Zanoni, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 16

Und den Mordstahl seh’ ich blinken;

Und das Morderauge gluhn!

“Kassandra.”

(And I see the steel of Murder glitter,

And the eye of Murder glow.)

Viola was in the prison that opened not but for those already condemned before adjudged. Since her exile from Zanoni, her very intellect had seemed paralysed. All that beautiful exuberance of fancy which, if not the fruit of genius, seemed its blossoms; all that gush of exquisite thought which Zanoni had justly told her flowed with mysteries and subtleties ever new to him, the wise one — all were gone, annihilated; the blossom withered, the fount dried up. From something almost above womanhood, she seemed listlessly to sink into something below childhood. With the inspirer the inspirations had ceased; and, in deserting love, genius also was left behind.

She scarcely comprehended why she had been thus torn from her home and the mechanism of her dull tasks. She scarcely knew what meant those kindly groups, that, struck with her exceeding loveliness, had gathered round her in the prison, with mournful looks, but with words of comfort. She, who had hitherto been taught to abhor those whom Law condemns for crime, was amazed to hear that beings thus compassionate and tender, with cloudless and lofty brows, with gallant and gentle mien, were criminals for whom Law had no punishment short of death. But they, the savages, gaunt and menacing, who had dragged her from her home, who had attempted to snatch from her the infant while she clasped it in her arms, and laughed fierce scorn at her mute, quivering lips — THEY were the chosen citizens, the men of virtue, the favourites of Power, the ministers of Law! Such thy black caprices, O thou, the ever-shifting and calumnious — Human Judgment!

A squalid, and yet a gay world, did the prison-houses of that day present. There, as in the sepulchre to which they led, all ranks were cast with an even-handed scorn. And yet there, the reverence that comes from great emotions restored Nature’s first and imperishable, and most lovely, and most noble Law — THE INEQUALITY BETWEEN MAN AND MAN! There, place was given by the prisoners, whether royalists or sans-culottes, to Age, to Learning, to Renown, to Beauty; and Strength, with its own inborn chivalry, raised into rank the helpless and the weak. The iron sinews and the Herculean shoulders made way for the woman and the child; and the graces of Humanity, lost elsewhere, sought their refuge in the abode of Terror.

“And wherefore, my child, do they bring thee hither?” asked an old, grey-haired priest.

“I cannot guess.”

“Ah, if you know not your offence, fear the worst!”

“And my child?”— for the infant was still suffered to rest upon her bosom.

“Alas, young mother, they will suffer thy child to live.’

“And for this — an orphan in the dungeon!” murmured the accusing heart of Viola — “have I reserved his offspring! Zanoni, even in thought, ask not — ask not what I have done with the child I bore thee!”

Night came; the crowd rushed to the grate to hear the muster-roll. (Called, in the mocking jargon of the day, “The Evening Gazette.”) Her name was with the doomed. And the old priest, better prepared to die, but reserved from the death-list, laid his hands on her head, and blessed her while he wept. She heard, and wondered; but she did not weep. With downcast eyes, with arms folded on her bosom, she bent submissively to the call. But now another name was uttered; and a man, who had pushed rudely past her to gaze or to listen, shrieked out a howl of despair and rage. She turned, and their eyes met. Through the distance of time she recognised that hideous aspect. Nicot’s face settled back into its devilish sneer. “At least, gentle Neapolitan, the guillotine will unite us. Oh, we shall sleep well our wedding-night!” And, with a laugh, he strode away through the crowd, and vanished into his lair.

. . . .

She was placed in her gloomy cell, to await the morrow. But the child was still spared her; and she thought it seemed as if conscious of the awful present. In their way to the prison it had not moaned or wept. It had looked with its clear eyes, unshrinking, on the gleaming pikes and savage brows of the huissiers. And now, alone in the dungeon, it put its arms round her neck, and murmured its indistinct sounds, low and sweet as some unknown language of consolation and of heaven. And of heaven it was! — for, at the murmur, the terror melted from her soul; upward, from the dungeon and the death — upward, where the happy cherubim chant the mercy of the All-loving, whispered that cherub’s voice. She fell upon her knees and prayed. The despoilers of all that beautifies and hallows life had desecrated the altar, and denied the God! — they had removed from the last hour of their victims the Priest, the Scripture, and the Cross! But Faith builds in the dungeon and the lazar-house its sublimest shrines; and up, through roofs of stone, that shut out the eye of Heaven, ascends the ladder where the angels glide to and fro — PRAYER.

And there, in the very cell beside her own, the atheist Nicot sits stolid amidst the darkness, and hugs the thought of Danton, that death is nothingness. (“Ma demeure sera bientot LE NEANT” (My abode will soon be nothingness), said Danton before his judges.)) His, no spectacle of an appalled and perturbed conscience! Remorse is the echo of a lost virtue, and virtue he never knew. Had he to live again, he would live the same. But more terrible than the death-bed of a believing and despairing sinner that blank gloom of apathy — that contemplation of the worm and the rat of the charnel-house; that grim and loathsome NOTHINGNESS which, for his eye, falls like a pall over the universe of life. Still, staring into space, gnawing his livid lip, he looks upon the darkness, convinced that darkness is forever and forever!

. . . .

Place, there! place! Room yet in your crowded cells. Another has come to the slaughter-house.

As the jailer, lamp in hand, ushered in the stranger, the latter touched him and whispered. The stranger drew a jewel from his finger. Diantre, how the diamond flashed in the ray of the lamp! Value each head of your eighty at a thousand francs, and the jewel is more worth than all! The jailer paused, and the diamond laughed in his dazzled eyes. O thou Cerberus, thou hast mastered all else that seems human in that fell employ! Thou hast no pity, no love, and no remorse. But Avarice survives the rest, and the foul heart’s master-serpent swallows up the tribe. Ha! ha! crafty stranger, thou hast conquered! They tread the gloomy corridor; they arrive at the door where the jailer has placed the fatal mark, now to be erased, for the prisoner within is to be reprieved a day. The key grates in the lock; the door yawns — the stranger takes the lamp and enters.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31