed of this

Francesca Vittoria Pompilia and the rest

O’ the names whereby he sealed her his next day.

A crime complete in its way is here, I hope?

Lies to God, lies to man, every way lies

To nature and civility and the mode:

Flat robbery of the proper heirs thus foiled

O’ the due succession — and, what followed thence,

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Robbery of God, through the confessor’s ear

Debarred the most noteworthy incident

When all else done and undone twelve- month through

Was put in evidence at Easter-time.

All other peccadillos! — but this one

To the priest who comes next day to dine with us?

’Twere inexpedient; decency forbade.

Is so far clear? You know Violante now,

Compute her capability of crime

By this authentic instance? Black hard cold

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Crime like a stone you kick up with your foot

I’ the middle of a field?

        I thought as much.

But now, a question — how long does it lie,

The bad and barren bit of stuff you kick,

Before encroached on and encompassed round

With minute moss, weed, wild-flower — made alive

By worm, and fly, and foot of the free bird?

Your Highness — healthy minds let bygones be,

Leave old crimes to grow young and virtuous-like

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I’ the sun and air; so time treats ugly deeds:

They take the natural blessing of all change.

There was the joy o’ the husband silly-sooth,

The softening of the wife’s old wicked heart,

Virtues to right and left, profusely paid

If so they might compensate the saved sin.

And then the sudden existence, dewy-dear,

O’ the rose above the dungheap, the pure child

As good as new created, since withdrawn

From the horror of the pre-appointed lot

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With the unknown father and the mother known

Too well — some fourteen years of squalid youth,

And then libertinage, disease, the grave —

Hell in life here, hereafter life in hell:

Look at that horror and this soft repose!

Why, moralist, the sin has saved a soul!

Then, even the palpable grievance to the heirs —

’Faith, this was no frank setting hand to throat

And robbing a man, but . . . Excellency, by your leave,

How did you get that marvel of a gem,

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The sapphire with the Graces grand and Greek?

The story is, stooping to pick a stone

From the pathway through a vineyard — no-man’s-land —

To pelt a sparrow with, you chanced on this:

Why, now, do those five clowns o’ the family

O’ the vinedresser digest their porridge worse

That not one keeps it in his goatskin pouch

To do flints’-service with the tinder-box?

Don’t cheat me, don’t cheat you, don’t cheat a friend!

But are you so hard on who jostles just

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A stranger with no natural sort of claim

To the havings and the holdings (here’s the point)

Unless by misadventure, and defect

Of that which ought to be — nay, which there’s none

Would dare so much as wish to profit by —

Since who dares put in just so many words

“May Pietro fail to have a child, please God!

“So shall his house and goods belong to me,

“The sooner that his heart will pine betimes?”

Well then, God don’t please, nor his heart shall pine!

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Because he has a child at last, you see,

Or selfsame thing as though a child it were,

He thinks, whose sole concern it is to think:

If he accepts it why should you demur?

Moreover, say that certain sin there seem,

The proper process of unsinning sin

Is to begin well-doing somehow else.

Pietro — remember, with no sin at all

I’ the substitution — why, this gift of God

Flung in his lap from over Paradise

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Steadied him in a moment, set him straight

On the good path he had been straying from.

Henceforward no more wilfulness and waste,

Cuppings, carousings — these a sponge wiped out.

All sort of self-denial was easy now

For the child’s sake, the chatelaine to be,

Who must want much and might want who knows what?

And so, the debts were paid, habits reformed,

Expense curtailed, the dowry set to grow.

As for the wife — I said, hers the whole sin:

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So, hers the exemplary penance. ’Twas a text

Whereon folk preached and praised, the district through:

“Oh, make us happy and you make us good!

“It all comes of God giving her a child:

“Such graces follow God’s best earthly gift!”

Here you put by my guard, pass to my heart

By the home-thrust —“There’s a lie at base of all.”

Why, thou exact Prince, is it a pearl or no,

Yon globe upon the Principessa’s neck?

That great round glory of pellucid stuff,

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A fish secreted round glory of pellucid grit!

Do you call it worthless for the worthless core?

(She don’t, who well knows what she changed for it!)

So, to our brace of burgesses again!

You see so far i’ the story, who was right,

Who wrong, who neither, don’t you? What, you don’t?

Eh? Well, admit there’s somewhat dark i’ the case,

Let’s on — the rest shall clear, I promise you.

Leap over a dozen years: you find, these passed,

An old good easy creditable sire,

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A careful housewife’s beaming bustling face,

Both wrapped up in the love of their one child,

The strange tall pale beautiful creature grown

Lily-like out o’ the cleft i’ the sun-smit rock

To bow its white miraculous birth of buds

I’ the way of wandering Joseph and his spouse —

So painters fancy: here it was a fact.

And this their lily — could they but transplant

And set in vase to stand by Solomon’s porch

’Twixt lion and lion! — this Pompilia of theirs,

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Could they see worthily married, well bestowed

In house and home! And why despair of this

With Rome to choose from, save the topmost rank?

Themselves would help the choice with heart and soul,

Throw their late savings in a common heap

Should go with the dowry, to be followed in time

By the heritage legitimately hers:

And when such paragon was found and fixed,

Why, they might chant their “Nunc dimittas” straight.

Indeed the prize was simply full to a fault;

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Exorbitant for the suitor they should seek,

And social class to choose among, these cits.

Yet there’s a latitude: exceptional white

Amid the general brown o’ the species, lurks

A burgess nearly an aristocrat,

Legitimately in reach: look out for him!

What banker, merchant, has seen better days,

What second-rate painter a-pushing up,

Poet a-slipping down, shall bid the best

For this young beauty with the thumping purse?

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Alack, had it been but one of such as these

So like the real thing they may pass for it,

All had gone well! Unluckily fate must needs

It proved to be the impossible thing itself;

The truth and not the sham: hence ruin to them all.

For, Guido Franceschini was the head

Of an old family in Arezzo, old

To that degree they could afford be poor

Better than most: the case is common too.

Out of the vast door ’scutcheoned overhead,

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Creeps out a serving-man on Saturdays

To cater for the week — turns up anon

I’ the market, chaffering for the lamb’s least leg,

Or the quarter-fowl, less entrails, claws and comb:

Then back again with prize — a liver begged

Into the bargain, gizzard overlooked —

He’s mincing these to give the beans a taste,

When, at your knock, he leaves the simmering soup,

Waits on the curious stranger-visitant,

Napkin in half-wiped hand, to show the rooms,

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Point pictures out have hung their hundred years,

“Priceless,” he tells you — puts in his place at once

The man of money: yes, you’re banker-king

Or merchant-kaiser, wallow in your wealth

While patron, the house-master, can’t afford

To stop our ceiling-hole that rain so rots —

But he’s the man of mark, and there’s his shield,

And yonder’s the famed Rafael, first in kind,

The painter painted for his grandfather —

You have paid a paul to see: “Good-morning, Sir!”

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Such is the law of compensation. Here

The poverty was getting too acute;

There gaped so many noble mouths to feed,

Beans must suffice unflavoured of the fowl.

The mother — hers would be a spun-out life

I’ the nature of things; the sisters had done well

And married men of reasonable rank:

But that sort of illumination stops,

Throws back no heat upon the parent-hearth.

The family instinct felt out for its fire

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To the Church — the Church traditionally helps

A second son: and such was Paolo,

Established here at Rome these thirty years,

Who played the regular game — priest and Abate,

Made friends, owned house and land, became of use

To a personage: his course lay clear enough.

The youngest caught the sympathetic flame,

And, though unfledged wings kept him still i’ the cage,

Yet he shot up to be a Canon, so

Clung to the higher perch and crowed in hope.

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Even our Guido, eldest brother, went

As far i’ the way o’ the Church as safety seemed,

He being Head o’ the House, ordained to wive —

So, could but dally with an Order or two

And testify good-will i’ the cause: he clipt

His top-hair and thus far affected Christ,

But main promotion must fall otherwise,

Though still from the side o’ the Church: and here was he

At Rome, since first youth, worn threadbare of soul

By forty-six years’ rubbing on hard life,

Getting fast tired o’ the game whose word is —“Wait!”

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When one day — he too having his Cardinal

To serve in some ambiguous sort, as serve

To draw the coach the plumes o’ the horses’ heads —

The Cardinal saw fit to dispense with him,

Ride with one plume the less; and off it dropped.

Guido thus left — with a youth spent in vain

And not a penny in purse to show for it,

Advised with Paolo, bent no doubt in chafe

The black brows somewhat formidably the while.

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“Where is the good I came to get at Rome?

“Where the repayment of the servitude

“To a purple popinjay, whose feet I kiss,

“Knowing his father wiped the shoes of mine?”

“Patience,” pats Paolo the recalcitrant —

“You have not had, so far, the proper luck,

“Nor do my gains suffice to keep us both:

“A modest competency is mine, not more.

“You are the Count however, yours the style,

“Heirdom and state — you can’t expect all good.

“Had I, now, held your hand of cards . . . well, well —

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“What’s yet unplayed, I’ll look at, by your leave,

“Over your shoulder — I who made my game,

“Let’s see, if I can’t help to handle yours.

“Fie on you, all the Honours in your fist,

“Countship, Househeadship — how have you misdealt!

“Why, in the first place, they will marry a man!

Notum tonsoribus! To the Tonsor then!

“Come, clear your looks, and choose your freshest suit,

“And, after function’s done with, down we go

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“To the woman- dealer in perukes, a wench

“I and some others settled in the shop

“At Place Colonna: she’s an oracle. Hmm!

“ ‘Dear, ’tis my brother: brother, ’tis my dear.

“ ‘Dear, give us counsel! Whom do you suggest

“ ‘As properest party in the quarter round,

“ ‘For the Count here? — he is minded to take wife,

“ ‘And further tells me he intends to slip

“ ‘Twenty zecchines under the bottom-scalp

“ ‘Of his old wig when he sends it to revive

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“ ‘For the wedding: and I add a trifle too.

“ ‘You know what personage I’m potent with.’ ”

And so plumped out Pompilia’s name the first.

She told them of the household and its ways,

The easy husband and the shrewder wife

In Via Vittoria — how the tall young girl,

With hair black as yon patch and eyes as big

As yon pomander to make freckles fly,

Would have so much for certain, and so much more

In likelihood — why, it suited, slipt as smooth

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As the Pope’s pantoufle does on the Pope’s foot.

“I’ll to the husband!” Guido ups and cries.

“Ay, so you’d play your last court-card, no doubt!”

Puts Paolo in with a groan —“Only, you see,

“ ’Tis I, this time, that supervise your lead.

“Priests play with women, maids, wives, mothers — why?

“These play with men and take them off our hands.

“Did I come, counsel with some cut-beard gruff

“Or rather this sleek young-old barberess?

“Go, brother, stand you rapt in the ante- room

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“Of Her Efficacity my Cardinal

“For an hour — he likes to have lord-suitors lounge —

“While I betake myself to the grey mare,

“The better horse — how wise the people’s word! —

“And wait on Madam Violante.”

        Said and done.

He was at Via Vittoria in three skips:

Proposed at once to fill up the one want

O’ the burgess- family which, wealthy enough,

And comfortable to heart’s desire, yet crouched

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Outside a gate to heaven — locked, bolted, barred,

Whereof Count Guido had a key he kept

Under his pillow, but Pompilia’s hand

Might slide behind his neck and pilfer thence.

The key was fairy; mention of it made

Violante feel the thing shoot one sharp ray

That reached the heart o’ the woman. “I assent:

“Yours be Pompilia, hers and ours that key

“To all the glories of the greater life!

“There’s Pietro to convince: leave that to me!”

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Then was the matter broached to Pietro; then

Did Pietro make demand and get response

That in the Countship was a truth, but in

The counting up of the Count’s cash, a lie:

He thereupon stroked grave his chin, looked great,

Declined the honour. Then the wife wiped one —

Winked with the other eye turned Paolo-ward,

Whispered Pompilia, stole to church at eve,

Found Guido there and got the marriage done,

And finally begged pardon at the feet

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Of her dear lord and master. Whereupon

Quoth Pietro —“Let us make the best of things!”

“I knew your love would licence us,” quoth she:

Quoth Paolo once more, “Mothers, wives, and maids,

“These be the tools wherewith priests manage men.”

Now, here take breath and ask — which bird o’ the brace

Decoyed the other into clapnet? Who

Was fool, who knave? Neither and both, perchance.

There was a bargain mentally proposed

On each side, straight and plain and fair enough;

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Mind knew its own mind: but when mind must speak,

The bargain have expression in plain terms,

There was the blunder incident to words,

And in the clumsy process, fair turned foul,

The straight backbone-thought of the crooked speech

Were just —“I Guido truck my name and rank

“For so much money and youth and female charms.”—

“We Pietro and Violante give our child

“And wealth to you for a rise i’ the world thereby.”

Such naked truth while chambered in the brain

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Shocks nowise: walk it forth by way of tongue —

Out on the cynical unseemliness!

Hence was the need, on either side, of a lie

To serve as decent wrappage: so, Guido gives

Money for money — and they, bride for groom,

Having, he, not a doit, they, not a child

Honestly theirs, but this poor waif and stray.

According to the words, each cheated each;

But in the inexpressive barter of thoughts,

Each did give and did take the thing designed,

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The rank on this side and the cash on that —

Attained the object of the traffic, so.

The way of the world, the daily bargain struck

In the first market! Why sells Jack his ware?

“For the sake of serving an old customer.”

Why does Jill buy it? “Simply not to break

“A custom, pass the old stall the first time.”

Why, you know where the gist is of the exchange:

Each sees a profit, throws the fine words in.

Don’t be too hard o’ the pair! Had each pretence

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Been simultaneously discovered, stripped

From off the body o’ the transaction, just

As when a cook . . . will Excellency forgive?

Strips away those long loose superfluous legs

From either side the crayfish, leaving folk

A meal all meat henceforth, no garnishry,

(With your respect, Prince!)— balance had been kept,

No party blamed the other — so, starting fair,

All subsequent fence of wrong returned by wrong

I’ the matrimonial thrust and parry, at least

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Had followed on equal terms. But, as it chanced,

One party had the advantage, saw the cheat

Of the other first and kept its own concealed:

And the luck o’ the first discovery fell, beside,

To the least adroit and self-possessed o’ the pair.

’Twas foolish Pietro and his wife saw first

The nobleman was penniless, and screamed

“We are cheated!”

        Such unprofitable noise

Angers at all times: but when those who plague,

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Do it from inside your own house and home,

Gnats which yourself have closed the curtain round,

Noise goes too near the brain and makes you mad.

The gnats say, Guido used the candle flame

Unfairly — worsened that first bad of his,

By practise of all kind of cruelty

To oust them and suppress the wail and whine —

That speedily he so scared and bullied them,

Fain were they, long before five months were out,

To beg him grant, from what was once their wealth,

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Just so much as would help them back to Rome

Where, when they had finished paying the last doit

O’ the dowry, they might beg from door to door.

So say the Comparini — as if it were

In pure resentment for this worse than bad,

That then Violante, feeling conscience prick,

Confessed her substitution of the child

Whence all the harm came — and that Pietro first

Bethought him of advantage to himself

I’ the deed, as part revenge, part remedy

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For all miscalculation in the pact.

On the other hand “Not so!” Guido retorts —

“I am the wronged, solely, from first to last,

“Who gave the dignity I engaged to give,

“Which was, is, cannot but continue gain.

“My being poor was a bye-circumstance,

“Miscalculated piece of untowardness,

“Might end to-morrow did heaven’s windows ope,

“Or uncle die and leave me his estate.

“You should have put up with the minor flaw,

590

“Getting the main prize of the jewel. If wealth,

“Not rank, had been prime object in your thoughts,

“Why not have taken the butcher’s son, the boy

“O’ the baker or candlestick-maker? In all the rest,

“It was yourselves broke compact and played false,

“And made a life in common impossible.

“Show me the stipulation of our bond

“That you should make your profit of being inside

“My house, to hustle and edge me out o’ the same.

“First make a laughing-stock of mine and me,

600

“Then round us in the ears from morn to night

“(Because we show wry faces at your mirth)

“That you are robbed, starved, beaten, and what not!

“You fled a hell of your own lighting-up,

“Pay for your own miscalculation too:

“You thought nobility, gained at any price,

“Would suit and satisfy — find the mistake,

“And now retaliate, not on yourselves, but me.

“And how? By telling me, i’ the face of the world,

“I it is have been cheated all this while,

610

“Abominably and irreparably — my name

“Given to a cur-cast mongrel, a drab’s brat,

“A beggar’s bye-blow — thus depriving me

“Of what yourselves allege the whole and sole

“Aim on my part i’ the marriage — money to-wit.

“This thrust I have to parry by a guard

“Which leaves me open to a counter-thrust

“On the other side — no way but there’s a pass

“Clean through me. If I prove, as I hope to do,

“There’s not one truth in this your odious tale

620

“O’ the buying, selling, substituting — prove

“Your daughter was and is your daughter — well,

“And her dowry hers and therefore mine — what then?

“Why, where’s the appropriate punishment for this

“Enormous lie hatched for mere malice’ sake

“To ruin me? Is that a wrong or no?

“And if I try revenge for remedy,

“Can I well make it strong and bitter enough?”

I anticipate however — only ask,

Which of the two here sinned most? A nice point!

630

Which brownness is least black — decide who can,

Wager-by-battle-of-cheating! What do you say,

Highness? Suppose, your Excellency, we leave

The question at this stage, proceed to the next,

Both parties step out, fight their prize upon,

In the eye o’ the world?

        They brandish law ’gainst law;

The grinding of such blades, each parry of each,

Throws terrible sparks off, over and above the thrusts,

And makes more sinister the fight, to the eye,

640

Than the very wounds that follow. Beside the tale

Which the Comparini have to re-assert,

They needs must write, print, publish all abroad

The straitnesses of Guido’s household life —

The petty nothings we bear privately

But break down under when fools flock around.

What is it all to the facts o’ the couple’s case,

How helps it prove Pompilia not their child,

If Guido’s mother, brother, kith and kin

Fare ill, lie hard, lack clothes, lack fire, lack food?

650

That’s one more wrong than needs.

        On the other hand,

Guido — whose cue is to dispute the truth

O’ the tale, reject the shame it throws on him —

He may retaliate, fight his foe in turn

And welcome, we allow. Ay, but he can’t!

He’s at home, only acts by proxy here:

Law may meet law — but all the gibes and jeers,

The superfluity of naughtiness,

Those libels on his House — how reach at them?

660

Two hateful faces, grinning all a-glow,

Not only make parade of spoil they filched,

But foul him from the height of a tower, you see.

Unluckily temptation is at hand —

To take revenge on a trifle overlooked,

A pet lamb they have left in reach outside,

Whose first bleat, when he plucks the wool away,

Will strike the grinners grave: his wife remains

Who, four months earlier, some thirteen years old,

Never a mile away from mother’s house

670

And petted to the height of her desire,

Was told one morning that her fate was come,

She must be married — just as, a month before,

Her mother told her she must comb her hair

And twist her curls into one knot behind.

These fools forgot their pet lamb, fed with flowers,

Then ’ticed as usual by the bit of cake,

Out of the bower into the butchery.

Plague her, he plagues them threefold: but how plague?

The world may have its word to say to that:

680

You can’t do some things with impunity.

What remains . . . well, it is an ugly thought . . .

But that he drive herself to plague herself —

Herself disgrace herself and so disgrace

Who seek to disgrace Guido?

        There’s the clue

To what else seems gratuitously vile,

If, as is said, from this time forth the rack

Was tried upon Pompilia: ’twas to wrench

Her limbs into exposure that brings shame.

690

The aim o’ the cruelty being so crueller still,

That cruelty almost grows compassion’s self

Could one attribute it to mere return

O’ the parents’ outrage, wrong avenging wrong.

They see in this a deeper deadlier aim,

Not to vex just a body they held dear,

But blacken too a soul they boasted white,

And show the world their saint in a lover’s arms,

No matter how driven thither — so they say.

On the other hand, so much is easily said,

700

And Guido lacks not an apologist.

The pair had nobody but themselves to blame,

Being selfish beasts throughout, no less, no more:

— Cared for themselves, their supposed good, nought else,

And brought about the marriage; good proved bad,

As little they cared for her its victim — nay,

Meant she should stay behind and take the chance,

If haply they might wriggle themselves free.

They baited their own hook to catch a fish

With this poor worm, failed o’ the prize, and then

710

Sought how to unbait tackle, let worm float

Or sink, amuse the monster while they ’scaped.

Under the best stars Hymen brings above,

Had all been honesty on either side,

A common sincere effort to good end,

Still, this would prove a difficult problem, Prince!

— Given, a fair wife, aged thirteen years,

A husband poor, care-bitten, sorrow-sunk,

Little, long-nosed, bush-bearded, lantern-jawed,

Forty-six-years full — place the two grown one,

720

She, cut off sheer from every natural aid,

In a strange town with no familiar face —

He, in his own parade-ground or retreat

As need were, free from challenge, much less check

To an irritated, disappointed will —

How evolve happiness from such a match?

’Twere hard to serve up a congenial dish

Out of these ill-agreeing morsels, Duke,

By the best exercise of the cook’s craft,

Best interspersion of spice, salt and sweet!

730

But let two ghastly scullions concoct mess

With brimstone, pitch, vitriol, and devil’s-dung —

Throw in abuse o’ the man, his body and soul,

Kith, kin, and generation, shake all slab

At Rome, Arezzo, for the world to nose,

Then end by publishing, for fiend’s arch-prank,

That, over and above sauce to the meat’s self,

Why, even the meat, bedevilled thus in dish,

Was never a pheasant but a carrion-crow —

Prince, what will then the natural loathing be?

What wonder if this? — the compound plague o’ the pair

741

Pricked Guido — not to take the course they hoped,

That is, submit him to their statement’s truth,

Accept its obvious promise of relief,

And thrust them out of doors the girl again

Since the girl’s dowry would not enter there,

— Quit of the one if baulked of the other: no!

Rather did rage and hate so work in him,

Their product proved the horrible conceit

That he should plot and plan and bring to pass

750

His wife might, of her own free will and deed,

Relieve him of her presence, get her gone,

And yet leave all the dowry safe behind,

Confirmed his own henceforward past dispute,

While blotting out, as by a belch of hell,

Their triumph in her misery and death.

You see, the man was Aretine, had touch

O’ the subtle air that breeds the subtle wit;

Was noble too, of old blood thrice-refined

That shrinks from clownish coarseness in disgust:

760

Allow that such an one may take revenge,

You don’t expect he’ll catch up stone and fling,

Or try cross-buttock, or whirl quarter- staff?

Instead of the honest drubbing clowns bestow,

When out of temper at the dinner spoilt,

On meddling mother-in-law and tiresome wife —

Substitute for the clown a nobleman,

And you have Guido, practising, ’tis said,

Unmitigably from the very first,

The finer vengeance: this, they say, the fact

770

O’ the famous letter shows — the writing traced

At Guido’s instance by the timid wife

Over the pencilled words himself writ first —

Wherein she, who could neither write nor read,

Was made unblushingly declare a tale

To the brother, the Abate then in Rome,

How her putative parents had impressed,

On their departure, their enjoinment; bade

“We being safely arrived here, follow, you!

“Poison your husband, rob, set fire to all,

780

“And then by means o’ the gallant you procure

“With ease, by helpful eye and ready tongue,

“The brave youth ready to dare, do, and die,

“You shall run off and merrily reach Rome

“Where we may live like flies in honey-pot:”—

Such being exact the programme of the course

Imputed her as carried to effect.

They also say — to keep her straight therein,

All sort of torture was piled, pain on pain,

On either side Pompilia’s path of life,

Built round about and over against by fear,

Circumvallated month by month, and week

By week, and day by day, and hour by hour,

Close, closer and yet closer still with pain,

No outlet from the encroaching pain save just

Where stood one saviour like a piece of heaven,

Hell’s arms would strain round but for this blue gap.

She, they say further, first tried every chink,

Every imaginable break i’ the fire,

As way of escape: ran to the Commissary,

800

Who bade her not malign his friend her spouse;

Flung herself thrice at the Archbishop’s feet,

Where three times the Archbishop let her lie,

Spend her whole sorrow and sob full heart forth,

And then took up the slight load from the ground

And bore it back for husband to chastise —

Mildly of course — but natural right is right.

So went she slipping ever yet catching at help,

Missing the high till come to lowest and last,

No more than a certain friar of mean degree,

810

Who heard her story in confession, wept,

Crossed himself, showed the man within the monk.

“Then, will you save me, you the one i’ the world?

“I cannot even write my woes, nor put

“My prayer for help in words a friend may read —

“I no more own a coin than have an hour

“Free of observance — I was watched to church,

“Am watched now, shall be watched back presently —

“How buy the skill of scribe i’ the market- place?

“Pray you, write down and send whatever I say

820

“O’ the need I have my parents take me hence!”

The good man rubbed his eyes and could not choose —

Let her dictate her letter in such a sense

That parents, to save breaking down a wall,

Might lift her over: she went back, heaven in her heart.

Then the good man took counsel of his couch,

Woke and thought twice, the second thought the best:

“Here am I, foolish body that I be,

“Caught all but pushing, teaching, who but I,

“My betters their plain duty — what, I dare

830

“Help a case the Archbishop would not help,

“Mend matters, peradventure, God loves mar?

“What hath the married life but strifes and plagues

“For proper dispensation? So a fool

“Once touched the ark — poor Hophni that I am!

“Oh married ones, much rather should I bid,

“In patience all of ye possess your souls!

“This life is brief and troubles die with it:

“Where were the prick to soar up homeward else?”

So saying, he burnt the letter he had writ,

840

Said Ave for her intention, in its place,

Took snuff and comfort, and had done with all.

Then the grim arms stretched yet a little more

And each touched each, all but one streak i’ the midst,

Whereat stood Caponsacchi, who cried, “This way,

“Out by me! Hesitate one moment more

“And the fire shuts out me and shuts in you!

“Here my hand holds you life out!” Whereupon

She clasped the hand, which closed on hers and drew

Pompilia out o’ the circle now complete.

850

Whose fault or shame but Guido’s? — ask her friends.

But then this is the wife’s — Pompilia’s tale —

Eve’s . . . no, not Eve’s, since Eve, to speak the truth,

Was hardly fallen (our candour might pronounce)

So much of paradisal nature, Eve’s,

When simply saying in her own defence

“The serpent tempted me and I did eat.”

Her daughters ever since prefer to urge

“Adam so starved me I was fain accept

“The apple any serpent pushed my way.”

860

What an elaborate theory have we here,

Ingeniously nursed up, pretentiously

Brought forth, pushed forward amid trumpet-blast,

To account for the thawing of an icicle,

Show us there needed Ætna vomit flame

Ere run the chrystal into dew-drops! Else,

How, unless hell broke loose to cause the step,

How could a married lady go astray?

Bless the fools! And ’tis just this way they are blessed,

And the world wags still — because fools are sure

870

— Oh, not of my wife nor your daughter! No!

But of their own: the case is altered quite.

Look now — last week, the lady we all love —

Daughter o’ the couple we all venerate,

Wife of the husband we all cap before,

Mother o’ the babes we all breathe blessings on —

Was caught in converse with a negro page.

Hell thawed that icicle, else “Why was it —

“Why?” asked and echoed the fools. “Because, you fools — ”

So did the dame’s self answer, she who could,

880

With that fine candour only forthcoming

When ’tis no odds whether withheld or no —

“Because my husband was the saint you say,

“And — with that childish goodness, absurd faith,

“Stupid self-satisfaction, you so praise —

“Saint to you, insupportable to me.

“Had he — instead of calling me fine names,

“Lucretia and Susanna and so forth,

“And curtaining Correggio carefully

“Lest I be taught that Leda had two legs —

890

“— But once never so little tweaked my nose

“For peeping through my fan at Carnival,

“Confessing thereby ‘I have no easy task —

“‘I need use all my powers to hold you mine,

“‘And then — why ’tis so doubtful if they serve,

“‘That — take this, as an earnest of despair!’

“Why, we were quits — I had wiped the harm away,

“Thought ‘The man fears me!’ and foregone revenge.”

We must not want all this elaborate work

To solve the problem why young fancy-and-flesh

900

Slips from the dull side of a spouse in years,

Betakes it to the breast of brisk-and-bold

Whose love-scrapes furnish talk for all the town!

Accordingly, one word on the other side

Tips over the piled-up fabric of a tale.

Guido says — that is, always, his friends say —

It is unlikely from the wickedness,

That any man treat any woman so.

The letter in question was her very own,

Unprompted and unaided: she could write —

910

As able to write as ready to sin, or free,

When there was danger, to deny both facts.

He bids you mark, herself from first to last

Attributes all the so-styled torture just

To jealousy — jealousy of whom but just

This very Caponsacchi! How suits here

This with the other alleged motive, Prince?

Would Guido make a terror of the man

He meant should tempt the woman, as they charge?

Do you fright your hare that you may catch your hare?

920

Consider too the charge was made and met

At the proper time and place where proofs were plain —

Heard patiently and disposed of thoroughly

By the highest powers, possessors of most light,

The Governor, for the law, and the Archbishop

For the Gospel: which acknowledged primacies,

’Tis impudently pleaded, he could warp

Into a tacit partnership with crime —

He being the while, believe their own account,

Impotent, penniless and miserable!

930

He further asks — Duke, note the knotty point! —

How he — concede him skill to play such part

And drive his wife into a gallant’s arms —

Could bring the gallant to play his part too

And stand with arms so opportunely wide?

How bring this Caponsacchi — with whom, friends

And foes alike agree, throughout his life

He never interchanged a civil word

Nor lifted courteous cap to — how bend him,

To such observancy of beck and call,

940

— To undertake this strange and perilous feat

For the good of Guido, using, as the lure,

Pompilia whom, himself and she avouch,

He had nor spoken with nor seen, indeed,

Beyond sight in a public theatre,

When she wrote letters (she that could not write!)

The importunate shamelessly- protested love

Which brought him, though reluctant, to her feet,

And forced on him the plunge which, howsoe’er

She might swim up i’ the whirl, must bury him

950

Under abysmal black: a priest contrive

No mitigable amour to ’e hushed up,

But open flight and noon-day infamy?

Try and concoct defence for such revolt!

Take the wife’s tale as true, say she was wronged —

Pray, in what rubric of the breviary

Do you find it registered the part of a priest

That to right wrongs he skip from the church-door,

Go journeying with a woman that’s a wife,

And be pursued, o’ertaken, and captured . . . how?

960

In a lay-dress, playing the sentinel

Where the wife sleeps (says he who best should know)

And sleeping, sleepless, both have spent the night!

Could no one else be found to serve at need —

No woman — or if man, no safer sort

Than this not well-reputed turbulence?

Then, look into his own account o’ the case!

He, being the stranger and the astonished one,

Yet received protestations of her love

From lady neither known nor cared about:

970

Love, so protested, bred in him disgust

After the wonder — or incredulity,

Such impudence seeming impossible.

But, soon assured such impudence might be,

When he had seen with his own eyes at last

Letters thrown down to him i’ the very street

From behind lattice where the lady lurked,

And read their passionate summons to her side —

Why then, a thousand thoughts swarmed up and in —

How he had seen her once, a moment’s space,

980

Observed she was so young and beautiful,

Heard everywhere report she suffered much

From a jealous husband thrice her age — in short

There flashed the propriety, expediency

Of treating, trying might they come to terms,

— At all events, granting the interview

Prayed for, and so adapted to assist

Decision as to whether he advance,

Stand or retire, in his benevolent mood.

Therefore the interview befell at length;

990

And at this one and only interview,

He saw the sole and single course to take —

Bade her dispose of him, head, heart, and hand,

Did her behest and braved the consequence,

Not for the natural end, the love of man

For woman whether love be virtue or vice,

But, please you, altogether for pity’s sake —

Pity of innocence and helplessness!

And how did he assure himself of both?

Had he been the house-inmate, visitor,

1000

Eye-witness of the described martyrdom

So, competent to pronounce its remedy

Ere rush on such extreme and desperate course,

Involving such enormity of harm,

Moreover, to the husband judged thus, doomed

And damned without a word in his defence?

But no — the truth was felt by instinct here!

— Process which saves a world of trouble and time,

And there’s his story: what do you say to it,

Trying its truth by your own instinct too,

1010

Since that’s to be the expeditious mode?

“And now, do hear my version,” Guido cries:

“I accept argument and inference both.

“It would indeed have been miraculous

“Had such a confidency sprung to birth

“With no more fanning from acquaintanceship

“Than here avowed by my wife and this priest.

“Only, it did not: you must substitute

“The old stale unromantic way of fault,

“The commonplace adventure, mere intrigue

1020

“In the prose form with the unpoetic tricks,

“Cheatings and lies: they used the hackney chair

“Satan jaunts forth with, shabby and serviceable,

“No gilded jimcrack-novelty from below,

“To bowl you along thither, swift and sure.

“That same officious go-between, the wench

“That gave and took the letters of the two,

“Now offers self and service back to me:

“Bears testimony to visits night by night

“When all was safe, the husband far and away —

1030

“To many a timely slipping out at large

“By light o’ the morning- star, ere he should wake,

“And when the fugitives were found at last,

“Why, with them were found also, to belie

“What protest they might make of innocence,

“All documents yet wanting, if need were,

“To establish guilt in them, disgrace in me —

“The chronicle o’ the converse from its rise

“To culmination in this outrage: read!

“Letters from wife to priest, from priest to wife —

1040

“Here they are, read and say where they chime in

“With the other tale, superlative purity

“O’ the pair of saints! I stand or fall by these.”

But then on the other side again — how say

The pair of saints? That not one word is theirs —

No syllable o’ the batch or writ or sent

Or yet received by either of the two.

“Found,” says the priest, “because he needed them,

“Failing all other proofs, to prove our fault:

“So, here they are, just as is natural.

1050

“Oh yes — we had our missives, each of us!

“Not these, but to the full as vile, no doubt:

“Hers as from me — she could not read, so burnt —

“Mine as from her — I burnt because I read.

“Who forged and found them? Cui profuerint!

(I take the phrase out of your Highness’ mouth)

“He who would gain by her fault and my fall,

“The trickster, schemer, and pretender — he

“Whose whole career was lie entailing lie

“Sought to be sealed truth by the worst lie last!”

1060

Guido rejoins —“Did the other end o’ the tale

“Match this beginning! ’Tis alleged I prove

“A murderer at the end, a man of force

“Prompt, indiscriminate, effectual: good!

“Then what need all this trifling woman’s work,

“Letters and embassies and weak intrigue,

“When will and power were mine to end at once

“Safely and surely? Murder had come first

“Not last with such a man, assure yourselves!

“The silent acquetta, stilling at command —

1070

“A drop a day i’ the wine or soup, the dose —

“The shattering beam that breaks above the bed

“And beats out brains, with nobody to blame

“Except the wormy age which eats even oak —

“Nay, the staunch steel or trusty cord — who cares

“I’ the blind old palace, a pitfall at each step,

“With none to see, much more to interpose

“O’ the two, three creeping house-dog-servant-things

“Born mine and bred mine? — had I willed gross death,

“I had found nearer paths to thrust him prey

1080

“Than this that goes meandering here and there

“Through half the world and calls down in its course

“Notice and noise — hate, vengeance, should it fail,

“Derision and contempt though it succeed!

“Moreover, what o’ the future son and heir?

“The unborn babe about to be called mine —

“What end in heaping all this shame on him,

“Were I indifferent to my own black share?

“Would I have tried these crookednesses, say,

“Willing and able to effect the straight?”

1090

“Ay, would you!”— one may hear the priest retort,

“Being as you are, i’ the stock, a man of guile,

“And ruffianism but an added graft.

“You, a born coward, try a coward’s arms,

“Trick and chicane — and only when these fail

“Does violence follow, and like fox you bite

“Caught out in stealing. Also, the disgrace

“You hardly shrunk at, wholly shrivelled her:

“You plunged her thin white delicate hand i’ the flame

“Along with your coarse horny brutish fist,

1100

“Held them a second there, then drew out both

“— Yours roughed a little, hers ruined through and through.

“Your hurt would heal forthwith at ointment’s touch —

“Namely, succession to the inheritance

“Which bolder crime had lost you: let things change,

“The birth o’ the boy warrant the bolder crime,

“Why, murder was determined, dared, and done.

“For me,” the priest proceeds with his reply,

“The look o’ the thing, the chances of mistake,

“All were against me — that, I knew the first:

1110

“But, knowing also what my duty was,

“I did it: I must look to men more skilled

“I’ the reading hearts than ever was the world.”

Highness, decide! Pronounce, Her Excellency!

Or . . . even leave this argument in doubt,

Account it a fit matter, taken up

With all its faces, manifold enough,

To put upon — what fronts us, the next stage.

Next legal process! — Guido, in pursuit,

Coming up with the fugitives at the inn,

1120

Caused both to be arrested then and there

And sent to Rome for judgment on the case —

Thither, with all his armoury of proofs

Betook himself, and there we’ll meet him now,

Waiting the further issue.

        Here some smile

“And never let him henceforth dare to plead —

“Of all pleas and excuses in the world

“For any deed hereafter to be done —

“His irrepressible wrath at honour’s wound!

1130

“Passion and madness irrepressible?

“Why, Count and cavalier, the husband comes

“And catches foe i’ the very act of shame:

“There’s man to man — nature must have her way —

“We look he should have cleared things on the spot.

“Yes, then, indeed — even tho’ it prove he erred —

“Though the ambiguous first appearance, mount

“Of solid injury, melt soon to mist,

“Still — had he slain the lover and the wife —

“Or, since she was a woman and his wife,

1140

“Slain him, but stript her naked to the skin

“Or at best left no more of an attire

“Than patch sufficient to pin paper to,

“Some one love-letter, infamy and all,

“As passport to the Paphos fit for such,

“Safe- conduct to her natural home the stews —

“Good! One had recognised the power o’ the pulse.

“But when he stands, the stock-fish — sticks to law —

“Offers the hole in his heart, all fresh and warm,

“For scrivener’s pen to poke and play about —

1150

“Can stand, can stare, can tell his beads perhaps,

“Oh, let us hear no syllable o’ the rage!

“Such rage were a convenient afterthought

“For one who would have shown his teeth belike,

“Exhibited unbridled rage enough,

“Had but the priest been found, as was to hope,

“In serge, not silk, with crucifix, not sword:

“Whereas the grey innocuous grub, of yore,

“Had hatched a hornet, tickle to the touch,

“The priest was metamorphosed into knight.

1160

“And even the timid wife, whose cue was — shriek,

“Bury her brow beneath his trampling foot —

“She too sprang at him like a pythoness:

“So, gulp down rage, passion must be postponed,

“Calm be the word! Well, our word is — we brand

“This part o’ the business, howsoever the rest

“Befall.”

        “Nay,” interpose as prompt his friends —

“This is the world’s way! So you adjudge reward

“To the forbearance and legality

1170

“Yourselves begin by inculcating — ay,

“Exacting from us all with knife at throat!

“This one wrong more you add to wrong’s amount —

“You publish all, with the kind comment here,

“‘Its victim was too cowardly for revenge.”’

Make it your own case — you who stand apart!

The husband wakes one morn from heavy sleep,

With a taste of poppy in his mouth — rubs eyes,

Finds his wife flown, his strong box ransacked too,

Follows as he best can, overtakes i’ the end.

1180

You bid him use his privilege: well, it seems

He’s scarce cool-blooded enough for the right move —

Does not shoot when the game were sure, but stands

Bewildered at the critical minute — since

He has the first flash of the fact alone

To judge from, act with, not the steady lights

Of after-knowledge — yours who stand at ease

To try conclusions: he’s in smother and smoke,

You outside, with explosion at an end:

The sulphur may be lightning or a squib —

1190

He’ll know in a minute, but till then, he doubts.

Back from what you know to what he knew not!

Hear the priest’s lofty “I am innocent,”

The wife’s as resolute “You are guilty!” Come!

Are you not staggered? — pause, and you lose the move!

Nought left you but a low appeal to law,

“Coward” tied to your tail for compliment!

Another consideration: have it your way!

Admit the worst: his courage failed the Count,

He’s cowardly like the best o’ the burgesses

1200

He’s grown incorporate with — a very cur,

Kick him from out your circle by all means!

Why, trundled down this reputable stair,

Still, the Church-door lies wide to take him in,

And the Court-porch also: in he sneaks to each —

“Yes, I have lost my honour and my wife,

“And, being moreover an ignoble hound,

“I dare not jeopardise my life for them!”

Religion and Law lean forward from their chairs,

“Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” Ay,

1210

Not only applaud him that he scorned the world,

But punish should he dare do otherwise.

If the case be clear or turbid — you must say!

Thus, anyhow, it mounted to the stage

In the law-courts — let’s see clearly from this point! —

Where the priest tells his story true or false,

And the wife her story, and the husband his,

All with result as happy as before.

The courts would nor condemn nor yet acquit

This, that, or the other, in so distinct a sense

1220

As end the strife to either’s absolute loss:

Pronounced, in place of something definite,

“Each of the parties, whether goat or sheep

“I’ the main, has wool to show and hair to hide.

“Each has brought somehow trouble, is somehow cause

“Of pains enough — even though no worse were proved.

“Here is a husband, cannot rule his wife

“Without provoking her to scream and scratch

“And scour the fields — causelessly, it may be:

“Here is that wife — who makes her sex our plague,

1230

“Wedlock, our bugbear — perhaps with cause enough:

“And here is the truant priest o’ the trio, worst

“Or best — each quality being conceivable.

“Let us impose a little mulct on each.

“We punish youth in state of pupilage

“Who talk at hours when youth is bound to sleep,

“Whether the prattle turn upon Saint Rose

“Or Donna Olimpia of the Vatican:

“ ’Tis talk, talked wisely or unwisely talked,

“I’ the dormitory where to talk at all,

1240

“Transgresses, and is mulct: as here we mean.

“For the wife — let her betake herself, for rest,

“After her run, to a House of Convertites —

“Keep there, as good as real imprisonment:

“Being sick and tired, she will recover so.

“For the priest, spritely strayer out of bounds,

“Who made Arezzo hot to hold him — Rome

“Profits by his withdrawal from the scene.

“Let him be relegate to Civita,

“Circumscribed by its bounds till matters mend:

1250

“There he at least lies out o’ the way of harm

“From foes — perhaps from the too friendly fair.

“And finally for the husband, whose rash rule

“Has but itself to blame for this ado —

“If he be vexed that, in our judgments dealt,

“He fails obtain what he accounts his right,

“Let him go comforted with the thought, no less,

“That, turn each sentence howsoever he may,

“There’s satisfaction to extract therefrom.

“For, does he wish his wife proved innocent?

1260

“Well, she’s not guilty, he may safely urge,

“Has missed the stripes dishonest wives endure —

“This being a fatherly pat o’ the cheek, no more.

“Does he wish her guilty? Were she otherwise

“Would she be locked up, set to say her prayers,

“Prevented intercourse with the outside world,

“And that suspected priest in banishment,

“Whose portion is a further help i’ the case?

“Oh, ay, you all of you want the other thing,

“The extreme of law, some verdict neat, complete —

1270

“Either, the whole o’ the dowry in your poke

“With full release from the false wife, to boot,

“And heading, hanging for the priest, beside —

“Or, contrary, claim freedom for the wife,

“Repayment of each penny paid her spouse

“Amends for the past, release for the future! Such

“Is wisdom to the children of this world;

“But we’ve no mind, we children of the light,

“To miss the advantage of the golden mean,

“And push things to the steel point.” Thus the courts.

1280

Is it settled so far? Settled or disturbed,

Console yourselves: ’tis like . . . an instance, now!

You’ve seen the puppets, of Place Navona, play —

Punch and his mate — how threats pass, blows are dealt,

And a crisis comes: the crowd or clap or hiss

Accordingly as disposed for man or wife —

When down the actors duck awhile perdue,

Donning what novel rag-and-feather trim

Best suits the next adventure, new effect:

And — by the time the mob is on the move,

1290

With something like a judgment pro and con, —

There’s a whistle, up again the actors pop

In t’other tatter with fresh-tinseled staves,

To re-engage in one last worst fight more

Shall show, what you thought tragedy was farce.

Note, that the climax and the crown of things

Invariably is, the devil appears himself,

Armed and accoutred, horns and hoofs and tail!

Just so, nor otherwise it proved — you’ll see:

Move to the murder, never mind the rest!

1300

Guido, at such a general duck-down,

I’ the breathing-space — of wife to convent here,

Priest to his relegation, and himself

To Arezzo — had resigned his part perforce

To brother Abate, who bustled, did his best,

Retrieved things somewhat, managed the three suits —

Since, it should seem, there were three suits-at-law

Behoved him look to, still, lest bad grow worse:

First civil suit — the one the parents brought,

Impugning the legitimacy of his wife,

1310

Affirming thence the nullity of her rights:

This was before the Rota — Molines,

That’s judge there, made that notable decree

Which partly leaned to Guido, as I said —

But Pietro had appealed against the same

To the very court will judge what we judge now —

Tommati and his fellows — Suit the first.

Next civil suit — demand on the wife’s part

Of separation from the husband’s bed

On plea of cruelty and risk to life —

1320

Claims restitution of the dowry paid,

Immunity from paying any more:

This second, the Vicegerent has to judge.

Third and last suit — this time, a criminal one —

Answer to, and protection from, both these —

Guido’s complaint of guilt against his wife

In the Tribunal of the Governor,

Venturini, also judge of the present cause.

Three suits of all importance plaguing him,

Beside a little private enterprise

1330

Of Guido’s — essay at a shorter cut.

For Paolo, knowing the right way at Rome,

Had, even while superintending these three suits

I’ the regular way, each at its proper court,

Ingeniously made interest with the Pope

To set such tedious regular forms aside,

And, acting the supreme and ultimate judge,

Declare for the husband and against the wife.

Well, at such crisis and extreme of straits,

The man at bay, buffeted in this wise,

1340

Happened the strangest accident of all.

“Then,” sigh friends, “the last feather broke his back,

“Made him forget all possible remedies

“Save one — he rushed to, as the sole relief

“From horror and the abominable thing.”

“Or rather,” laugh foes, “then did there befall

“The luckiest of conceivable events,

“Most pregnant with impunity for him,

“Which henceforth turned the flank of all attack,

“And bade him do his wickedest and worst.”

1350

— The wife’s withdrawal from the Convertites,

Visit to the villa where her parents lived,

And birth there of his babe. Divergence here!

I simply take the facts, ask what they show.

First comes this thunderclap of a surprise:

Then follow all the signs and silences

Premonitory of earthquake. Paolo first

Vanished, was swept off somewhere, lost to Rome:

(Wells dry up, while the sky is sunny and blue.)

Then Guido girds himself for enterprise,

1360

Hies to Vittiano, counsels with his steward,

Comes to terms with four peasants young and bold,

And starts for Rome the Holy, reaches her

At very holiest, for ’tis Christmas Eve,

And makes straight for the Abate’s dried-up font,

The lodge where Paolo ceased to work the pipes.

And then, rest taken, observation made

And plan completed, all in a grim week,

The five proceed in a body, reach the place,

— Pietro’s, by the Paolina, silent, lone,

1370

And stupefied by the propitious snow —

At one in the evening: knock: a voice “Who’s there?”

“Friends with a letter from the priest your friend.”

At the door, straight smiles old Violante’s self.

She falls — her son-in-law stabs through and through,

Reaches thro’ her at Pietro —“With your son

“This is the way to settle suits, good sire!”

He bellows

        “Mercy for heaven, not for earth!

“Leave to confess and save my sinful soul,

“Then do your pleasure on the body of me!”

1380

—“Nay, father, soul with body must take its chance!”

He presently got his portion and lay still.

And last, Pompilia rushes here and there

Like a dove among lightnings in her brake,

Falls also: Guido’s, this last husband’s-act.

He lifts her by the long dishevelled hair,

Holds her away at arms’ length with one hand,

While the other tries if life come from the mouth —

Looks out his whole heart’s hate on the shut eyes,

Draws a deep satisfied breath, “So — dead at last!”

1390

Throws down the burthen on dead Pietro’s knees,

And ends all with “Let us away, my boys!”

And, as they left by one door, in at the other

Tumbled the neighbours — for the shrieks had pierced

To the mill and the grange, this cottage and that shed.

Soon followed the Public Force: pursuit began

Though Guido had the start and chose the road:

So, that same night was he, with the other four,

Overtaken near Baccano — where they sank

By the way-side, in some shelter meant for beasts,

1400

And now lay heaped together, nuzzling swine,

Each wrapped in bloody cloak, each grasping still

His unwiped weapon, sleeping all the same

The sleep o’ the just — a journey of twenty miles

Bringing just and unjust to a level, you see.

The only one i’ the world that suffered aught

By the whole night’s toil and trouble, flight and chase,

Was just the officer who took them, Head

O’ the Public Force — Patrizj, zealous soul,

Who, having duty to sustain the flesh,

1410

Got heated, caught a fever and so died:

A warning to the over-vigilant,

— Virtue in a chafe should change her linen quick,

Lest pleurisy get start of providence.

(That’s for the Cardinal, and told, I think!)

Well, they bring back the company to Rome.

Says Guido, “By your leave, I fain would ask

“How you found out ’twas I who did the deed?

“What put you on my trace, a foreigner,

“Supposed in Arezzo — and assuredly safe

1420

“Except for an oversight: who told you, pray?”

“Why, naturally your wife!” Down Guido drops

O’ the horse he rode — they have to steady and stay,

At either side the brute that bore him, bound,

So strange it seemed his wife should live and speak!

She had prayed — at least so people tell you now —

For but one thing to the Virgin for herself,

Not simply, as did Pietro ’mid the stabs —

Time to confess and get her own soul saved —

But time to make the truth apparent, truth

1430

For God’s sake, lest men should believe a lie:

Which seems to have been about the single prayer

She ever put up, that was granted her.

With this hope in her head, of telling truth —

Being familiarised with pain, beside —

She bore the stabbing to a certain pitch

Without a useless cry, was flung for dead

On Pietro’s lap, and so attained her point.

Her friends subjoin this — have I done with them? —

And cite the miracle of continued life

1440

(She was not dead when I arrived just now)

As attestation to her probity.

Does it strike your Excellency? Why, your Highness,

The self-command and even the final prayer,

Our candour must acknowledge explainable

As easily by the consciousness of guilt.

So, when they add that her confession runs

She was of wifehood one white innocence

In thought, word, act, from first of her short life

To last of it; praying i’ the face of death,

1450

That God forgive her other sins — not this

She is charged with and must die for, that she failed

Anyway to her husband: while thereon

Comments the old Religious —“ So much good,

“Patience beneath enormity of ill,

“I hear to my confusion, woe is me,

“Sinner that I stand, shamed in the walk and gait

“I have practised and grown old in, by a child!”—

Guido’s friends shrug the shoulder, “Just this same

“Prodigious absolute calm in the last hour

1460

“Confirms us — being the natural result

“Of a life which proves consistent to the close.

“Having braved heaven and deceived earth throughout,

“She braves still and deceives still, gains thereby

“Two ends, she prizes beyond earth or heaven:

“First sets her lover free, imperilled sore

“By the new turn things take: he answers yet

“For the part he played: they have summoned him indeed:

“The past ripped up, he may be punished still:

“What better way of saving him than this?

1470

“Then — thus she dies revenged to the uttermost

“On Guido, drags him with her in the dark,

“The lower still the better, do you doubt?

“Thus, two ways, does she love her love to the end,

“And hate her hate — death, hell is no such price

“To pay for these — lovers and haters hold.”

But there’s another parry for the thrust.

“Confession,” cry folks —“ a confession, think!

“Confession of the moribund is true!”

Which of them, my wise friends? This public one,

1480

Or the private other we shall never know?

The private may contain — your casuists teach —

The acknowledgment of, and the penitence for,

That other public one, so people say.

However it be — we trench on delicate ground,

Her Eminence is peeping o’er the cards —

Can one find nothing in behalf of this

Catastrophe? Deaf folks accuse the dumb!

You criticise the drunken reel, fool’s-speech,

Maniacal gesture of the man — we grant!

1490

But who poured poison in his cup, we ask?

Recall the list of his excessive wrongs,

First cheated in his wife, robbed by her kin,

Rendered anon the laughing-stock o’ the world

By the story, true or false, of his wife’s birth —

The last seal publicly apposed to shame

By the open flight of wife and priest — why, Sirs,

Step out of Rome a furlong, would you know

What anotherguess tribunal than ours here.

Mere worldly Court without the help of grace,

1500

Thinks of just that one incident o’ the flight?

Guido preferred the same complaint before

The court of Arezzo, bar of the Granduke —

In virtue of it being Tuscany

Where the offence had rise and flight began —

Self-same complaint he made in the sequel here

Where the offence grew to the full, the flight

Ended: offence and flight, one fact judged twice

By two distinct tribunals — what result?

There was a sentence passed at the same time

1510

By Arezzo and confirmed by the Granduke,

Which nothing baulks of swift and sure effect

But absence of the guilty (flight to Rome

Frees them from Tuscan jurisdiction now)

— Condemns the wife to the opprobrious doom

Of all whom law just lets escape from death.

The Stinche, House of Punishment, for life —

That’s what the wife deserves in Tuscany:

Here, she deserves — remitting with a smile

To her father’s house, main object of the flight!

1520

The thief presented with the thing he steals!

At this discrepancy of judgments — mad,

The man took on himself the office, judged;

And the only argument against the use

O’ the law he thus took into his own hands

Is . . . what, I ask you? — that, revenging wrong,

He did not revenge sooner, kill at first

Whom he killed last! That is the final charge.

Sooner? What’s soon or late i’ the case? — ask we.

A wound i’ the flesh no doubt wants prompt redress;

1530

It smarts a little to-day, well in a week,

Forgotten in a month; or never, or now, revenge!

But a wound to the soul? That rankles worse and worse.

Shall I comfort you, explaining —“ Not this once

“But now it may be some five hundred times

“I called you ruffian, pandar, liar, and rogue:

“The injury must be less by lapse of time?”

The wrong is a wrong, one and immortal too,

And that you bore it those five hundred times,

Let it rankle unrevenged five hundred years,

1540

Is just five hundred wrongs the more and worse!

Men, plagued this fashion, get to explode this way,

If left no other.

        “But we left this man

“Many another way, and there’s his fault,”

’Tis answered —“ He himself preferred our arm

“O’ the law to fight his battle with. No doubt

“We did not open him an armoury

“To pick and choose from, use, and then reject.

“He tries one weapon and fails — he tries the next

1550

“And next: he flourishes wit and common sense,

“They fail him — he plies logic doughtily,

“It fails him too — thereon, discovers last

“He has been blind to the combustibles —

“That all the while he is a-glow with ire,

“Boiling with irrepressible rage, and so

“May try explosives and discard cold steel —

“So hire assassins, plot, plan, execute!

“Is this the honest self-forgetting rage

“We are called to pardon? Does the furious bull

1560

“Pick out four helpmates from the grazing herd

“And journey with them over hill and dale

“Till he find his enemy?”

        What rejoinder? save

That friends accept our bull-similitude.

Bull-like — the indiscriminate slaughter, rude

And reckless aggravation of revenge,

Were all i’the way o’ the brute who never once

Ceases, amid all provocation more,

To bear in mind the first tormentor, first

1570

Giver o’ the wound that goaded him to fight:

And, though a dozen follow and reinforce

The aggressor, wound in front and wound in flank,

Continues undisturbedly pursuit,

And only after prostrating his prize

Turns on the pettier, makes a general prey.

So Guido rushed against Violante, first

Author of all his wrongs, fons et origo

Malorum — increasingly drunk — which justice done?

He finished with the rest. Do you blame a bull?

1580

In truth you look as puzzled as ere I preached!

How is that? There are difficulties perhaps

On any supposition, and either side.

Each party wants too much, claims sympathy

For its object of compassion, more than just.

Cry the wife’s friends, “O the enormous crime

“Caused by no provocation in the world!”

“Was not the wife a little weak?”— inquire —

“Punished extravagantly, if you please,

“But meriting a little punishment?

1590

“One treated inconsiderately, say,

“Rather than one deserving not at all

“Treatment and discipline o’ the harsher sort?”

No, they must have her purity itself,

Quite angel — and her parents angels too

Of an aged sort, immaculate, word and deed,

At all events, so seeming, till the fiend,

Even Guido, by his folly, forced from them

The untoward avowal of the trick o’ the birth,

Would otherwise be safe and secret now.

1600

Why, here you have the awfulest of crimes

For nothing! Hell broke loose on a butterfly!

A dragon born of rose-dew and the moon!

Yet here is the monster! Why, he’s a mere man —

Born, bred, and brought up in the usual way.

His mother loves him, still his brothers stick

To the good fellow of the boyish games;

The Governor of his town knows and approves,

The Archbishop of the place knows and assists:

Here he has Cardinal This to vouch for the past,

1610

Cardinal That to trust for the future — match

And marriage were a Cardinal’s making — in short,

What if a tragedy be acted here

Impossible for malice to improve,

And innocent Guido with his innocent four

Be added, all five, to the guilty three,

That we of these last days be edified

With one full taste o’ the justice of the world?

The long and the short is, truth is what I show:—

Undoubtedly no pains ought to be spared

1620

To give the mob an inkling of our lights.

It seems unduly harsh to put the man

To the torture, as I hear the court intends,

Though readiest way of twisting out the truth;

He is noble, and he may be innocent:

On the other hand, if they exempt the man

(As it is also said they hesitate

On the fair ground, presumptive guilt is weak

I’ the case of nobility and privilege) —

What crime that ever was, ever will be,

1630

Deserves the torture? Then abolish it!

You see the reduction ad absurdum, Sirs?

Her Excellency must pronounce, in fine!

What, she prefers going and joining play?

Her Highness finds it late, intends retire?

I am of their mind: only, all this talk, talked,

’Twas not for nothing that we talked, I hope?

Both know as much about it, now, at least,

As all Rome: no particular thanks, I beg!

(You’ll see, I have not so advanced myself,

1640

After my teaching the two idiots here!)

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/browning/robert/ring/book4.html

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