WHAT, you, Sir, come too? (Just the man I’d meet.)
Be ruled by me and have a care o’the crowd:
This way, while fresh folk go and get their gaze:
I’ll tell you like a book and save your shins.
Fie, what a roaring day we’ve had! Whose fault?
Lorenzo in Lucina,—here’s a church
To hold a crowd at need, accommodate
All comers from the Corso! If this crush
Make not its priests ashamed of what they show
For temple-room, don’t prick them to draw purse
And down with bricks and mortar, eke us out
The beggarly transept with its bit of apse
Into a decent space for Christian ease,
Why, to-day’s lucky pearl is cast to swine.
Listen and estimate the luck they’ve had!
(The right man, and I hold him.)
Sir, do you see,
They laid both bodies in the church, this morn
The first thing, on the chancel two steps up,
Behind the little marble balustrade;
Disposed them, Pietro the old murdered fool
To the right of the altar, and his wretched wife
On the other side. In trying to count stabs,
People supposed Violante showed the most,
Till somebody explained us that mistake;
His wounds had been dealt out indifferent where,
But she took all her stabbings in the face,
Since punished thus solely for honour’s sake,
Honoris causâ, that’s the proper term.
A delicacy there is, our gallants hold,
When you avenge your honour and only then,
That you disfigure the subject, fray the face,
Not just take life and end, in clownish guise.
It was Violante gave the first offence,
Got therefore the conspicuous punishment:
While Pietro, who helped merely, his, mere death
Answered the purpose, so his face went free.
We fancied even, free as you please, that face
Showed itself still intolerably wronged;
Was wrinkled over with resentment yet,
Nor calm at all, as murdered faces use,
Once the worst ended: an indignant air
O’ the head there was—’ tis said the body turned
Round and away, rolled from Violante’s side
Where they had laid it loving-husband-like.
If so, if corpses can be sensitive,
Why did not he roll right down altar-step.
Roll on through nave, roll fairly out of church,
Deprive Lorenzo of the spectacle,
Pay back thus the succession of affronts
Whereto this church had served as theatre?
For see: at that same altar where he lies,
To that same inch of step, was brought the babe
For blessing after baptism, and there styled
Pompilia, and a string of names beside,
By his bad wife, some seventeen years ago,
Who purchased her simply to palm on him,
Flatter his dotage and defraud the heirs.
Wait awhile! Also to this very step
Did this Violante, twelve years afterward,
Bring, the mock-mother, that child-cheat full-grown,
Pompilia in pursuance of her plot.
And there brave God and man a second time
By linking a new victim to the lie.
There, having made a match unknown to him,
She, still unknown to Pietro, tied the knot
Which nothing cuts except this kind of knife;
Yes, made her daughter, as the girl was held,
Marry a man, and honest man beside,
And man of birth to boot,—clandestinely
Because of this, because of that, because
O’ the devil’s will to work his worst for once,—
Confident she could top her part at need
And, when her husband must be told in turn,
Ply the wife’s trade, play off the sex’s trick
And, alternating worry with quiet qualms,
Bravado with submissiveness, quick fool
Her Pietro into patience: so it proved.
Ay, ’tis four years since man and wife they grew,
This Guido Franceschini and this same
Pompilia, foolishly thought, falsely declared
A Comparini and the couple’s child:
Just at this altar where, beneath the piece
Of Master Guido Reni, Christ on cross,
Second to nought observable in Rome,
That couple lie now, murdered yestereve.
Even the blind can see a providence here.
From dawn till now that it is growing dusk,
A multitude has flocked and filled the church,
Coming and going, coming back again,
Till to count crazed one. Rome was at the show.
People climbed up the columns, fought for spikes
O’ the chapel-rail to perch themselves upon,
Jumped over and so broke the wooden work
Painted like porphyry to deceive the eye;
Serve the priests right! The organ-loft was crammed,
Women were fainting, no few fights ensued,
In short, it was a show repaid your pains:
For, though their room was scant undoubtedly,
Yet they did manage matters, to be just,
A little at this Lorenzo. Body o’me!
I saw a body exposed once . . . never mind!
Enough that here the bodies had their due.
No stinginess in wax, a row all round,
And one big taper at each head and foot.
So, people pushed their way, and took their turn,
Saw, threw their eyes up, crossed themselves, gave place
To pressure from behind, since all the world
Knew the old pair, could talk the tragedy
Over from first to last: Pompilia too,
Those who had known her—what ’twas worth to them!
Guido’s acquaintance was in less request;
The Count had lounged somewhat too long in Rome,
Made himself cheap; with him were hand and glove
Barbers and blear-eyed, as the ancient sings.
Also he is alive and like to be:
Had he considerately died,—aha!
I jostled Luca Cini on his staff,
Mute in the midst, the whole man one amaze,
Staring amain and crossing brow and breast.
“How now?” asked I. “’Tis seventy years,” quoth he,
“Since I first saw, holding my father’s hand,
“Bodies set forth: a many have I seen,
“Yet all was poor to this I live and see.
“Here the world’s wickedness seals up the sum:
“What with Molinos’ doctrine and this deed,
“Antichrist’s surely come and doomsday near.
“May I depart in peace, I have seen my see.”
“Depart then,” I advised, “nor block the road
“For youngsters still behindhand with such sights!”
“Why no,” rejoins the venerable sire,
“I know it’s horrid, hideous past belief,
“Burdensome far beyond what eye can bear;
“But they do promise, when Pompilia dies
“I’ the course o’ the day,—and she can’t outlive night,—
“They’ll bring her body also to expose
“Beside the parents, one, two, three a-breast;
“That were indeed a sight which, might I see,
“I trust I should not last to see the like!”
Whereat I bade the senior spare his shanks,
Since doctors give her till to-night to live
And tell us how the butchery happened. “Ah,
“But you can’t know!” sighs he. “I’ll not despair:
“Beside I’m useful at explaining things—
“As, how the dagger laid there at the feet,
“Caused the peculiar cuts; I mind its make,
“Triangular i’ the blade, a Genoese,
“Armed with those little hook-teeth on the edge
“To open in the flesh nor shut again:
“I like to teach a novice: I shall stay!”
And stay he did, and stay be sure he will.
A personage came by the private door
At noon to have his look: I name no names:
Well then, His Eminence the Cardinal,
Whose servitor in honourable sort
Guido was once, the same who made the match,
(Will you have the truth?) whereof we see effect.
No sooner whisper ran he was arrived
Than up pops Curate Carlo, a brisk lad,
Who never lets a good occasion slip,
And volunteers improving the event.
We looked he’d give the history’s self some help,
Treat us to how the wife’s confession went
(This morning she confessed her crime, we know)
And, may-be, throw in something of the Priest—
If he’s not ordered back, punished anew,
The gallant, Caponsacchi, Lucifer
I’ the garden where Pompilia, Eve-like, lured
Her Adam Guido to his fault and fall.
Think you we got a sprig of speech akin
To this from Carlo, with the Cardinal there?
Too wary, he was, too widely awake, I trow.
He did the murder in a dozen words;
Then said that all such outrages crop forth
I’ the course of nature, when Molinos’ tares
Are sown for wheat, flourish and choke the Church:
So slid on to the abominable sect
And the philosophic sin—we’ve heard all that,
And the Cardinal too (who book-made on the same),
But, for the murder, left it where he found.
Oh but he’s quick, the Curate, minds his game!
And, after all, we have the main o’ the fact:
Case could not well be simpler,—mapped, as it were,
We follow the murder’s maze from source to sea,
By the red line, past mistake: one sees indeed
Not only how all was and must have been,
But cannot other than be to the end of time.
Turn out here by the Ruspoli! Do you hold
Guido was so prodigiously to blame?
A certain cousin of yours has told you so?
Exactly! Here’s a friend shall set you right,
Let him but have the handsel of your ear.
These wretched Comparini were once gay
And galiard, of the modest middle class:
Born in this quarter seventy years ago,
And married young, they lived the accustomed life,
Citizens as they were of good repute:
And, childless, naturally took their ease
With only their two selves to care about
And use the wealth for: wealthy is the word,
Since Pietro was possessed of house and land—
And specially one house, when good days were,
In Via Vittoria, the aspectable street
Where he lived mainly; but another house
Of less pretension did he buy betimes,
The villa, meant for jaunts and jollity,
I’ the Pauline district, to be private there—
Just what puts murder in an enemy’s head.
Moreover,—and here’s the worm i’ the core, the germ
O’ the rottenness and ruin which arrived,—
He owned some usufruct, had moneys’ use
Lifelong, but to determine with his life
In heirs’ default: so, Pietro craved an heir,
(The story always old and always new)
Shut his fool’s-eyes fast on the visible good
And wealth for certain, opened them owl-wide
On fortune’s sole piece of forgetfulness,
The child that should have been and would not be.
Hence, seventeen years ago, conceive his glee
When first Violante, ’twixt a smile and a blush,
With touch of agitation proper too,
Announced that, spite of her unpromising age,
The miracle would in time be manifest,
An heir’s birth was to happen: and it did.
Somehow or other,—how, all in good time!
By a trick, a sleight of hand you are to hear,—
A child was born, Pompilia, for his joy,
Plaything at once and prop, a fairy-gift,
A saints’ grace or, say, grant of the good God,—
A fiddle-pin’s end! What imbeciles are we!
Look now: if some one could have prophesied,
“For love of you, for liking to your wife,
“I undertake to crush a snake I spy
“Settling itself i’ the soft of both your breasts.
“Give me yon babe to strangle painlessly!
“She’ll soar to the safe: you’ll have your crying out,
“Then sleep, then wake, then sleep, then end your days
“In peace and plenty, mixed with mild regret,
“Thirty years hence when Christmas takes old folk”—
How had old Pietro sprung up, crossed himself,
And kicked the conjuror! Whereas you and I,
Being wise with after-wit, had clapped our hands;
Nay, added, in the old fool’s interest,
“Strangle the black-eyed babe, so far so good,
“But on condition you relieve the man
“O’ the wife and throttle him Violante too—
“She is the mischief!”
We had hit the mark.
She, whose trick brought the babe into the world,
She it was, when the babe was grown a girl,
Judged a new trick should reinforce the old,
Send vigour to the lie now somewhat spent
By twelve years’ service; lest Eve’s rule decline
Over this Adam of hers, whose cabbage-plot
Throve dubiously since turned fools’-paradise,
Spite of a nightingale on every stump.
Pietro’s estate was dwindling day by day,
While he, rapt far above such mundane care,
Crawled all-fours with his baby pick-a-back,
Sat at serene cats’-cradle with his child,
Or took the measured tallness, top to toe,
Of what was grown a great girl twelve years old:
Till sudden at the door a tap discreet,
A visitor’s premonitory cough,
And poverty had reached him in her rounds.
This came when he was past the working-time,
Had learned to dandle and forgot to dig,
And who must but Violante cast about,
Contrive and task that head of hers again?
She who had caught one fish, could make that catch
A bigger still, in angler’s policy:
So, with an angler’s mercy for the bait,
Her minnow was set wriggling on its barb
And tossed to the mid-stream; that is, this grown girl
With the great eyes and bounty of black hair
And first crisp youth that tempts a jaded taste,
Was whisked i’ the way of a certain man, who snapped.
Count Guido Franceschini the Aretine
Was head of an old noble house enough,
Not over-rich, you can’t have everything,
But such a man as riches rub against,
Readily stick to,—one with a right to them
Born in the blood: ’twas in his very brow
Always to knit itself against the world,
So be beforehand when that stinted due
Service and suit: the world ducks and defers.
As such folks do, he had come up to Rome
To better his fortune, and, since many years,
Was friend and follower of a cardinal;
Waiting the rather thus on providence,
That a shrewd younger poorer brother yet,
The Abate Paolo, a regular priest,
Had long since tried his powers and found he swam
With the deftest on the Galilean pool:
But then he was a web-foot, free o’ the wave,
And no ambiguous dab-chick hatched to strut,
Humbled by any fond attempt to swim
When fiercer fowl usurped his dunghill top—
A whole priest, Paolo, no mere piece of one
Like Guido tacked thus to the Church’s tail!
Guido moreover, as the head o’ the house,
Claiming the main prize, not the lesser luck,
The centre lily, no mere chickweed fringe.
He waited and learned waiting, thirty years;
Got promise, missed performance—what would you have?
No petty post rewards a nobleman
For spending youth in splendid lackey-work,
And there’s concurrence for each rarer prize;
When that falls, rougher hand and readier foot
Push aside Guido spite of his black looks.
The end was, Guido, when the warning showed,
The first white hair i’ the glass, gave up the game,
Determined on returning to his town,
Making the best of bad incurable
Patching the old palace up and lingering there
The customary life out with his kin,
Where honour helps to spice the scanty bread.
Just as he trimmed his lamp and girt his loins
To go his journey and be wise at home,
In the right mood of disappointed worth,
Who but Violante sudden spied her prey
(Where was I with that angler-simile?)
And threw her bait, Pompilia, where he sulked—
A gleam i’ the gloom!
What if he gained thus much,
Wrung out this sweet drop from the bitter Past,
Bore off this rose-bud from the prickly brake,
To justify such torn clothes and scratched hands,
And, after all, brought something back from Rome?
Would not a wife serve at Arezzo well
To light the dark house, lend a look of youth
To the mother’s face grown meagre, left alone
And famished with the emptiness of hope,
Old Donna Beatrice? Wife you want
Would you play family representative,
Carry you elder-brotherly, high and right
O’er what may prove the natural petulance
Of the third brother, younger, greedier still,
Girolamo, also a fledgeling priest,
Beginning life in turn with callow beak
Agape for luck, no luck had stopped and stilled.
Such were the pinks and greys about the bait
Persuaded Guido gulp down hook and all.
What constituted him so choice a catch,
You question? Past his prime and poor beside?
Ask that of any she who knows the trade.
Why first, here was a nobleman with friends,
A palace one might run to and be safe
When presently the threatened fate should fall,
A big-browed master to block door-way up,
Parley with people bent on pushing by
And praying the mild Pietro quick clear scores:
Is birth a privilege and power or no?
Also,—but judge of the result desired,
By the price paid and manner of the sale.
The Count was made woo, win and wed at once:
Asked, and was haled for answer, lest the heat
Should cool, to San Lorenzo, one blind eve,
And had Pompilia put into his arms
O’ the sly there, by a hasty candle-blink,
With sanction of some priest-confederate
Properly paid to make short work and sure.
So did old Pietro’s daughter change her style
For Guido Franceschini’s lady-wife
Ere Guido knew it well; and why this haste
And scramble and indecent secrecy?
“Lest Pietro, all the while in ignorance,
“Should get to learn, gainsay and break the match:
“His peevishness had promptly put aside
“Such honour and refused the proffered boon,
“Pleased to become authoritative once.
“She remedied the wilful man’s mistake—”
Did our discreet Violante. Rather say,
Thus did she, lest the object of her game,
Guido the gulled one, give him but a chance,
A moment’s respite, time for thinking twice,
Might count the cost before he sold himself,
And try the clink of coin they paid him with.
But passed, the bargain struck, the business done,
Once the clandestine marriage over thus,
All parties made perforce the best o’ the fact;
Pietro could play vast indignation off,
Be ignorant and astounded, dupe alike
At need, of wife, daughter, and son-in-law,
While Guido found himself in flagrant fault,
Must e’en do suit and service, soothe, subdue
A father not unreasonably chafed,
Bring him to terms by paying son’s devoir.
The end, this:
Guido’s broad back was saddled to bear all—
Pietro, Violante, and Pompilia too,—
Three lots cast confidently in one lap,
Three dead-weights with one arm to lift the three
Out of their limbo up to life again:
The Roman household was to strike fresh root
In a new soil, graced with a novel name,
Gilt with an alien glory, Aretine
Henceforth and never Roman any more,
By treaty and engagement: thus it ran:
Pompilia’s dowry for Pompilia’s self
As a thing of course,—she paid her own expense;
No loss nor gain there: but the couple, you see,
They, for their part, turned over first of all
Their fortune in its rags and rottenness
To Guido, fusion and confusion, he
And his with them and theirs,—whatever rag
With a coin residuary fell on floor
When Brother Paolo’s energetic shake
Should do the relics justice: since ’twas thought,
Once vulnerable Pietro out of reach,
That, left at Rome as representative,
The Abate, backed by a potent patron here,
And otherwise with purple flushing him,
Might play a good game with the creditor,
Make up a moiety which, great or small,
Should go to the common stock—if anything,
Guido’s, so far repayment of the cost
About to be,—and if, as looked more like,
Nothing,—why, all the nobler cost were his
Who guaranteed, for better or for worse,
To Pietro and Violante, house and home,
Kith and kin, with the pick of company
And life o’ the fat o’ the land while life should last.
How say you to the bargain at first blush?
Why did a middle-aged not-silly man
Show himself thus besotted all at once?
Quoth Solomon, one black eye does it all.
They went to Arezzo,—Pietro and his spouse,
With just the dusk o’ the day of life to spend,
Eager to use the twilight, taste a treat,
Enjoy for once with neither stay nor stint
The luxury of Lord-and-lady-ship,
And realise the stuff and nonsense long
A-simmer in their noddles; vent the fume
Born there and bred, the citizen’s conceit
How fares nobility while crossing earth,
What rampart or invisible body-guard
Keeps off the taint of common life from such.
They had not fed for nothing on the tales
Of grandees who give banquets worthy Jove,
Spending gold as if Plutus paid a whim,
Served with obeisances as when . . . what God?
I’m at the end of my tether; ’tis enough
You understand what they came primed to see:
While Guido who should minister the sight,
Stay all this qualmish greediness of soul
With apples and with flagons—for his part,
Was set on life diverse as pole from pole:
Lust of the flesh, lust of the eye,—what else
Was he just now awake from, sick and sage,
After the very debauch they would begin?—
Suppose such stuff and nonsense really were.
That bubble, they were bent on blowing big,
He had blown already till he burst his cheeks,
And hence found soapsuds bitter to the tongue,
He hoped now to walk softly all his days
In soberness of spirit, if haply so,
Pinching and paring he might furnish forth
A frugal board, bare sustenance, no more,
Till times, that could not well grow worse, should mend.
Thus minded then, two parties mean to meet
And make each other happy. The first week,
And fancy strikes fact and explodes in full.
“This,” shrieked the Comparini, “this the Count,
“The palace, the signorial privilege,
“The pomp and pageantry were promised us?
“For this have we exchanged our liberty,
“Our competence, our darling of a child?
“To house as spectres in a sepulchre
“Under this black stone heap, the street’s disgrace,
“Grimmest as that is of the gruesome town,
“And here pick garbage on a pewter plate
“Or cough at verjuice dripped from earthenware?
“Oh Via Vittoria, oh the other place
“I’ the Pauline, did we give you up for this?
“Where’s the foregone housekeeping good and gay,
“The neighbourliness, the companionship,
“The treat and feast when holidays came round,
“The daily feast that seemed no treat at all,
“Called common by the uncommon fools we were!
“Even the sun that used to shine at Rome,
“Where is it? Robbed and starved and frozen too,
“We will have justice, justice if there be!”
Did not they shout, did not the town resound!
Guido’s old lady-mother Beatrice,
Who since her husband, Count Tommaso’s death,
Had held sole sway i’ the house,—the doited crone
Slow to acknowledge, curtsey and abdicate,—
Was recognised of true novercal type,
Dragon and devil. His brother Girolamo
Came next in order: priest was he? The worse!
No way of winning him to leave his mumps
And help the laugh against old ancestry
And formal habits long since out of date,
Letting his youth be patterned on the mode
Approved of where Violante laid down law.
Or did he brighten up by way of change?
Dispose himself for affability?
The malapert, too complaisant by half
To the alarmed young novice of a bride!
Let him go buzz, betake himself elsewhere
Nor singe his fly-wings in the candle-flame!
Four months’ probation of this purgatory,
Dog-snap and cat-claw, curse and counterblast,
The devil’s self had been sick of his own din;
And Pietro, after trumpeting huge wrongs
At church and market-place, pillar and post,
Square’s corner, street’s end, now the palace-step
And now the wine-house bench—while, on her side,
Violante up and down was voluble
In whatsoever pair of ears would perk
From goody, gossip, cater-cousin and sib,
Curious to peep at the inside of things
And catch in the act pretentious poverty
At its wits’ end to keep appearance up,
Make both ends meet,—nothing the vulgar loves
Like what this couple pitched them right and left,—
Then, their worst done that way, they struck tent, marched:
—Renounced their share o’ the bargain, flung what dues
Guido was bound to pay, in Guido’s face,
Left their hearts’-darling, treasure of the twain
And so forth, the poor inexperienced bride,
To her own devices, bade Arezzo rot
And the life signorial, and sought Rome once more.
I see the comment ready on your lip,
“The better fortune, Guido’s—free at least
“By this defection of the foolish pair,
“He could begin make profit in some sort
“Of the young bride and the new quietness,
“Lead his own life now, henceforth breathe unplagued.”
Could he? You know the sex like Guido’s self.
Learn the Violante-nature!
Once in Rome,
By way of helping Guido lead such life,
Her first act to inaugurate return
Was, she got pricked in conscience: Jubilee
Gave her the hint. Our Pope, as kind as just,
Attained his eighty years, announced a boon
Should make us bless the fact, held Jubilee—
Short shrift, prompt pardon for the light offence,
And no rough dealing with the regular crime
So this occasion were not suffered slip—
Otherwise, sins commuted as before,
Without the least abatement in the price.
Now, who had thought it? All this while, it seems,
Our sage Violante had a sin of a sort
She must compound for now or not at all:
Now be the ready riddance! She confessed
Pompilia was a fable not a fact:
She never bore a child in her whole life.
Had this child been a changeling, that were grace
In some degree, exchange is hardly theft;
You take your stand on truth ere leap your lie:
Here was all lie, no touch of truth at all,
All the lie hers—not even Pietro guessed
He was as childless still as twelve years since.
The babe had been a find i’ the filth-heap, Sir,
Catch from the kennel! There was found a Rome,
Down in the deepest of our social dregs,
A woman who professed the wanton’s trade
Under the requisite thin coverture,
Communis meretrix and washer-wife:
The creature thus conditioned found by chance
Motherhood like a jewel in the muck,
And straightway either trafficked with her prize
Or listened to the tempter and let be,—
Made pact abolishing her place and part
In womankind, beast-fellowship indeed—
She sold this babe eight months before its birth
To our Violante, Pietro’s honest spouse,
Well-famed and widely-instanced as that crown
To the husband, virtue in a woman’s shape.
She it was, bought and paid for, passed the thing
Off as the flesh and blood and child of her
Despite the flagrant fifty years,—and why?
Partly to please old Pietro, fill his cup
With wine at the late hour when lees are left,
And send him from life’s feast rejoicingly,—
Partly to cheat the rightful heirs, agape,
Each uncle’s cousin’s brother’s son of him,
For that same principal of the usufruct
It vext him he must die and leave behind.
Such was the sin had come to be confessed.
Which of the tales, the first or last, was true?
Did she so sin once, or, confessing now,
Sin for the first time? Either way you will.
One sees a reason for the cheat: one sees
A reason for a cheat in owning cheat
Where no cheat had been. What of the revenge?
What prompted the contrition all at once,
Made the avowal easy, the shame slight?
Why, prove they but Pompilia not their child,
No child, no dowry; this, supposed their child,
Had claimed what this, shown alien to their blood,
Claimed nowise: Guido’s claim was through his wife,
Null then and void with hers. The biter bit,
Do you see! For such repayment of the past,
One might conceive the penitential pair
Ready to bring their case before the courts,
Publish their infamy to all the world
And, arm in arm, go chuckling thence content.
Is this your view? ’Twas Guido’s anyhow
And colourable: he came forward then,
Protested in his very bride’s behalf
Against this lie and all it led to, least
Of all the loss o’ the dowry; no! From her
And him alike he would expunge the blot,
Erase the brand of such a bestial birth,
Participate in no hideous heritage
Gathered from the gutter to be garnered up
And glorified in a palace. Peter and Paul!
But that who likes may look upon the pair
Exposed in yonder church, and show his skill
By saying which is eye and which is mouth
Thro’ those stabs thick and threefold,—but for that—
A strong word on the liars and their lie
Might crave expression and obtain it, Sir!
—Though prematurely, since there’s more to come,
More than will shake your confidence in things
Your cousin tells you,—may I be so bold?
This makes the first act of the farce,—anon
The stealing sombre element comes in
Till all is black or blood-red in the piece.
Guido, thus made a laughing-stock abroad,
A proverb for the market-place at home,
Left alone with Pompilia now, this graft
So reputable on his ancient stock,
This plague-seed set to fester his sound flesh,
What did the Count? Revenge him on his wife?
Unfasten at all risks to rid himself
The noisome lazar-badge, fall foul of fate,
And, careless whether the poor rag was ware
O’ the part it played, or helped unwittingly,
Bid it go burn and leave his frayed flesh free?
Plainly, did Guido open both doors wide,
Spurn thence the cur-cast creature and clear scores
As man might, tempted in extreme like this?
No, birth and breeding, and compassion too
Saved her such scandal. She was young, he thought,
Not privy to the treason, punished most
I’ the proclamation of it; why make her
A party to the crime she suffered by?
Then the black eyes were now her very own,
Not any more Violante’s: let her live,
Lose in a new air, under a new sun,
The taint of the imputed parentage
Truely or falsely, take no more the touch
Of Pietro and his partner anyhow!
All might go well yet.
So she thought, herself,
It seems, since what was her first act and deed
When news came how these kindly ones at Rome
Had stripped her naked to amuse the world
With spots here, spots there, and spots everywhere?
—For I should tell you that they noised abroad
Not merely the main scandal of her birth,
But slanders written, printed, published wide,
Pamphlets which set forth all the pleasantry
Of how the promised glory was a dream,
The power a bubble and the wealth—why, dust.
There was a picture, painted to the life,
Of those rare doings, that superlative
Initiation in magnificence
Conferred on a poor Roman family
By favour of Arezzo and her first
And famousest, the Franceschini there.
You had the Countship holding head aloft
Bravely although bespattered, shifts and straits
In keeping out o’ the way o’ the wheels o’ the world,
The comic of those home-contrivances
When the old lady-mother’s wit was taxed
To find six clamorous mouths in food more real
Than fruit plucked off the cobwebbed family-tree,
Or acorns shed from its gilt mouldered frame—
Cold glories served up with three-pauls’ worth’s sauce.
What, I ask,—when the drunkenness of hate
Hiccuped return for hospitality,
Befouled the table they had feasted on,
Or say,—God knows I’ll not prejudge the case,—
Grievances thus distorted, magnified,
Coloured by quarrel into calumny,—
What side did our Pompilia first espouse?
Her first deliberate measure was, she wrote,
Pricked by some loyal impulse, straight to Rome
And her husband’s brother the Abate there,
Who, having managed to effect the match,
Might take men’s censure for its ill success.
She made a clean breast also in her turn;
She qualified the couple handsomely!
Since whose departure, hell, she said, was heaven,
And the house, late distracted by their peals,
Quiet as Carmel where the lilies live.
Herself had oftentimes complained: but why?
All her complaints had been their prompting, tales
Trumped up, devices to this very end.
Their game had been to thwart her husband’s love
And cross his will, malign his words and ways,
So reach this issue, furnish this pretence
For impudent withdrawal from their bond,—
Theft, indeed murder, since they meant no less
Whose last injunction to her simple self
Had been—what parents’-precept do you think?
That she should follow after with all speed,
Fly from her husband’s house clandestinely,
Join them at Rome again, but first of all
Pick up a fresh companion in her flight,
Putting so youth and beauty to fit use,
Some gay, dare-devil, cloak-and-rapier spark
Capable of adventure,—helped by whom
She, some fine eve when lutes were in the air,
Having put poison in the posset-cup,
Laid hands on money, jewels, and the like,
And, to conceal the thing with more effect,
By way of parting benediction too,
Fired the house,—one would finish famously
I’ the tumult, slip out, scurry off and away
And turn up merrily at home once more.
Fact this, and not a dream o’ the devil, Sir!
And more than this, a fact none dare dispute,
Word for word, such a letter did she write.
And such the Abate read, nor simply read
But gave all Rome to ruminate upon,
In answer to such charges as, I say,
The couple sought to be beforehand with.
The cause thus carried to the courts at Rome,
Guido away, the Abate had no choice
But stand forth, take his absent brother’s part,
Defend the honour of himself beside.
He made what head he might against the pair,
Maintained Pompilia’s birth legitimate
And all her rights intact—hers, Guido’s now—
And so far by his tactics turned their flank,
The enemy being beforehand in the place,
That, though the courts allowed the cheat for fact,
Suffered Violante to parade her shame,
Publish her infamy to heart’s content,
And let the tale o’ the feigned birth pass for proved,—
Yet they stopped there, refused to intervene
And dispossess the innocents, befooled
By gifts o’ the guilty, at guilt’s new caprice:
They would not take away the dowry now
Wrongfully given at first, nor bar at all
Succession to the aforesaid usufruct,
Established on a fraud, nor play the game
Of Pietro’s child and now not Pietro’s child
As it might suit the gamester’s purpose. Thus
Was justice ever ridiculed in Rome:
Such be the double verdicts favoured here
Which send away both parties to a suit
Nor puffed up nor cast down,—for each a crumb
Of right, for neither of them the whole loaf.
Whence, on the Comparini’s part, appeal—
Counter-appeal on Guido’s,—that’s the game:
And so the matter stands, even to this hour,
Bandied as balls are in a tennis-court,
And so might stand, unless some heart broke first,
Leave it thus, and now revert
To the old Arezzo whence we moved to Rome.
We’ve had enough o’ the parents, false or true,
Now for a touch o’ the daughter’s quality.
The start’s fair henceforth—every obstacle
Out of the young wife’s footpath—she’s alone—
Left to walk warily now: how does she walk?
Why, once a dwelling’s doorpost marked and crossed
In rubric by the enemy on his rounds
As eligible, as fit place of prey,
Baffle him henceforth, keep him out who can!
Stop up the door at the first hint of hoof,
Presently at the window taps a horn,
And Satan’s by your fireside, never fear!
Pompilia, left alone now, found herself;
Found herself young too, sprightly, fair enough,
Matched with a husband old beyond his age
(Though that was something like four times her own)
Because of cares past, present, and to come:
Found too the house dull and its inmates dead,
So, looked outside for light and life.
There in a trice did turn up life and light,
The man with the aureole, sympathy made flesh,
The all-consoling Caponsacchi, Sir!
A priest—what else should the consoler be?
With goodly shoulderblade and proper leg,
A portly make and a symmetric shape,
And curls that clustered to the tonsure quite.
This was a bishop in the bud, and now
A canon full-blown so far: priest, and priest
Nowise exorbitantly overworked,
The courtly Christian, not so much Saint Paul
As a saint of Cæsar’s household: there posed he
Sending his god-glance after his shot shaft,
Apollos turned Apollo, while the snake
Pompilia writhed transfixed through all her spires.
He, not a visitor at Guido’s house,
Scarce an acquaintance, but in prime request
With the magnates of Arezzo, was seen here,
Heard there, felt everywhere in Guido’s path
If Guido’s wife’s path be her husband’s too.
Now he threw comfits at the theatre
Into her lap,—what harm in Carnival?
Now he pressed close till his foot touched her gown,
His hand brushed hers,—how help on promenade?
And, ever on weighty business, found his steps
Incline to a certain haunt of doubtful fame
Which fronted Guido’s palace by mere chance;
While—how do accidents sometimes combine!
Pompilia chose to cloister up her charms
Just in a chamber that o’erlooked the street,
Sat there to pray, or peep thence at mankind.
This passage of arms and wits amused the town.
At last the husband lifted eyebrow,—bent
On day-book and the study how to wring
Half the due vintage from the worn-out vines
At the villa, tease a quarter the old rent
From the farmstead, tenants swore would tumble soon,—
Pricked up his ear a-singing day and night
With “ruin, ruin;”—and so surprised at last—
Why, what else but a titter? Up he jumps.
Back to mind come those scratchings at the grange,
Prints of the paw about the outhouse; rife
In his head at once again are word and wink,
Mum here and budget there, the smell o’ the fox,
The musk o’ the gallant. “Friends, there’s falseness here!”
The proper help of friends in such a strait
Is waggery, the world over. Laugh him free
O’ the regular jealous-fit that’s incident
To all old husbands that wed brisk young wives,
And he’ll go duly docile all his days.
“Somebody courts your wife, Count? Where and when?
“How and why? Mere horn-madness: have a care!
“Your lady loves her own room, sticks to it,
“Locks herself in for hours, you say yourself.
“And—what, it’s Caponsacchi means you harm?
“The Canon? We caress him, he’s the world’s,
“A man of such acceptance,—never dream,
“Though he were fifty times the fox you fear,
“He’d risk his brush for your particular chick,
“When the wide town’s his hen-roost! Fie o’ the fool!”
So they dispensed their comfort of a kind.
Guido at last cried “Something is in the air,
“Under the earth, some plot against my peace:
“The trouble of eclipse hangs overhead,
“How it should come of that officious orb
“Your Canon in my system, you must say:
“I say—that from the pressure of this spring
“Began the chime and interchange of bells,
“Ever one whisper, and one whisper more,
“And just one whisper for the silvery last,
“Till all at once a-row the bronze-throats burst
“Into a larum both significant
“And sinister: stop it I must and will.
“Let Caponsacchi take his hand away
“From the wire!—disport himself in other paths
“Than lead precisely to my palace-gate,—
“Look where he likes except one window’s way
“Where cheek on hand, and elbow set on sill,
“Happens to lean and say her litanies
“Every day and all day long, just my wife—
“Or wife and Caponsacchi may fare the worse!”
Admire the man’s simplicity, “I’ll do this,
“I’ll not have that, I’ll punish and prevent!”—
’Tis easy saying. But to a fray, you see,
Two parties go. The badger shows his teeth:
The fox nor lies down sheep-like nor dares fight.
Oh, the wife knew the appropriate warfare well,
The way to put suspicion to the blush!
At first hint of remonstrance, up and out
I’ the face of the world, you found her: she could speak,
State her case,—Franceschini was a name,
Guido had his full share of foes and friends—
Why should not she call these to arbitrate?
She bade the Governor do governance,
Cried out on the Archbishop—why, there now,
Take him for sample! Three successive times,
Had he to reconduct her by main force
From where she took her station opposite
His shut door,—on the public steps thereto,
Wringing her hands, when he came out to see,
And shrieking all her wrongs forth at his foot,—
Back to the husband and the house she fled:
Judge if that husband warmed him in the face
Of friends or frowned on foes as heretofore!
Judge if he missed the natural grin of folk,
Or lacked the customary compliment
Of cap and bells, the luckless husband’s fit!
So it went on and on till—who was right?
One merry April morning, Guido woke
After the cuckoo, so late, near noonday,
With an inordinate yawning of the jaws,
Ears plugged, eyes gummed together, palate, tongue
And teeth one mud-paste made of poppy-milk;
And found his wife flown, his scrutoire the worse
For a rummage,—jewelry that was, was not,
Some money there had made itself wings too,—
The door lay wide and yet the servants slept
Sound as the dead, or dosed which does as well.
In short, Pompilia, she who, candid soul,
Had not so much as spoken all her life
To the Canon, nay, so much as peeped at him
Between her fingers while she prayed in church,—
This lamb-like innocent of fifteen years
(Such she was grown to by this time of day)
Had simply put an opiate in the drink
Of the whole household overnight, and then
Got up and gone about her work secure,
Laid hand on this waif and the other stray,
Spoiled the Philistine and marched out of doors
In company of the Canon who, Lord’s love,
What with his daily duty at the church,
Nightly devoir where ladies congregate,
Had something else to mind, assure yourself,
Beside Pompilia, paragon though she be,
Or notice if her nose were sharp or blunt!
Well, anyhow, albeit impossible,
Both of them were together jollily
Jaunting it Rome-ward, half-way there by this,
While Guido was left go and get undrugged,
Gather his wits up, groaningly give thanks
When neighbours crowded round him to condole.
“Ah,” quoth a gossip, “well I mind me now,
“The Count did always say he thought he felt
“He feared as if this very chance might fall!
“And when a man of fifty finds his corns
“Ache and his joints throb, and foresees a storm,
“Though neighbours laugh and say the sky is clear,
“Let us henceforth believe him weatherwise!”
Then was the story told, I’ll cut you short:
All neighbours knew: no mystery in the world,
The lovers left at nightfall—over night
Had Caponsacchi come to carry off
Pompilia,—not alone, a friend of his,
One Guillichini, the more conversant
With Guido’s housekeeping that he was just
A cousin of Guido’s and might play a prank—
(Have you not too a cousin that’s a wag?)
—Lord and a Canon also,—what would you have?
Such are the red-clothed milk-swollen poppy-heads
That stand and stiffen ’mid the wheat o’ the Church!—
This worthy came to aid, abet his best.
And so the house was ransacked, booty bagged,
The lady led downstairs and out of doors
Guided and guarded till, the city passed,
A carriage lay convenient at the gate
Good-bye to the friendly Canon; the loving one
Could peradventure do the rest himself.
In jumps Pompilia, after her the priest,
“Whip, driver!—Money makes the mare to go,
“And we’ve a bagful. Take the Roman road!”
So said the neighbours. This was eight hours since.
Guido heard all, swore the befitting oaths,
Shook off the relics of his poison-drench,
Got horse, was fairly started in pursuit
With never a friend to follow, found the track
Fast enough, ’twas the straight Perugia way,
Trod soon upon their very heels, too late
By a minute only at Camoscia, at
Chiusi, Foligno, ever the fugitives
Just ahead, just out as he galloped in,
Getting the good news ever fresh and fresh,
Till, lo, at the last stage of all, last post
Before Rome,—as we say, in sight of Rome
And safety (there’s impunity at Rome
For priests, you know) at—what’s the little place?
What some call Castelnuovo, some just call
The Osteria, because o’ the post-house inn,
There, at the journey’s all but end, it seems,
Triumph deceived them and undid them both,
Secure they might foretaste felicity
Nor fear surprisal: so, they were surprised.
There did they halt at early evening, there
Did Guido overtake them: ’twas day-break;
He came in time enough, not time too much,
Since in the courtyard stood the Canon’s self
Urging the drowsy stable grooms to haste
Harness the horses, have the journey end,
The trifling four-hour’s-running, so reach Rome.
And the other runaway, the wife? Upstairs,
Still on the couch where she had spent the night,
One couch in one room, and one room for both.
So gained they six hours, so were lost thereby.
Sir, what’s the sequel? Lover and beloved
Fall on their knees? No impudence serves here?
They beat their breasts and beg for easy death,
Confess this, that, and the other?—anyhow
Confess there wanted not some likelihood
To the supposition as preposterous,
That, O Pompilia, thy sequestered eyes
Had noticed, straying o’er the prayer-book’s edge,
More of the Canon than that black his coat,
Buckled his shoes were, broad his hat of brim:
And that, O Canon, thy religious care
Had breathed too soft a benedicite
To banish trouble from a lady’s breast
So lonely and so lovely, nor so lean!
This you expect? Indeed, then, much you err.
Not to such ordinary end as this
Had Caponsacchi flung the cassock far,
Doffed the priest, donned the perfect cavalier;
The die was cast: over shoes over boots:
And just as she, I presently shall show,
Pompilia, soon looked Helen to the life,
Recumbent upstairs in her pink and white,
So, in the inn-yard, bold as ’twere Troy-town,
There strutted Paris in correct costume,
Cloak, cap and feather, no appointment missed,
Even to a wicked-looking sword at side,
He seemed to find and feel familiar at.
Nor wanted words as ready and as big
As the part he played, the bold abashless one.
“I interposed to save your wife from death,
“Yourself from shame, the true and only shame:
“Ask your own conscience else!—or, failing that,
“What I have done I answer, anywhere,
“Here, if you will; you see I have a sword:
“Or, since I have a tonsure as you taunt,
“At Rome, by all means,—priests to try a priest.
“Only, speak where your wife’s voice can reply!”
And then he fingered at the sword again.
So, Guido called, in aid and witness both,
The Public Force. The Commissary came,
Officers also; they secured the priest;
Then, for his more confusion, mounted up
With him, a guard on either side, the stair
To the bed-room where still slept or feigned a sleep
His paramour and Guido’s wife: in burst
The company and bade her wake and rise.
Her defence? This. She woke, saw, sprang upright
I’ the midst and stood as terrible as truth,
Sprang to her husband’s side, caught at the sword
That hung there useless, since they held each hand
O’ the lover, had disarmed him properly.
And in a moment out flew the bright thing
Full in the face of Guido,—but for help
O’ the guards who held her back and pinioned her
With pains enough, she had finished you my tale
With a flourish of red all round it, pinked her man
Prettily; but she fought them one to six.
They stopped that,—but her tongue continued free:
She spat forth such invective at her spouse,
O’erfrothed him with such foam of murderer,
Thief, pandar—that the popular tide soon turned,
The favour of the very sbirri, straight
Ebbed from the husband, set toward his wife,
People cried “Hands off, pay a priest respect!”
And “persecuting fiend” and “martyred saint”
Began to lead a measure from lip to lip.
But facts are facts and flinch not; stubborn things,
And the question “Prithee, friend, how comes my purse
“I’ the poke of you?”—admits of no reply.
Here was a priest found out in masquerade,
A wife caught playing truant if no more;
While the Count, mortified in mien enough,
And, nose to face, an added palm in length,
Was plain writ “husband” every piece of him:
Capture once made, release could hardly be.
Beside, the prisoners both made appeal,
“Take us to Rome!”
Taken to Rome they were;
The husband trooping after, piteously,
Tail between legs, no talk of triumph now—
No honour set firm on its feet once more
On two dead bodies of the guilty,—nay,
No dubious salve to honour’s broken pate
From chance that, after all, the hurt might seem
A skin-deep matter, scratch that leaves no scar:
For Guido’s first search,—ferreting, poor soul,
Here, there, and everywhere in the vile place
Abandoned to him when their backs were turned,
Found,—furnishing a last and best regale,—
All the love-letters bandied twixt the pair
Since the first timid trembling into life
O’ the love-star till its stand at fiery full.
Mad prose, mad verse, fears, hopes, triumph, despair,
Avowal, disclaimer, plans, dates, names;—was nought
Wanting to prove, if proof consoles at all,
That this had been but the fifth act o’ the piece
Whereof the due proemium, months ago
These playwrights had put forth, and ever since
Matured the middle, added ’neath his nose.
He might go cross himself: the case was clear.
Therefore to Rome with the clear case; there plead
Each party its best, and leave the law do right,
Let her shine forth and show, as God in heaven,
Vice prostrate, virtue pedestalled at last,
The triumph of truth! What else shall glad our gaze
When once authority has knit the brow
And set the brain behind it to decide
Between the wolf and sheep turned litigants?
“This is indeed a business” law shook head:
“A husband charges hard things on a wife,
“The wife as hard o’ the husband: whose fault here?
“A wife that flies her husband’s house, does wrong:
“The male friend’s interference looks amiss,
“Lends a suspicion: but suppose the wife,
“On the other hand, be jeopardised at home—
“Nay, that she simply hold, ill-groundedly,
“An apprehension she is jeopardised,—
“And further, if the friend partake the fear,
“And, in a commendable charity
“Which trusteth all, trust her that she mistrusts,—
“What do they but obey the natural law?
“Pretence may this be and a cloak for sin,
“And circumstances that concur i’ the close
“Hint as much, loudly—yet scarce loud enough
“To drown the answer ‘strange may yet be true:’
“Innocence often looks like guiltiness.
“The accused declare that in thought, word, and deed,
“Innocent were they both from first to last
“As male-babe haply laid by female-babe
“At church on edge of the baptismal font
“Together for a minute, perfect-pure.
“Difficult to believe, yet possible,
“As witness Joseph, the friend’s patron-saint.
“The night at the inn—there charity nigh chokes
“Ere swallow what they both asseverate;
“Though down the gullet faith may feel it go,
“When mindful of what flight fatigued the flesh
“Out of its faculty and fleshliness,
“Subdued it to the soul, as saints assure:
“So long a flight necessitates a fall
“On the first bed, though in a lion’s den.
“And the first pillow, though the lion’s back:
“Difficult to believe, yet possible.
“Last come the letter’s bundled beastliness—
“Authority repugns give glance to twice,
“Turns head, and almost lets her whip-lash fall;
“Yet here a voice cries ‘Respite!’ from the clouds—
“The accused, both in a tale, protest, disclaim,
“Abominate the horror: ‘Not my hand’
“Asserts the friend—‘Nor mine’ chimes in the wife,
“‘Seeing I have no hand, nor write at all.’
“Illiterate—for she goes on to ask,
“What if the friend did pen now verse now prose,
“Commend it to her notice now and then?
“’Twas pearls to swine: she read no more than wrote,
“And kept no more than read, for as they fell
“She ever brushed the burr-like things away,
“Or, better, burned them, quenched the fire in smoke.
“As for this fardel, filth, and foolishness,
“She sees it now the first time: burn it too!
“While for his part the friend vows ignorance
“Alike of what bears his name and bear hers:
“’Tis forgery, a felon’s masterpiece,
“And, as ’tis the fox still finds the stench,
“Home-manufacturer and the husband’s work.
“Though he confesses, the ingenuous friend,
“That certain missives, letters of a sort,
“Flighty and feeble, which assigned themselves
“To the wife, no less have fallen, far too oft,
“In his path: wherefrom he understood just this—
“That were they verily the lady’s own,
“Why, she who penned them, since he never saw
“Save for one minute the mere face of her,
“Since never had there been the interchange
“Of word with word between them all their life,
“Why, she must be the fondest of the frail,
“And fit she for the ‘apage’ he flung,
“Her letters for the flame they went to feed.
“But, now he sees her face and hears her speech,
“Much he repents him if, in fancy-freak
“For a moment the minutest measurable,
“He coupled her with the first flimsy word
“O’ the self-spun fabric some mean spider-soul
“Furnished forth: stop his films and stamp on him!
“Never was such a tangled knottiness,
“But thus authority cuts the Gordian through,
“And mark how her decision suits the need!
“Here’s troublesomeness, scandal on both sides,
“Plenty of fault to find, no absolute crime:
“Let each side own its fault and make amends!
“What does a priest in cavalier’s attire
“Consorting publicly with vagrant wives
“In quarters close as the confessional
“Though innocent of harm? ’Tis harm enough:
“Let him pay it, and be relegate a good
“Three years, to spend in some place not too far
“Nor yet too near, midway twixt near and far,
“Rome and Arezzo,—Civita we choose,
“Where he may lounge away time, live at large,
“Find out the proper function of a priest,
“Nowise an exile,—that were punishment,
“But one our love thus keeps out of harm’s way
“Not more from the husband’s anger than, mayhap
“His own . . . say, indiscretion, waywardness,
“And wanderings when Easter eves grow warm.
“For the wife,—well, our best step to take with her,
“On her own showing, were to shift her root
“From the old cold shade and unhappy soil
“Into a generous ground that fronts the south:
“Where, since her callow soul, a-shiver late,
“Craved simply warmth and called mere passers-by
“To the rescue, she should have her fill of shine.
“Do house and husband hinder and not help?
“Why then, forget both and stay here at peace,
“Come into our community, enroll
“Herself along with those good Convertites,
“Those sinners saved, those Magdalens re-made,
“Accept their administration, well bestow
“Her body and patiently possess her soul,
“Until we see what better can be done.
“Last for the husband: if his tale prove true,
“Well is he rid of two domestic plagues—
“The wife that ailed, do whatsoever he would,
“And friend of hers that undertook the cure.
“See, what a double load we lift from breast!
“Off he may go, return, resume old life,
“Laugh at the priest here and Pompilia there
“In limbo each and punished for their pains,
“And grateful tell the inquiring neighbourhood—
“In Rome, no wrong but has its remedy.”
The case was closed. Now, am I fair or no
In what I utter? Do I state the facts,
Having forechosen a side? I promised you!
The Canon Caponsacchi, then, was sent
To change his garb, re-trim his tonsure, tie
The clerkly silk round, every plait correct,
Make the impressive entry on his place
Of relegation, thrill his Civita,
As Ovid, a like sufferer in the cause,
Planted a primrose-patch by Pontus: where,
What with much culture of the sonnet-stave
And converse with the aborigines,
Soft savagery of eyes unused to roll,
And hearts that all awry went pit-a-pat
And wanted setting right in charity,
What were a couple of years to while away?
Pompilia, as enjoined, betook herself
To the aforesaid Convertites, the sisterhood
In Via Lungara, where the light ones live,
Spin, pray, then sing like linnets o’er the flax.
“Anywhere, anyhow, out of my husband’s house
“Is heaven,” cried she,—was therefore suited so.
But for Count Guido Franceschini, he—
The injured man thus righted—found no heaven
I’ the house when he returned there, I engage,
Was welcomed by the city turned upside down
In a chorus of inquiry. “What, back,—you?
“And no wife? Left her with the Penitents?
“Ah, being young and pretty, ’twere a shame
“To have her whipped in public: leave the job
“To the priests who understand! Such priests as yours—
“(Pontifex Maximus whipped Vestals once)
“Our madcap Caponsacchi: think of him!
“So, he fired up, showed fight and skill of fence?
“Ay, you drew also, but you did not fight!
“The wiser, ’tis a word and a blow with him,
“True Caponsacchi, of old Head-i’-the-Sack
“That fought at Fiesole ere Florence was:
“He had done enough, to firk you were too much.
“And did the little lady menace you,
“Make at your breast with your own harmless sword?
“The spitfire! Well, thank God you’re safe and sound,
“Have kept the sixth commandment whether or no
“The lady broke the seventh: I only wish
“I were as saint-like, could contain me so.
“I am a sinner, I fear I should have left
“Sir Priest no nose-tip to turn up at me!”
You, Sir, who listen but interpose no word,
Ask yourself, had you borne a baiting thus?
Was it enough to make a wise man mad?
Oh, but I’ll have your verdict at the end!
Well, not enough, it seems: such mere hurt falls,
Frets awhile, and aches long, then less and less,
And so is done with. Such was not the scheme
O’ the pleasant Comparini: on Guido’s wound
Ever in due succession, drop by drop,
Came slow distilment from the alembic here
Set on to simmer by Canidian hate,
Corrosives keeping the man’s misery raw.
First fire-drop,—when he thought to make the best
O’ the bad, to wring from out the sentence passed,
Poor, pitiful, absurd although it were,
Yet what might eke him out result enough
And make it worth his while he had the right
And not the wrong i’ the matter judged at Rome.
Inadequate her punishment, no less
Punished in some slight sort his wife had been;
Then, punished for adultery, what else?
On such admitted crime he thought to seize,
And institute procedure in the courts
Which cut corruption of this kind from man,
Cast loose a wife proved loose and castaway:
He claimed in due form a divorce at least.
This claim was met now by a counterclaim:
Pompilia sought divorce from bed and board
Of Guido, whose outrageous cruelty,
Whose mother’s malice and whose brother’s hate
Were just the white o’ the charge, such dreadful depths
Blackened its centre,—hints of worse than hate,
Love from that brother, by that Guido’s guile,
That mother’s prompting. Such reply was made,
So was the engine loaded, wound up, sprung
On Guido, who received the bolt in breast;
But no less bore up, giddily perhaps.
He had the Abate Paolo still in Rome,
Brother and friend and fighter on his side:
They rallied in a measure, met the foe
Manlike, joined battle in the public courts,
As if to shame supine law from her sloth:
And waiting her award, let beat the while
Arezzo’s banter, Rome’s buffoonery,
On this ear and on that ear, deaf alike,
Safe from worse outrage. Let a scorpion nip,
And never mind till he contorts his tail!
But there was sting i’ the creature; thus it struck.
Guido had thought in his simplicity—
That lying declaration of remorse,
That story of the child which was no child
And motherhood no motherhood at all,
—That even this sin might have its sort of good
Inasmuch as no question could be more,
Call it false, call the story true, no claim
Of further parentage pretended now:
The parents had abjured all right, at least,
I’ the woman still his wife: to plead right now
Were to declare the abjuration false:
He was relieved from any fear henceforth
Their hands might touch, their breath defile again
Pompilia with his name upon her yet.
Well, no: the next news was, Pompilia’s health
Demanded change after full three long weeks
Spent in devotion with the Sisterhood,—
Rendering sojourn,—so the court opined,—
Too irksome, since the convent’s walls were high
And windows narrow, nor was air enough
Nor light enough, but all looked prison-like,
The last thing which had come in the court’s head.
Propose a new expedient therefore,—this!
She had demanded—had obtained indeed,
By intervention of whatever friends
Or perhaps lovers—(beauty in distress
In one whose tale is the town-talk beside,
Never lacks friendship’s arm about her neck)—
Not freedom, scarce remitted penalty,
Solely the transfer to some private place
Where better air, more light, new food might be—
Incarcerated (call it, all the same)
At some sure friend’s house she must keep inside,
Be found in at requirement fast enough,—
Domus pro carcere, in Roman style.
You keep the house i’ the main, as most men do
And all good women: but free otherwise,
Should friends arrive, to lodge and entertain.
And such a domum, such a dwelling-place,
Having all Rome to choose from, where chose she?
What house obtained Pompilia’s preference?
Why, just the Comparini’s—just, do you mark,
Theirs who renounced all part and lot in her
So long as Guido could be robbed thereby,
And only fell back on relationship
And found their daughter safe and sound again
So soon as that might stab him: yes, the pair
Who, as I told you, first had baited hook
With this poor gilded fly Pompilia-thing,
Then caught the fish, pulled Guido to the shore
And gutted him,—now found a further use
For the bait, would trail the gauze wings yet again
I’ the way of what new swimmer passed their stand.
They took Pompilia to their hiding-place—
Not in the heart of Rome as formerly,
Under observance, subject to control—
But out o’ the way,—or in the way, who knows?
That blind mute villa lurking by the gate
At Via Paulina, not so hard to miss
By the honest eye, easy enough to find
In twilight by marauders: where perchance
Some muffled Caponsacchi might repair,
Employ odd moments when he too tried change,
Found that a friend’s abode was pleasanter
Than relegation, penance, and the rest.
Come, here’s the last drop does its worst to wound,
Here’s Guido poisoned to the bone, you say,
Your boasted still’s full strain and strength: not so!
One master-squeeze from screw shall bring to birth
The hoard i’ the heart o’ the toad, hell’s quintessence.
He learned the true convenience of the change,
And why a convent wants the cheerful hearts
And helpful hands which female straits require,
When, in the blind mute villa by the gate,
Pompilia—what? sang, danced, saw company?
—Gave birth, Sir, to a child, his son and heir,
Or Guido’s heir and Caponsacchi’s son.
I want your word now: what do you say to this?
What would say little Arezzo and great Rome,
And what did God say and the devil say
One at each ear o’ the man, the husband, now
The father? Why, the overburdened mind
Broke down, what was a brain became a blaze.
In fury of the moment—(that first news
Fell on the Count among his vines, it seems,
Doing his farm-work)—why, he summoned steward,
Called in the first four hard hands and stout hearts
From field and furrow, poured forth his appeal,
Not to Rome’s law and gospel any more,
But this clown with a mother or a wife,
That clodpole with a sister or a son:
And, whereas law and gospel held their peace,
What wonder if the sticks and stones cried out?
All five soon somehow found themselves at Rome,
At the villa door: there was the warmth and light—
The sense of life so just an inch inside—
Some angel must have whispered “One more chance!”
He gave it: bade the others stand aside:
Knocked at the door,—“Who is it knocks?” cried one.
“I will make,” surely Guido’s angel said,
“One final essay, last experiment,
“Speak the word, name the name from out all names
“Which, if,—as doubtless strong illusions are,
“And strange disguisings whence even truth seems false,
“And, for I am a man, I dare not do
“God’s work until assured I see with God,—
“If I should bring my lips to breathe that name
“And they be innocent,—nay, by one touch
“Of innocence redeemed from utter guilt,—
“That name will bar the door and bid fate pass,
“I will not say ‘It is a messenger,
“‘A neighbour, even a belated man,
“‘Much less your husband’s friend, your husband’s self:’
“At such appeal the door is bound to ope.
“But I will say”—here’s rhetoric and to spare!
Why, Sir, the stumbling-block is cursed and kicked,
Block though it be; the name that brought offence
Will bring offence: the burnt child dreads the fire
Although that fire feed on a taper-wick
Which never left the altar nor singed fly:
And had a harmless man tripped you by chance,
How would you wait him, stand or step aside,
When next you heard he rolled your way? Enough.
“Giuseppe Caponsacchi!” Guido cried;
And open flew the door: enough again.
Vengeance, you know, burst, like a mountain-wave
That holds a monster in it, over the house,
And wiped its filthy four walls free again
With a wash of hell-fire,—father, mother, wife,
Killed them all, bathed his name clean in their blood,
And, reeking so, was caught, his friends and he,
Haled hither and imprisoned yesternight
O’ the day all this was.
Now the whole is known,
And how the old couple come to lie in state
Though hacked to pieces,—never, the experts say,
So thorough a study of stabbing—while the wife
Viper-like, very difficult to slay,
Writhes still through every ring of her, poor wretch,
At the Hospital hard by—survives, we’ll hope,
To somewhat purify her putrid soul
By full confession, make so much amends
While time lasts; since at day’s end die she must.
For Caponsacchi,—why, they’ll have him here,
The hero of the adventure, who so fit
To tell it in the coming Carnival?
’Twill make the fortune of whate’er saloon
Hears him recount, with helpful cheek, and eye
Hotly indignant now, now dewy-dimmed,
The incidents of flight, pursuit, surprise,
Capture, with hints of kisses all between—
While Guido, the most unromantic spouse,
No longer fit to laugh at since the blood
Gave the broad farce an all too brutal air,
Why, he and those our luckless friends of his
May tumble in the straw this bitter day—
Laid by the heels i’ the New Prison, I hear,
To bide their trial, since trial, and for the life,
Follows if but for form’s sake: yes, indeed!
But with a certain issue: no dispute,
“Try him,” bids law: formalities oblige:
But as to the issue,—look me in the face!—
If the law thinks to find them guilty, Sir,
Master or men—touch one hair of the five,
Then I say in the name of all that’s left
Of honour in Rome, civility i’ the world
Whereof Rome boasts herself the central source,—
There’s an end to all hope of justice more.
Astræa’s gone indeed, let hope go too!
Who is it dares impugn the natural law?
Deny God’s word “the faithless wife shall die?”
What, are we blind? How can we fail to see,
This crowd of miseries make the man a mark,
Accumulate on one devoted head
For our example, yours and mine who read
Its lesson thus—“Henceforward let none dare
“Stand, like a natural in the public way,
“Letting the very urchins twitch his beard
“And tweak his nose, to earn a nickname so,
“Of the male-Grissel or the modern Job!”
Had Guido, in the twinkling of an eye,
Summed up the reckoning, promptly paid himself,
That morning when he came up with the pair
At the wayside inn,—exacted his just debt
By aid of what first mattock, pitchfork, axe
Came to hand in the helpful stable-yard,
And with that axe, if providence so pleased,
Cloven each head, by some Rolando-stroke,
In one clean cut from crown to clavicle,
—Slain the priest-gallant, the wife-paramour,
Sticking, for all defence, in each skull’s cleft
The rhyme and reason of the stroke thus dealt,
To-wit, those letters and last evidence
Of shame, each package in its proper place,—
Bidding, who pitied, undistend the skulls,—
I say, the world had praised the man. But no!
That were too plain, too straight, too simply just!
He hesitates, calls law forsooth to help.
And law, distasteful to who calls in law
When honour is beforehand and would serve,
What wonder if law hesitate in turn,
Plead her disuse to calls o’ the kind, reply
Smiling a little “’Tis yourself assess
“The worth of what’s lost, sum of damage done:
“What you touched with so light a finger-tip,
“You whose concern it was to grasp the thing,
“Why must law gird herself and grapple with?
“Law, alien to the actor whose warm blood
“Asks heat from law whose veins run lukewarm milk,—
“What you dealt lightly with, shall law make out
Sir, what’s the good of law
In a case o’ the kind? None, as she all but says.
Call in law when a neighbour breaks your fence,
Cribs from your field, tampers with rent or lease,
Touches the purse or pocket,—but wooes your wife?
No: take the old way trod when men were men!
Guido preferred the new path,—for his pains,
Stuck in a quagmire, floundered worse and worse
Until he managed somehow scramble back
Into the safe sure rutted road once more,
Revenged his own wrong like a gentleman.
Once back ’mid the familiar prints, no doubt
He made too rash amends for his first fault,
Vaulted too loftily over what barred him late,
And lit i’ the mire again,—the common chance,
The natural over-energy: the deed
Maladroit yields three deaths instead of one,
And one life left: for where’s the Canon’s corpse?
All which is the worse for Guido, but, be frank—
The better for you and me and all the world,
Husbands of wives, especially in Rome.
The thing is put right, in the old place,—ay,
The rod hangs on its nail behind the door,
Fresh from the brine: a matter I commend
To the notice, during Carnival that’s near,
Of a certain what’s-his-name and jackanapes
Somewhat too civil of eves with lute and song
About a house here, where I keep a wife.
(You, being his cousin, may go tell him so.)