ANOTHER DAY that finds her living yet,
Little Pompilia, with the patient brow
And lamentable smile on those poor lips,
And, under the white hospital-array,
A flower-like body, to frighten at a bruise
You’d think, yet now, stabbed through and through again,
Alive i’ the ruins. ’Tis a miracle.
It seems that, when her husband struck her first,
She prayed Madonna just that she might live
So long as to confess and be absolved;
And whether it was that, all her sad life long,
Never before successful in a prayer,
This prayer rose with authority too dread,—
Or whether, because earth was hell to her,
By compensation, when the blackness broke
She got one glimpse of quiet and the cool blue,
To show her for a moment such things were,—
Or else,—as the Augustinian Brother thinks,
The friar who took confession from her lip,—
When a probationary soul that moves
From nobleness to nobleness, as she,
Over the rough way of the world, succumbs,
Bloodies its last thorn with unflinching foot,
The angels love to do their work betimes,
Staunch some wounds here nor leave so much for God.
Who knows? However it be, confessed, absolved,
She lies, with overplus of life beside
To speak and right herself from first to last,
Right the friend also, lamb-pure, lion-brave,
Care for the boy’s concerns, to save the son
From the sire, her two-weeks’ infant orphaned thus,
And—with best smile of all reserved for him—
Pardon that sire and husband from the heart.
A miracle, so tell your Molinists!
There she lies in the long white lazar-house.
Rome has besieged, these two days, never doubt,
Saint Anna’s where she waits her death, to hear
Though but the chink o’ the bell, turn o’ the hinge
When the reluctant wicket opes at last,
Lets in, on now this and now that pretence,
Too many by half,—complain the men of art,—
For a patient in such plight. The lawyers first
Paid the due visit—justice must be done;
They took her witness, why the murder was;
Then the priests followed properly,—a soul
To shrive; ’twas Brother Celestine’s own right,
The same who noises thus her gifts abroad:
But many more, who found they were old friends,
Pushed in to have their stare and take their talk
And go forth boasting of it and to boast.
Old Monna Baldi chatters like a jay,
Swears—but that, prematurely trundled out
Just as she felt the benefit begin,
The miracle was snapped up by somebody,—
Her palsied limb ’gan prick and promise life
At touch o’ the bedclothes merely,—how much more
Had she but brushed the body as she tried!
Cavalier Carlo—well, there’s some excuse
For him—Maratta who paints Virgins so—
He too must fee the porter and slip by
With pencil cut and paper squared, and straight
There was he figuring away at face—
“A lovelier face is not in Rome,” cried he,
“Shaped like a peacock’s egg, the pure as pearl,
“That hatches you anon a snow-white chick.”
Then, oh that pair of eyes, that pendent hair,
Black this, and black the other! Mighty fine—
But nobody cared ask to paint the same,
Nor grew a poet over hair and eyes
Four little years ago when, ask and have,
The woman who wakes all this rapture leaned
Flower-like from out her window long enough,
As much uncomplimented as uncropped
By comers and goers in Via Vittoria: eh?
’Tis just a flower’s fate: past parterre we trip,
Till peradventure some one plucks our sleeve—
“Yon blossom at the briar’s end, that’s the rose
“Two jealous people fought for yesterday
“And killed each other: see, there’s undisturbed
“A pretty pool at the root, of rival red!”
Then cry we, “Ah, the perfect paragon!”
Then crave we, “Just one keepsake-leaf for us!”
Truth lies between: there’s anyhow a child
Of seventeen years, whether a flower or weed,
Ruined: who did it shall account to Christ—
Having no pity on the harmless life
And gentle face and girlish form he found,
And thus flings back: go practise if you please
With men and women: leave a child alone
For Christ’s particular love’s sake!—so I say.
Somebody, at the bedside, said much more,
Took on him to explain the secret cause
O’ the crime: quoth he, “Such crimes are very rife,
“Explode nor make us wonder now-a-days,
“Seeing that Antichrist disseminates
“That doctrine of the Philosophic Sin:
“Molinos’ sect will soon make earth too hot!”
“Nay,” groaned the Augustinian, “what’s there new?
“Crime will not fail to flare up from men’s hearts
“While hearts are men’s and so born criminal
“Which one fact, always old yet ever new,
“Accounts for so much crime that, for my part,
“Molinos may go whistle to the wind
“That waits outside a certain church, you know!”
Though really it does seem as if she here,
Pompilia, living so and dying thus,
Has undue experience how much crime
A heart can hatch. Why was she made to learn
—Not you, not I, not even Molinos’ self—
What Guido Franceschini’s heart could hold?
Thus saintship is effected probably;
No sparing saints the process!—which the more
Tends to the reconciling us, no saints,
To sinnership, immunity and all.
For see now: Pietro and Violante’s life
Till seventeen years ago, all Rome might note
And quote for happy—see the signs distinct
Of happiness as we yon Triton’s trump.
What could they be but happy?—balanced so,
Nor low i’ the social scale nor yet too high,
Nor poor nor richer than comports with ease,
Nor bright and envied, nor obscure and scorned,
Nor so young that their pleasures fell too thick,
Nor old past catching pleasure when it fell,
Nothing above, below the just degree,
All at the mean where joy’s components mix.
So again, in the couple’s very souls
You saw the adequate half with half to match,
Each having and each lacking somewhat, both
Making a whole that had all and lacked nought;
The round and sound, in whose composure just
The acquiescent and recipient side
Was Pietro’s, and the stirring striving one
Violante’s: both in union gave the due
Quietude, enterprise, craving and content,
Which go to bodily health and peace of mind.
But, as ’tis said a body, rightly mixed,
Each element in equipoise, would last
Too long and live for ever,—accordingly
Holds a germ—sand-grain weight too much i’ the scale—
Ordained to get predominance one day
And so bring all to ruin and release,—
Not otherwise a fatal germ lurked here:
“With mortals much must go, but something stays;
“Nothing will stay of our so happy selves.”
Out of the very ripeness of life’s core
A worm was bred—“Our life shall leave no fruit.”
Enough of bliss, they thought, could bliss bear seed,
Yield its like, propagate a bliss in turn
And keep the kind up; not supplant themselves
But put in evidence, record they were,
Show them, when done with, i’ the shape of a child.
“’Tis in a child, man and wife grow complete,
“One flesh: God says so: let him do his work!”
Now, one reminder of this gnawing want,
One special prick o’ the maggot at the core,
Always befell when, as the day came round,
A certain yearly sum,—our Pietro being,
As the long name runs, an usufructuary,—
Dropped in the common bag as interest
Of money, his till death, not afterward,
Failing an heir: an heir would take and take,
A child of theirs be wealthy in their place
To nobody’s hurt—the stranger else seized all.
Prosperity rolled river-like and stopped,
Making their mill go; but when wheel wore out,
The wave would find a space and sweep on free
And, half-a-mile off, grind some neighbour’s corn.
Adam-like, Pietro sighed and said no more:
Eve saw the apple was fair and good to taste,
So, plucked it, having asked the snake advice.
She told her husband God was merciful,
And his and her prayer granted at the last:
Let the old mill-stone moulder,—wheel unworn,
Quartz from the quarry, shot into the stream
Adroitly, should go bring grist as before—
Their house continued to them by an heir,
Their vacant heart replenished with a child.
We have her own confession at full length
Made in the first remorse: ’twas Jubilee
Pealed in the ear o’ the conscience and it woke.
She found she had offended God no doubt,
So much was plain from what had happened since,
Misfortune on misfortune; but she harmed
No one i’ the world, so far as she could see.
The act had gladdened Pietro to the height,
Her husband—God himself must gladden so
Or not at all—(thus much seems probable
From the implicit faith, or rather say
Stupid credulity of the foolish man
Who swallowed such a tale nor strained a whit
Even at his wife’s far-over-fifty years
Matching his sixty-and-under.) Him she blessed,
And as for doing any detriment,
To the veritable heir,—why, tell her first
Who was he? Which of all the hands held up
I’ the crowd, would one day gather round their gate,
Did she so wrong by intercepting thus
The ducat, spendthrift fortune thought to fling
For a scramble just to make the mob break shins?
She kept it, saved them kicks and cuffs thereby.
While at the least one good work had she wrought,
Good, clearly and incontestably! Her cheat—
What was it to its subject, the child’s self,
But charity and religion? See the girl!
A body most like—a soul too probably—
Doomed to death, such a double death as waits
The illicit offspring of a common trull,
Sure to resent and forthwith rid herself
Of a mere interruption to sin’s trade,
In the efficacious way old Tiber knows.
Was not so much proved by the ready sale
O’ the child, glad transfer of this irksome chance?
Well then, she had caught up this castaway:
This fragile egg, some careless wild bird dropped,
She had picked from where it waited the foot-fall,
And put in her own breast till forth broke finch
Able to sing God praise on mornings now.
What so excessive harm was done?—she asked.
To which demand the dreadful answer comes—
For that same deed, now at Lorenzo’s church,
Both agents, conscious and inconscious, lie;
While she, the deed was done to benefit,
Lies also, the most lamentable of things,
Yonder where curious people count her breaths,
Calculate how long yet the little life
Unspilt may serve their turn nor spoil the show,
Give them their story, then the church its group.
Well, having gained Pompilia, the girl grew
I’ the midst of Pietro here, Violante there,
Each, like a semicircle with stretched arms,
Joining the other round her preciousness—
Two walls that go about a garden-plot
Where a chance sliver, branchlet slipt from bole
Of some tongue-leaved eye-figured Eden tree,
Filched by two exiles and borne far away,
Patiently glorifies their solitude,—
Year by year mounting, grade by grade surmounts
The builded brick-work, yet is compassed still,
Still hidden happily and shielded safe,—
Else why should miracle have graced the ground?
But on the twelfth sun that brought April there
What meant that laugh? The coping-stone was reached;
Nay, a light tuft of bloom towered above
To be toyed with by butterfly or bee,
Done good to or else harm to from outside:
Pompilia’s root, stem, and a branch or two
Home enclosed still, the rest would be the world’s.
All which was taught our couple though obtuse,
Since walls have ears, when one day brought a priest,
Smooth-mannered soft-speeched sleek-cheeked visitor,
The notable Abate Paolo—known
As younger brother of a Tuscan house
Whereof the actual representative,
Count Guido, had employd his youth and age
In culture of Rome’s most productive plant—
A cardinal: but years pass and change comes,
In token of which, here was our Paolo brought
To broach a weighty business. Might he speak?
Yes—to Violante somehow caught alone
While Pietro took his after-dinner doze,
And the young maiden, busily as befits,
Minded her broider-frame three chambers off.
So—giving now his great flap-hat a gloss
With flat o’ the hand between-whiles, soothing now
The silk from out its creases o’er the calf,
Setting the stocking clerical again,
But never disengaging, once engaged,
The thin clear grey hold of his eyes on her—
He dissertated on that Tuscan house,
Those Franceschini,—very old they were—
Not rich however—oh, not rich, at least,
As people look to be who, low i’ the scale
One way, have reason, rising all they can
By favour of the money-bag: ’tis fair—
Do all gifts go together? But don’t suppose
That being not so rich means all so poor!
Say rather, well enough—i’ the way, indeed,
Ha, ha, to better fortune than the best,
Since if his brother’s patron-friend kept faith,
Put into promised play the Cardinalate,
Their house might wear the red cloth that keeps warm,
Would but the Count have patience—there’s the point!
For he was slipping into years apace,
And years make men restless—they needs must see
Some certainty, some sort of end assured,
Sparkle, tho’ from the topmost beacon-tip
That warrants life a harbour through the haze.
In short, call him fantastic as you choose,
Guido was home-sick, yearned for the old sights
And usual faces,—fain would settle himself
And have the patron’s bounty when it fell
Irrigate far rather than deluge near,
Go fertilise Arezzo, not flood Rome.
Sooth to say, ’twas the wiser wish: the Count
Proved wanting in ambition,—let us avouch,
Since truth is best,—in callousness of heart,
Winced at those pin-pricks whereby honours hang
A ribbon o’er each puncture: his—no soul
Ecclesiastic (here the hat was brushed)
Humble but self-sustaining, calm and cold,
Having, as one who puts his hand to the plough,
Renounced the over-vivid family-feel—
Poor brother Guido! All too plain, he pined
Amid Rome’s pomp and glare for dinginess
And that dilapidated palace-shell
Vast as a quarry and, very like, as bare—
Since to this comes old grandeur now-a-days—
Or that absurd wild villa in the waste
O’ the hill side, breezy though, for who likes air,
Vittiano, nor unpleasant with its vines,
Outside the city and the summer heats.
And now his harping on this one tense chord
The villa and the palace, palace this
And villa the other, all day and all night
Creaked like the implacable cicala’s cry
And made one’s ear-drum ache: nought else would serve
But that, to light his mother’s visage up
With second youth, hope, gaiety again,
He must find straightway, woo and haply win
And bear away triumphant back, some wife.
Well now, the man was rational in his way—
He, the Abate,—ought he to interpose?
Unless by straining still his tutelage
(Priesthood leaps over elder-brothership)
Across this difficulty: then let go,
Leave the poor fellow in peace! Would that be wrong?
There was no making Guido great, it seems,
Spite of himself: then happy be his dole!
Indeed, the Abate’s little interest
Was somewhat nearly touched i’ the case, they saw:
Since if his simple kinsman so were bent,
Began his rounds in Rome to catch a wife,
Full soon would such unworldliness surprise
The rare bird, sprinkle salt on phœnix’ tail,
And so secure the nest a sparrow-hawk.
No lack of mothers here in Rome,—no dread
Of daughters lured as larks by looking-glass!
The first name-pecking credit-scratching fowl
Would drop her unfledged cuckoo in our nest
To gather greyness there, give voice at length
And shame the brood . . but it was long ago
When crusades were, and we sent eagles forth!
No, that at least the Abate could forestall.
He read the thought within his brother’s word,
Knew what he purposed better than himself.
We want no name and fame—having our own:
No worldly aggrandisement—such we fly:
But if some wonder of a woman’s-heart
Were yet untainted on this grimy earth,
Tender and true—tradition tells of such—
Prepared to pant in time and tune with ours—
If some good girl (a girl, since she must take
The new bent, live new life, adopt new modes)
Not wealthy—Guido for his rank was poor—
But with whatever dowry came to hand,
There were the lady-love predestinate!
And somehow the Abate’s guardian eye—
Scintillant, rutilant, fraternal fire,—
Roving round every way had seized the prize
—The instinct of us, we, the spiritualty!
Come, cards on table; was it true or false
That here—here in this very tenement—
Yea, Via Vittoria did a marvel hide,
Lily of a maiden, white with intact leaf
Guessed thro’ the sheath that saved it from the sun?
A daughter with the mother’s hands still clasped
Over her head for fillet virginal,
A wife worth Guido’s house and hand and heart?
He came to see; had spoken, he could no less—
(A final cherish of the stockinged calf)
If harm were,—well, the matter was off his mind.
Then with the great air did he kiss, devout,
Violante’s hand, and rise up his whole height
(A certain purple gleam about the black)
And go forth grandly,—as if the Pope came next.
And so Violante rubbed her eyes awhile,
Got up too, walked to wake her Pietro soon
And pour into his ear the mighty news
How somebody had somehow somewhere seen
Their tree-top-tuft of bloom above the wall,
And came now to apprise them the tree’s self
Was no such crab-sort as should feed the swine,
But veritable gold, the Hesperian ball
Ordained for Hercules to haste and pluck,
And bear and give the Gods to banquet with—
Hercules standing ready at the door.
Whereon did Pietro rub his eyes in turn,
Look very wise, a little woeful too,
Then, periwig on head, and cane in hand,
Sally forth dignifiedly into the Square
Of Spain across Babbuino the six steps,
Toward the Boat-fountain where our idlers lounge,—
Ask, for form’s sake, who Hercules might be,
And have congratulation from the world.
Heartily laughed the world in his fool’s-face
And told him Hercules was just the heir
To the stubble once a corn-field, and brick-heap
Where used to be a dwelling-place now burned.
Guido and Franceschini; a Count,—ay:
But a cross i’ the poke to bless the Countship? No!
All gone except sloth, pride, rapacity,
Humours of the imposthume incident
To rich blood that runs thin,—nursed to a head
By the rankly-salted soil—a cardinal’s court
Where, parasite and picker-up of crumbs,
He had hung on long, and now, let go, said some,
But shaken off, said others,—in any case
Tired of the trade and something worse for wear,
Was wanting to change town for country quick,
Go home again: let Pietro help him home!
The brother, Abate Paolo, shrewder mouse,
Had pricked for comfortable quarters, inched
Into the core of Rome, and fattened so;
But Guido, over-burly for rat’s hole
Suited to clerical slimness, starved outside,
Must shift for himself: and so the shift was this!
What, was the snug retreat of Pietro tracked,
The little provision for his old age snuffed?
“Oh, make your girl a lady, an you list,
“But have more mercy on our wit than vaunt
“Your bargain as we burgesses who brag!
“Why, Goodman Dullard, if a friend must speak,
“Would the Count, think you, stoop to you and yours
“Were there the value of one penny-piece
“To rattle ’twixt his palms—or likelier laugh,
“Bid your Pompilia help you black his shoe?”
Home again, shaking oft the puzzled pate,
Went Pietro to announce a change indeed,
Yet point Violante where some solace lay
Of a rueful sort,—the taper, quenched so soon,
Had ended merely in a snuff, not stink—
Congratulate there was one hope the less
Not misery the more: and so an end.
The marriage thus impossible, the rest
Followed: our spokesman, Paolo, heard his fate,
Resignedly Count Guido bore the blow:
Violante wiped away the transient tear,
Renounced the playing Danae to gold dreams,
Praised much her Pietro’s prompt sagaciousness,
Found neighbours’ envy natural, lightly laughed
At gossips’ malice, fairly wrapped herself
In her integrity three folds about,
And, letting pass a little day or two,
Threw, even over that integrity,
Another wrappage, namely one thick veil
That hid her, matron-wise, from head to foot,
And, by the hand holding a girl veiled too,
Stood, one dim end of a December day,
In Saint Lorenzo on the altar-step—
Just where she lies now and that girl will lie—
Only with fifty candles’ company
Now—in the place of the poor winking one
Which saw,—doors shut and sacristan made sure,—
A priest—perhaps Abate Paolo—wed
Guido clandestinely, irrevocably
To his Pompilia aged thirteen years
And five months,—witness the church register,—
Pompilia (thus become Count Guido’s wife
Clandestinely, irrevocably his),
Who all the while had borne, from first to last,
As brisk a part i’ the bargain, as yon lamb,
Brought forth from basket and set out for sale,
Bears while they chaffer, wary market-man
And voluble housewife, o’er it,—each in turn
Patting the curly calm inconscious head,
With the shambles ready round the corner there,
When the talk’s talked out and a bargain struck.
Transfer complete, why, Pietro was apprised.
Violante sobbed the sobs and prayed the prayers
And said the serpent tempted so she fell,
Till Pietro had to clear his brow apace
And make the best of matters: wrath at first,—
How else? pacification presently,
Why not?—could flesh withstand the impurpled one,
The very Cardinal, Paolo’s patron-friend?
Who, justifiably surnamed “a hinge,”
Knew where the mollifying oil should drop
To cure the creak o’ the valve,—considerate
For frailty, patient in a naughty world,
He even volunteered to supervise
The rough draught of those marriage-articles
Signed in a hurry by Pietro, since revoked:
Trust’s politic, suspicion does the harm,
There is but one way to brow-beat this world,
Dumbfounder doubt, and repay scorn in kind,—
To go on trusting, namely, till faith move Mountains.
And faith here made the mountains move.
Why, friends whose zeal cried “Caution ere too late!”—
Bade “Pause ere jump, with both feet joined, on slough!—
Counselled “If rashness then, now temperance!”—
Heard for their pains that Pietro had closed eyes,
Jumped and was in the middle of the mire,
Money and all, just what should sink a man.
By the mere marriage, Guido gained forthwith
Dowry, his wife’s right; no rescinding there:
But Pietro, why must he needs ratify
One gift Violante gave, pay down one doit
Promised in first fool’s-flurry? Grasp the bag
Lest the son’s service flag,—is reason and rhyme,
Above all when the son’s a son-in-law.
Words to the wind! The parents cast their lot
Into the lap o’ the daughter: and the son
Now with a right to lie there, took what fell,
Pietro’s whole having and holding, house and field,
Goods, chattels and effects, his worldly worth
Present and in perspective, all renounced
In favour of Guido. As for the usufruct—
The interest now, the principal anon,
Would Guido please to wait, at Pietro’s death:
Till when, he must support the couple’s charge,
Bear with them, housemates, pensionaries, pawned
To an alien for fulfilment of their pact.
Guido should at discretion deal them orts,
Bread-bounty in Arezzo the strange place,—
They who had lived deliciously and rolled
Rome’s choicest comfit ’neath the tongue before.
Into this quag, “jump” bade the Cardinal!
And neck-deep in a minute there flounced they.
But they touched bottom at Arezzo: there—
Four months’ experience of how craft and greed,
Quickened by penury and pretentious hate
Of plain truth, brutify and bestialise,—
Four months’ taste of apportioned insolence,
Cruelty graduated, dose by dose
Of ruffianism dealt out at bed and board,
And lo, the work was done, success clapped hands.
The starved, stripped, beaten brace of stupid dupes
Broke at last in their desperation loose,
Fled away for their lives, and lucky so;
Found their account in casting coat afar
And bearing off a shred of skin at least:
Left Guido lord o’ the prey, as the lion is,
And, careless what came after, carried their wrongs
To Rome,—I nothing doubt, with such remorse
As folly feels, since pain can make it wise,
But crime, past wisdom, which is innocence,
Needs not be plagued with till a later day.
Pietro went back to beg from door to door,
In hope that memory not quite extinct
Of cheery days and festive nights would move
Friends and acquaintance—after the natural laugh,
And tributary “Just as we foretold—”
To show some bowels, give the dregs o’ the cup,
Scraps of the trencher, to their host that was,
Or let him share the mat with the mastiff, he
Who lived large and kept open house so long.
Not so Violante: ever a-head i’ the march,
Quick at the bye-road and the cut-across,
She went first to the best adviser, God—
Whose finger unmistakably was felt
In all this retribution of the past.
Here was the prize of sin, luck of a lie!
But here too was the Holy Year would help,
Bound to rid sinners of sin vulgar, sin
Abnormal, sin prodigious, up to sin
Impossible and supposed for Jubilee’ sake:
To lift the leadenest of lies, let soar
The soul unhampered by a feather-weight.
“I will,” said she, “go burn out this bad hole
“That breeds the scorpion, baulk the plague at least
“Its hope of further creeping progeny:
“I will confess my fault, be punished, yes,
“But pardoned too: Saint Peter pays for all.”
So, with the crowd she mixed, made for the dome,
Through the great door new-broken for the nonce
Marched, muffled more than ever matron-wise,
Up the left nave to the formidable throne,
Fell into file with this the poisoner
And that the parricide, and reached in turn
The poor repugnant Penitentiary
Set at this gully-hole o’ the world’s discharge
To help the frightfullest of filth have vent,
And then knelt down and whispered in his ear
How she had bought Pompilia, palmed the babe
On Pietro, passed the girl off as their child
To Guido, and defrauded of his due
This one and that one,—more than she could name,
Until her solid piece of wickedness
Happened to split and spread woe far and wide:
Contritely now she brought the case for cure.
Replied the throne—“Ere God forgive the guilt,
“Make man some restitution! Do your part!
“The owners of your husband’s heritage,
“Barred thence by this pretended birth and heir,—
“Tell them, the bar came so, is broken so,
“Theirs be the due reversion as before!
“Your husband who, no partner in the guilt,
“Suffers the penalty, led blindfold thus
“By love of what he thought his flesh and blood
“To alienate his all in her behalf,—
“Tell him too such contract is null and void!
“Last, he who personates your son-in-law,
“Who with sealed eyes and stopped ears, tame and mute,
“Took at your hand that bastard of a whore
“You called your daughter and he calls his wife,—
“Tell him, and bear the anger which is just!
“Then, penance so performed, may pardon be!”
Who could gainsay this just and right award?
Nobody in the world: but, out o’ the world,
Who knows?—might timid intervention be
From any makeshift of an angel-guide,
Substitute for celestial guardianship,
Pretending to take care of the girl’s self:
“Woman, confessing crime is healthy work,
“And telling truth relieves a liar like you,
“But what of her my unconsidered charge?
“No thought of, while this good befalls yourself,
“What in the way of harm may find out her?”
No least thought, I assure you: truth being truth,
Tell it and shame the devil!
Said and done:
Home went Violante and disbosomed all:
And Pietro who, six months before, had borne
Word after word of such a piece of news
Like so much cold steel inched through his breast-blade,
Now at its entry gave a leap for joy,
As who—what did I say of one in a quag?—
Should catch a hand from heaven and spring thereby
Out of the mud, on ten toes stand once more.
“What? All that used to be, may be again?
“My money mine again, my house, my land,
“My chairs and tables, all mine evermore?
“What, the girl’s dowry never was the girl’s,
“And, unpaid yet, is never now to pay?
“Then the girl’s self, my pale Pompilia child
“That used to be my own with her great eyes—
“He who drove us forth, why should he keep her
“When proved as very a pauper as himself?
“Will she come back, with nothing changed at all,
“And laugh ‘But how you dreamed uneasily!
“‘I saw the great drops stand here on your brow—
“‘Did I do wrong to wake you with a kiss?’
“No, indeed, darling! No, for wide awake
“I see another outburst of surprise:
“The lout-lord, bully-beggar, braggart-sneak,
“Who not content with cutting purse, crops ear—
“Assuredly it shall be salve to mine
“When this great news red-letters him, the rogue!
“Ay, let him taste the teeth o’ the trap, this fox,
“Give us our lamb back, golden fleece and all,
“Let her creep in and warm our breasts again!
“What care for the past?—we three are our old selves,
“Who know now what the outside world is worth.”
And so, he carried case before the courts;
And there Violante, blushing to the bone,
Made public declaration of her fault,
Renounced her motherhood, and prayed the law
To interpose, frustrate of its effect
Her folly, and redress the injury done.
Whereof was the disastrous consequence,
That though indisputably clear the case
(For thirteen years are not so large a lapse,
And still six witnesses survived in Rome
To prove the truth o’ the tale)—yet, patent wrong
Seemed Guido’s; the first cheat had chanced on him:
Here was the pity that, deciding right,
Those who began the wrong would gain the good.
Guido pronounced the story one long lie
Lied to do robbery and take revenge:
Or say it were no lie at all but truth,
Then, it both robbed the right heirs and shamed him
Without revenge to humanise the deed:
What had he done when first they shamed him thus?
But that were too fantastic: losels they,
And leasing this world’s-wonder of a lie,
They lied to blot him though it brand themselves.
So answered Guido through the Abate’s mouth.
Wherefore the court, its customary way,
Inclined to the middle course the sage affect—
They held the child to be a changeling,—good:
But, lest the husband got no good thereby,
They willed the dowry, though not hers at all,
Should yet be his, if not by right then grace—
Part-payment for the plain injustice done.
But then, that other contract, Pietro’s work,
Renunciation of his own estate,
That must be cancelled—give him back his goods,
He was no party to the cheat at least!
So ran the judgment:—whence a prompt appeal
On both sides, seeing right is absolute.
Cried Pietro, “Is Pompilia not my child?
“Why give her my child’s dowry?”—“Have I right
“To the dowry, why not to the rest as well?”
Cried Guido, or cried Paolo in his name:
Till law said “Reinvestigate the case!”
And so the matter pends, unto this day.
Hence new disaster—that no outlet seemed;
Whatever the fortune of the battle-field,
No path whereby the fatal man might march
Victorious, wreath on head and spoils in hand,
And back turned full upon the baffled foe,—
Nor cranny whence, desperate and disgraced,
Stripped to the skin, he might be fain to crawl
Worm- like, and so away with his defeat
To other fortune and the novel prey.
No, he was pinned to the place there, left alone
With his immense hate and, the solitary
Subject to satisfy that hate, his wife.
“Cast her off? Turn her naked out of doors?
“Easily said! But still the action pends,
“Still dowry, principal and interest,
“Pietro’s possessions, all I bargained for,—
“Any good day, be but my friends alert,
“May give them me if she continue mine.
“Yet, keep her? Keep the puppet of my foes—
“Her voice that lisps me back their curse—her eye
“They lend their leer of triumph to—her lip
“I touch and taste their very filth upon?”
In short, he also took the middle course
Rome taught him—did at last excogitate
How he might keep the good and leave the bad
Twined in revenge, yet extricable,—nay
Make the very hate’s eruption, very rush
Of the unpent sluice of cruelty relieve
His heart first, then go fertilise his field.
What if the girl-wife, tortured with due care,
Should take, as though spontaneously, the road
It were impolitic to thrust her on?
If, goaded, she broke out in full revolt,
Followed her parents i’ the face o’ the world,
Branded as runaway not castaway,
Self-sentenced and self-punished in the act?
So should the loathed form and detested face
Launch themselves into hell and there be lost
While he looked o’er the brink with folded arms;
So should the heaped-up shames go shuddering back
O’ the head o’ the heapers, Pietro and his wife,
And bury in the breakage three at once:
While Guido, left free, no one right renounced,
Gain present, gain prospective, all the gain,
None of the wife except her rights absorbed.
Should ask law what it was law paused about—
If law were dubious still whose word to take,
The husband’s—dignified and derelict,
Or the wife’s—the . . . what I tell you. It should be.
Guido’s first step was to take pen, indite
A letter to the Abate,—not his own,
His wife’s,—she should re-write, sign, seal, and send.
She liberally told the household-news,
Rejoiced her vile progenitors were fled,
Revealed their malice—how they even laid
A last injunction on her, when they fled,
That she should forthwith find a paramour,
Complot with him to gather spoil enough
Then burn the house down,—taking previous care
To poison all its inmates overnight,—
And so companioned, so provisioned too,
Follow to Rome and all join fortunes gay.
This letter, traced in pencil-characters,
Guido as easily got retraced in ink
By his wife’s pen, guided from end to end,
As it had been just so much Hebrew, Sir:
For why? That wife could broider, sing perhaps,
Pray certainly, but no more read than write
This letter “which yet write she must,” he said,
“Being half courtesy and compliment,
“Half sisterliness: take the thing on trust!”
She had as readily re-traced the words
Of her own death-warrant,—in some sort ’twas so.
This letter the Abate in due course
Communicated to such curious souls
In Rome as needs must pry into the cause
Of quarrel, why the Comparini fled
The Franceschini, whence the grievance grew,
What the hubbub meant: “Nay,—see the wife’s own word,
“Authentic answer! Tell detractors too
“There’s a plan formed, a programme figured here
“—Pray God no after-practice put to proof,
“This letter cast no light upon, one day!”
So much for what should work in Rome,—back now
To Arezzo, go on with the project there,
Forward the next step with as bold a foot,
And plague Pompilia to the height, you see!
Accordingly did Guido set himself
To worry up and down, across, around,
The woman, hemmed in by her household-bars,—
Chased her about the coop of daily life,
Having first stopped each outlet thence save one
Which, like bird with a ferret in her haunt,
She needs must seize as sole way of escape
Though there was tied and twittering a decoy
To seem as if it tempted,—just the plume
O’ the popinjay, and not a respite there
From tooth and claw of something in the dark,—
The tenebrific passage of the tale:
How hold a light, display the cavern’s gorge?
How, in this phase of the affair, show truth?
Here is the dying wife who smiles and says
“So it was,—so it was not,—how it was,
“I never knew nor ever care to know—”
Till they all weep, physician, man of law,
Even that poor old bit of battered brass
Beaten out of all shape by the world’s sins,
Common utensil of the lazar-house—
Confessor Celestino groans “’Tis truth,
“All truth, and only truth: there’s something else,
“Some presence in the room beside us all,
“Something that every lie expires before:
“No question she was pure from first to last.”
So far is well and helps us to believe:
But beyond, she the helpless, simple-sweet
Or silly-sooth, unskilled to break one blow
At her good fame by putting finger forth,—
How can she render service to the truth?
The bird says “So I fluttered where a springe
“Caught me: the springe did not contrive itself,
“That I know: who contrived it, God forgive!”
But we, who hear no voice and have dry eyes,
Must ask,—we cannot else, absolving her,—
How of the part played by that same decoy
I’ the catching, caging? Was himself caught first?
We deal here with no innocent at least,
No witless victim,—he’s a man of the age
And a priest beside,—persuade the mocking world
Mere charity boiled over in this sort!
He whose own safety too,—(the Pope’s apprised—
Good-natured with the secular offence,
The pope looks grave on priesthood in a scrape)
Our priest’s own safety therefore, may-be life,
Hangs on the issue! You will find it hard.
Guido is here to meet you with fixed foot,
Stiff like a statue—“Leave what went before!
“My wife fled i’ the company of a priest,
“Spent two days and two nights alone with him:
“Leave what came after!” He is hard to throw.
Moreover priests are merely flesh and blood;
When we get weakness, and no guilt beside,
We have no such great ill-fortune: finding grey,
We gladly call that white which might be black,
Too used to the double-dye. So, if the priest,
Moved by Pompilia’s youth and beauty, gave
Way to the natural weakness. . . . Anyhow
Here be facts, charactery; what they spell
Determine, and thence pick what sense you may!
There was a certain young bold handsome priest
Popular in the city, far and wide
Famed, for Arezzo’s but a little place, .
As the best of good companions, gay and grave
At the decent minute; settled in his stall,
Or sideling, lute on lap, by lady’s couch,
Ever the courtly Canon: see in such
A star shall climb apace and culminate,
Have its due handbreadth of the heaven at Rome,
Though meanwhile pausing on Arezzo’s edge,
As modest candle ’mid the mountain fog,
To rub off redness and rusticity
Ere it sweep chastened, gain the silver-sphere.
Whether through Guido’s absence or what else,
This Caponsacchi, favourite of the town,
Was yet no friend of his nor free o’ the house,
Though both moved in the regular magnates’ march—
Each must observe the other’s tread and halt
At church, saloon, theatre, house of play.
Who could help noticing the husband’s slouch,
The black of his brow—or miss the news that buzzed
Of how the little solitary wife
Wept and looked out of window all day long?
What need of minute search into such springs
As start men, set o’ the move?—machinery
Old as earth, obvious as the noonday sun.
Why, take men as they come,—an instance now,—
Of all those who have simply gone to see
Pompilia on her deathbed since four days,
Half at the least are, call it how you please,
In love with her—I don’t except the priests
Nor even the old confessor whose eyes run
Over at what he styles his sister’s voice
Who died so early and weaned him from the world.
Well, had they viewed her ere the paleness pushed
The last o’ the red o’ the rose away, while yet
Some hand, adventurous ’twixt the wind and her,
Might let the life run back and raise the flower
Rich with reward up to the guardian’s face,—
Would they have kept that hand employed the same
At fumbling on with prayer-book pages? No!
Men are men: why then need I say one word
More than this, that our man the Canon here
Saw, pitied, loved Pompilia?
This is why;
This startling why: that Caponsacchi’s self—
Whom foes and friends alike avouch, for good
Or ill, a man of truth whate’er betide,
Intrepid altogether, reckless too
How his own fame and fortune, tossed to the winds,
Suffer by any turn the adventure take,
Nay, more—not thrusting, like a badge to hide,
’Twixt shirt and skin a joy which shown is shame—
But flirting flag-like i’ the face o’ the world
This tell-tale kerchief, this conspicuous love
For the lady,—oh, called innocent love, I know!
Only, such scarlet fiery innocence
As most men would try muffle up in shade,—
’Tis strange then that this else abashless mouth
Should yet maintain, for truth’s sake which is God’s,
That it was not he made the first advance,
That, even ere word had passed between the two,
Pompilia penned him letters, passionate prayers,
If not love, then so simulating love
That he, no novice to the taste of thyme,
Turned from such over-luscious honey-clot
At end o’ the flower, and would not lend his lip
Till . . . but the tale here frankly outsoars faith:
There must be falsehood somewhere. For her part,
Pompilia quietly constantly avers
She never penned a letter in her life
Nor to the Canon nor any other man,
Being incompetent to write and read:
Nor had she ever uttered word to him, nor he
To her till that same evening when they met,
She on her window-terrace, he beneath
I’ the public street, as was their fateful chance,
And she adjured him in the name of God
Find out and bring to pass where, when and how
Escape with him to Rome might be contrived.
Means found, plan laid and time fixed, she avers,
And heart assured to heart in loyalty,
All at an impulse! All extemporised
As in romance-books! Is that credible?
Well, yes: as she avers this with calm mouth
Dying, I do think “Credible!” you’d cry—
Did not the priest’s voice come to break the spell:
They questioned him apart, as the custom is,
When first the matter made a noise at Rome,
And he, calm, constant then as she is now,
For truth’s sake did assert and reassert
Those letters called him to her and he came,
—Which damns the story credible otherwise.
Why should this man,—mad to devote himself,
Careless what comes of his own fame, the first,—
Be studious thus to publish and declare
Just what the lightest nature loves to hide,
Nor screen a lady from the byword’s laugh
“First spoke the lady, last the cavalier!”
—I say,—why should the man tell truth just here
When graceful lying meets such ready shrift?
Or is there a first moment for a priest
As for a woman, when invaded shame
Must have its first and last excuse to show?
Do both contrive love’s entry in the mind
Shall look, i’ the manner of it, a surprise,
That after, once the flag o’ the fort hauled down,
Effrontery may sink drawbridge, open gate,
Welcome and entertain the conqueror?
Or what do you say to a touch of the devil’s worst?
Can it be that the husband, he who wrote
The letter to his brother I told you of,
I’ the name of her it meant to criminate,—
What if he wrote those letters to the priest?
Further the priest says, when it first befell,
This folly o’ the letters, that he checked the flow,
Put them back lightly each with its reply.
Here again vexes new discrepancy:
There never reached her eye a word from him;
He did write but she could not read—she could
Burn what offended wifehood, womanhood,
So did burn: never bade him come to her,
Yet when it proved he must come, let him come,
And when he did come though uncalled, she spoke
Prompt by an inspiration: thus it was.
Will you go somewhat back to understand?
When first, pursuant to his plan, there sprung,
Like an uncaged beast, Guido’s cruelty
On the weak shoulders of his wife, she cried
To those whom law appoints resource for such,
The secular guardian—that’s the Governor,
And the Archbishop,—that’s the spiritual guide,
And prayed them take the claws from out her flesh.
Now, this is ever the ill consequence
Of being noble, poor, and difficult,
Ungainly, yet too great to disregard,—
That the born peers and friends hereditary
Though disinclined to help from their own store
The opprobrious wight, put penny in his poke
From purse of theirs or leave the door ajar
When he goes wistful by at dinner-time,—
Yet, if his needs conduct him where they sit
Smugly in office, judge this, bishop that,
Dispensers of the shine and shade o’ the place—
And if, the friend’s door shut and purse undrawn,
The potentate may find the office-hall
Do as good service at no cost—give help
By-the-bye, pay up traditional dues at once
Just through a feather-weight too much i’ the scale,
A finger-tip forgot at the balance-tongue,—
Why, only churls refuse, or Molinists.
Thus when, in the first roughness of surprise
At Guido’s wolf-face whence the sheepskin fell,
The frightened couple, all bewilderment,
Rushed to the Governor,—who else rights wrong?
Told him their tale of wrong and craved redress—
Why, then the Governor woke up to the fact
That Guido was a friend of old, poor Count!—
So, promptly paid his tribute, promised the pair,
Wholesome chastisement should soon cure their qualms
Next time they came and prated and told lies:
Which stopped all prating, sent them dumb to Rome.
Well, now it was Pompilia’s turn to try:
The troubles pressing on her, as I said,
Three times she rushed, maddened by misery,
To the other mighty man, sobbed out her prayer
At footstool of the Archbishop—fast the friend
Of her husband also! Oh, good friends of yore!
So, the Archbishop, not to be outdone
By the Governor, break custom more than he,
Thrice bade the foolish woman stop her tongue,
Unloosed her hands from harassing his gout,
Coached her and carried her to the Count again,
—His old friend should be master in his house,
Rule his wife and correct her faults at need!
Well, driven from post to pillar in this wise,
She, as a last resource, betook herself
To one, should be no family-friend at least,
A simple friar o’ the city; confessed to him,
Then told how fierce temptation of release
By self-dealt death was busy with her soul,
And urged that he put this in words, write plain
For one who could not write, set down her prayer
That Pietro and Violante, parent-like
If somehow not her parents, should for love
Come save her, pluck from out the flame the brand
Themselves had thoughtlessly thrust in so deep
To send gay-coloured sparkles up and cheer
Their seat at the chimney-corner. The good friar
Promised as much at the moment; but, alack,
Night brings discretion: he was no one’s friend,
Yet presently found he could not turn about
Nor take a step i’ the case and fail to tread
On someone’s toe who either was a friend,
Or a friend’s friend, or friend’s friend thrice-removed,
And woe to friar by whom offences come!
So, the course being plain,—with a general sigh
At matrimony the profound mistake,—
He threw reluctantly the business up,
Having his other penitents to mind.
If then, all outlets thus secured save one,
At last she took to the open, stood and stared
With her wan face to see where God might wait—
And there found Caponsacchi wait as well
For the precious something at perdition’s edge.
He only was predestinate to save,—
And if they recognised in a critical flash
From the zenith, each the other, her need of him,
His need of . . . say, a woman to perish for,
The regular way o’ the world, yet break no vow,
Do no harm save to himself,—if this were thus?
How do you say? It were improbable;
So is the legend of my patron-saint.
Anyhow, whether, as Guido states the case,
Pompilia,—like a starving wretch i’ the street
Who stops and rifles the first passenger
In the great right of an excessive wrong,—
Did somehow call this stranger and he came,—
Or whether the strange sudden interview
Blazed as when star and star must needs go close
Till each hurts each and there is loss in heaven—
Whatever way in this strange world it was,—
Pompilia and Caponsacchi met, in fine,
She at her window, he i’ the street beneath,
And understood each other at first look.
All was determined and performed at once
And on a certain April evening, late
I’ the month, this girl of sixteen, bride and wife
Three years and over,—she who hitherto
Had never taken twenty steps in Rome
Beyond the church, pinned to her mother’s gown,
Nor, in Arezzo, knew her way through street
Except what led to the Archbishop’s door,—
Such an one rose up in the dark, laid hand
On what came first, clothes and a trinket or two,
Belongings of her own in the old day,—
Stole from the side o’ the sleeping spouse—who knows?
Sleeping perhaps, silent for certain,—slid
Ghost-like from great dark room to great dark room,
In through the tapestries and out again
And onward, unembarrassed as a fate,
Descended staircase, gained last door of all,
Sent it wide open at first push of palm,
And there stood, first time, last and only time,
At liberty, alone in the open street,—
Unquestioned, unmolested found herself
At the city gate, by Caponsacchi’s side,
Hope there, joy there, life and all good again,
The carriage there, the convoy there, light there
Broadening into a full blaze at Rome
And breaking small what long miles lay between;
Up she sprang, in he followed, they were safe.
The husband quotes this for incredible,
All of the story from first word to last:
Sees the priest’s hand throughout upholding hers,
Traces his foot to the alcove, that night,
Whither and whence blindfold he knew the way,
Proficient in all craft and stealthiness;
And cites for proof a servant, eye that watched
And ear that opened to purse secrets up,
A woman-spy,—suborned to give and take
Letters and tokens, do the work of shame
The more adroitly that herself, who helped
Communion thus between a tainted pair,
Had long since been a leper thick in spot,
A common trull o’ the town: she witnessed all,
Helped many meetings, partings, took her wage
And then told Guido the whole matter. Lies!
The woman’s life confutes her word,—her word
Confutes itself: “Thus, thus and thus I lied.”
“And thus, no question, still you lie,” we say.
“Ay, but at last, e’en have it how you will,
“Whatever the means, whatever the way, explodes
“The consummation”—the accusers shriek:
“Here is the wife avowedly found in flight,
“And the companion of her flight, a priest;
“She flies her husband, he the church his spouse:
“What is this?”
Wife and priest alike reply
“This is the simple thing it claims to be,
“A course we took for life and honour’s sake,
“Very strange, very justifiable.”
She says, “God put it in my head to fly,
“As when the martin migrates: autumn claps
“Her hands, cries ‘Winter’s coming, will be here,
“‘Off with you ere the white teeth overtake!
“‘Flee!’ So I fled: this friend was the warm day,
“The south wind and whatever favours flight;
“I took the favour, had the help, how else?
“And so we did fly rapidly all night,
“All day, all night—a longer night—again,
“And then another day, longest of days,
“And all the while, whether we fled or stopped,
“I scarce know how or why, one thought filled both,
“‘Fly and arrive!’ So long as I found strength
“I talked with my companion, told him much,
“Knowing that he knew more, knew me, knew God
“And God’s disposal of me,—but the sense
“O’ the blessed flight absorbed me in the main,
“And speech became mere talking through a sleep,
“Till at the end of that last longest night
“In a red daybreak, when we reached an inn
“And my companion whispered ‘Next stage—Rome!’
“Sudden the weak flesh fell like piled-up cards,
“All the frail fabric at a finger’s touch,
“And prostrate the poor soul too, and I said,
“‘But though Count Guido were a furlong off,
“‘Just on me, I must stop and rest awhile!’
“Then something like a white wave o’ the sea
“Broke o’er my brain and buried me in sleep
“Blessedly, till it ebbed and left me loose,
“And where was I found but on a strange bed
“In a strange room like hell, roaring with noise,
“Ruddy with flame, and filled with men, in front
“Whom but the man you call my husband, ay—
“Count Guido once more between heaven and me,
“For there my heaven stood, my salvation, yes—
“That Caponsacchi all my heaven of help,
“Helpless himself, held prisoner in the hands
“Of men who looked up in my husband’s face
“To take the fate thence he should signify,
“Just as the way was at Arezzo: then,
“Not for my sake but his who had helped me—
“I sprang up, reached him with one bound, and seized
“The sword o’ the felon, trembling at his side,
“Fit creature of a coward, unsheathed the thing
“And would have pinned him through the poison-bag
“To the wall and left him there to palpitate,
“As you serve scorpions, but men interposed—
“Disarmed me, gave his life to him again
“That he might take mine and the other lives,
“And he has done so. I submit myself!”
The priest says—oh, and in the main result
The facts asseverate, he truly says,
As to the very act and deed of him,
However you mistrust the mind o’ the man—
The flight was just for flight’s sake, no pretext
For aught except to set Pompilia free:
He says “I cite the husband’s self’s worst charge
“In proof of my best word for both of us.
“Be it conceded that so many times
“We took our pleasure in his palace: then,
“What need to fly at all?—or flying no less,
“What need to outrage the lips sick and white
“Of a woman, and bring ruin down beside,
“By halting when Rome lay one stage beyond?”
So does he vindicate Pompilia’s fame,
Confirm her story in all points but one—
This; that, so fleeing and so breathing forth
Her last strength in the prayer to halt awhile,
She makes confusion of the reddening white
Which was the sunset when her strength gave way,
And the next sunrise and its whitening red
Which she revived in when her husband came:
She mixes both times, morn and eve, in one,
Having lived through a blank of night ’twixt each
Though dead-asleep, unaware as a corpse,
She on the bed above; her friend below
Watched in the doorway of the inn the while,
Stood i’ the red o’ the morn, that she mistakes,
In act to rouse and quicken the tardy crew
And hurry out the horses, have the stage
Over, the last league, reach Rome and be safe:
When up came Guido.
Guido’s tale begins—
How he and his whole household, drunk to death
By some enchanted potion, poppied drugs
Plied by the wife, lay powerless in gross sleep
And left the spoilers unimpeded way,
Could not shake off their poison and pursue,
Till noontide, then made shift to get on horse
And did pursue: which means, he took his time,
Pressed on no more than lingered after, step
By step, just making sure o’ the fugitives,
Till at the nick of time, he saw his chance,
Seized it, came up with and surprised the pair.
How he must needs have gnawn lip and gnashed teeth,
Taking successively at tower and town,
Village and roadside, still the same report,
“Yes, such a pair arrived an hour ago,
“Sat in the carriage just where your horse stands,
“While we got horses ready,—turned deaf ear
“To all entreaty they would even alight;
“Counted the minutes and resumed their course.”
Would they indeed escape, arrive at Rome,
Leave no least loop to let damnation through,
And foil him of his captured infamy,
Prize of guilt proved and perfect? So it seemed:
Till, oh the happy chance, at last stage, Rome
But two short hours off, Castelnuovo reached,
The guardian angel gave reluctant place,
Satan stepped forward with alacrity,
Pompilia’s flesh and blood succumbed, perforce
A halt was, and her husband had his will,
Perdue he couched, counted out hour by hour
Till he should spy in the east a signal-streak—
Night had been, morrow was, triumph would be.
Do you see the plan deliciously complete?
The rush upon the unsuspecting sleep,
The easy execution, the outcry
Over the deed, “Take notice all the world!
“These two dead bodies, locked still in embrace,—
“The man is Caponsacchi and a priest,
“The woman is my wife: they fled me late,
“Thus have I found and you behold them thus,
“And may judge me: do you approve or no?”
Success did seem not so improbable,
But that already Satan’s laugh was heard,
His back turned on Guido—left i’ the lurch,
Or rather, baulked of suit and service now,
That he improve on both by one deed more,
Burn up the better at no distant day,
Body and soul one holocaust to hell.
Anyhow, of this natural consequence
Did just the last link of the long chain snap:
For his eruption was o’ the priest, alive
And alert, calm, resolute, and formidable,
Not the least look of fear in that broad brow—
One not to be disposed of by surprise,
And armed moreover—who had guessed as much?
Yes, there stood he in secular costume
Complete from head to heel, with sword at side,
He seemed to know the trick of perfectly.
There was no prompt suppression of the man
As he said calmly, “I have saved your wife
“From death; there was no other way but this;
“Of what do I defraud you except death?
“Charge any wrong beyond, I answer it.”
Guido, the valorous, had met his match,
Was forced to demand help instead of fight,
Bid the authorities o’ the place lend aid
And make the best of a broken matter so.
They soon obeyed the summons—I suppose,
Apprized and ready, or not far to seek—
Laid hands on Caponsacchi, found in fault,
A priest yet flagrantly accoutred thus,—
Then, to make good Count Guido’s further charge,
Proceeded, prisoner made lead the way,
In a crowd, upstairs to the chamber-door
Where wax-white, dead asleep, deep beyond dream,
As the priest laid her, lay Pompilia yet.
And as he mounted step by step with the crowd
How I see Guido taking heart again!
He knew his wife so well and the way of her—
How at the outbreak she would shroud her shame
In hell’s heart, would it mercifully yawn—
How, failing that, her forehead to his foot,
She would crouch silent till the great doom fell,
Leave him triumphant with the crowd to see!
Guilt motionless or writhing like a worm?
No! Second misadventure, this worm turned,
I told you: would have slain him on the spot
With his own weapon, but they seized her hands:
Leaving her tongue free, as it tolled the knell
Of Guido’s hope so lively late. The past
Took quite another shape now. She who shrieked
“At least and for ever I am mine and God’s,
“Thanks to his liberating angel Death—
“Never again degraded to be yours
“The ignoble noble, the unmanly man,
“The beast below the beast in brutishness!”—
This was the froward child, “the restif lamb
“Used to be cherished in his breast,” he groaned—
“Eat from his hand and drink from out his cup,
“The while his fingers pushed their loving way
“Through curl on curl of that soft coat—alas,
“And she all silverly baaed gratitude
“While meditating mischief!”—and so forth.
He must invent another story now!
The ins and outs of the room were searched: he found
Or showed for found the abominable prize—
Love-letters from his wife who cannot write,
Love-letters in reply o’ the priest—thank God!—
Who can write and confront his character
With this, and prove the false thing forged throughout:
Spitting whereat he needs must spatter who
But Guido’s self?—that forged and falsified
One letter called Pompilia’s, past dispute:
Then why not these to make sure still more sure?
So was the case concluded then and there:
Guido preferred his charges in due form,
Called on the law to adjudicate, consigned
The accused ones to the Prefect of the place.
(Oh mouse-birth of that mountain-like revenge!)
And so to his own place betook himself
After the spring that failed,—the wildcat’s way.
The captured parties were conveyed to Rome;
Investigation followed here i’ the court—
Soon to review the fruit of its own work,
From then to now being eight months and no more.
Guido kept out of sight and safe at home:
The Abate, brother Paolo, helped most
At words when deeds were out of question, pushed
Nearest the purple, best played deputy,
So, pleaded, Guido’s representative
At the court shall soon try Guido’s self,—what’s more,
The court that also took—I told you, Sir—
That statement of the couple, how a cheat
Had been i’ the birth of the babe, no child of theirs.
That was the prelude; this, the play’s first act:
Whereof we wait what comes, crown, close of all.
Well, the result was something of a shade
On the parties thus accused,—how otherwise?
Shade, but with shine as unmistakable.
Each had a prompt defence: Pompilia first—
“Earth was made hell to me who did no harm:
“I only could emerge one way from hell
“By catching at the one hand held me, so
“I caught at it and thereby stepped to heaven:
“If that be wrong, do with me what you will!”
Then Caponsacchi with a grave grand sweep
O’ the arm as though his soul warned baseness off—
“If as a man, then much more as a priest
“I hold me bound to help weak innocence:
“If so my worldly reputation burst,
“Being the bubble it is, why, burst it may:
“Blame I can bear though not blameworthiness.
“But use your sense first, see if the miscreant here
“The man who tortured thus the woman, thus
“Have not both laid the trap and fixed the lure
“Over the pit should bury body and soul!
“His facts are lies: his letters are the fact—
“An infiltration flavoured with himself!
“As for the fancies—whether . . . what is it you say?
“The lady loves me, whether I love her
“In the forbidden sense of your surmise,—
“If, with the midday blaze of truth above,
“The unlidded eye of God awake, aware,
“You needs must pry about and track the course
“Of each stray beam of light may traverse earth,
“To the night’s sun and Lucifer himself,
“Do so, at other time, in other place,
“Not now nor here! Enough that first to last
“I never touched her lip nor she my hand
“Nor either of us thought a thought, much less
“Spoke a word which the Virgin might not hear.
“Be that your question, thus I answer it.”
Then the court had to make its mind up, spoke.
“It is a thorny question, and a tale
“Hard to believe, but not impossible:
“Who can be absolute for either side?
“A middle course is happily open yet.
“Here has a blot surprised the social blank,—
“Whether through favour, feebleness, or fault,
“No matter, leprosy has touched our robe
“And we’re unclean and must be purified.
“Here is a wife makes holiday from home,
“A priest caught playing truant to his church,
“In masquerade moreover: both allege
“Enough excuse to stop our lifted scourge
“Which else would heavily fall. On the other hand,
“Here is a husband, ay and man of mark,
“Who comes complaining here, demands redress
“As if he were the pattern of desert—
“The while those plaguy allegations frown,
“Forbid we grant him the redress he seeks.
“To all men be our moderation known!
“Rewarding none while compensating each,
“Hurting all round though harming nobody,
“Husband, wife, priest, scot-free not one shall ’scape,
“Yet priest, wife, husband, boast the unbroken head
“From application of our excellent oil:
“So that whatever be the fact, in fine,
“It makes no miss of justice in a sort.
“First, let the husband stomach as he may,
“His wife shall neither be returned him, no—
“Nor branded, whipped, and caged, but just consigned
“To a convent and the quietude she craves;
“So is he rid of his domestic plague:
“What better thing can happen to a man?
“Next, let the priest retire—unshent, unshamed,
“Unpunished as for perpetrating crime,
“But relegated (not imprisoned, Sirs!)
“Sent for three years to clarify his youth
“At Civita, a rest by the way to Rome:
“There let his life skim off its last of lees
“Nor keep this dubious colour. Judged the cause:
“All parties may retire, content, we hope.”
That’s Rome’s way, the traditional road of law;
Whither it leads is what remains to tell.
The priest went to his relegation-place,
The wife to her convent, brother Paolo
To the arms of brother Guido with the news
And this beside—his charge was countercharged;
The Comparini, his old brace of hates,
Were breathed and vigilant and venomous now—
Had shot a second bolt where the first stuck,
And followed up the pending dowry-suit
By a procedure should release the wife
From so much of the marriage-bond as barred
Escape when Guido turned the screw too much
On his wife’s flesh and blood, as husband may.
No more defence, she turned and made attack,
Claimed now divorce from bed and board, in short:
Pleaded such subtle strokes of cruelty,
Such slow sure siege laid to her body and soul,
As, proved,—and proofs seemed coming thick and fast,—
Would gain both freedom and the dowry back
Even should the first suit leave them in his grasp:
So urged the Comparini for the wife.
Guido had gained not one of the good things
He grasped at by his creditable plan
O’ the flight and following and the rest: the suit
That smouldered late was fanned to fury new,
This adjunct came to help with fiercer fire,
While he had got himself a quite new plague—
Found the world’s face an universal grin
At this last best of the Hundred Merry Tales
Of how a young and spritely clerk devised
To carry off a spouse that moped too much,
And cured her of the vapours in a trice:
And how the husband, playing Vulcan’s part,
Told by the Sun, started in hot pursuit
To catch the lovers, and came halting up,
Cast his net and then called the Gods to see
The convicts in their rosy impudence—
Whereat said Mercury, “Would that I were Mars!”
Oh it was rare, and naughty all the same!
Brief, the wife’s courage and cunning,—the priest’s show
Of chivalry and adroitness,—last not least,
The husband—how he ne’er showed teeth at all,
Whose bark had promised biting; but just sneaked
Back to his kennel, tail ’twixt legs, as ’twere,—
All this was hard to gulp down and digest.
So pays the devil his liegeman, brass for gold.
But this was at Arezzo: here in Rome
Brave Paolo bore up against it all—
Battled it out, nor wanting to himself
Nor Guido nor the House whose weight he bore
Pillar-like, not by force of arm but brain.
He knew his Rome, what wheels we set to work;
Plied influential folk, pressed to the ear
Of the efficacious purple, pushed his way
To the old Pope’s self,—past decency indeed,—
Praying him take the matter in his hands
Out of the regular court’s incompetence;
But times are changed and nephews out of date
And favouritism unfashionable: the Pope
Said “Render Cæsar what is Cæsar’s due!”
As for the Comparini’s counter-plea,
He met that by a counter-plea again,
Made Guido claim divorce—with help so far
By the trial’s issue: for, why punishment
However slight unless for guiltiness
However slender?—and a molehill serves
Much as a mountain of offence this way.
So was he gathering strength on every side
And growing more and more to menace—when
All of a terrible moment came the blow
That beat down Paolo’s fence, ended the play
O’ the foil and brought Mannaia on the stage.
Five months had passed now since Pompilia’s flight,
Months spent in peace among the Convert nuns:
This,—being, as it seemed, for Guido’s sake
Solely, what pride might call imprisonment
And quote as something gained, to friends at home,—
This naturally was at Guido’s charge:
Grudge it he might, but penitential fare,
Prayers, preachings, who but he defrayed the cost?
So, Paolo dropped, as proxy, doit by doit
Like heart’s blood, till—what’s here? What notice comes?
The Convent’s self makes application bland
That, since Pompilia’s health is fast o’ the wane,
She may have leave to go combine her cure
Of soul with cure of body, mend her mind
Together with her thin arms and sunk eyes
That want fresh air outside the convent-wall,
Say in a friendly house,—and which so fit
As a certain villa in the Pauline way,
That happens to hold Pietro and his wife,
The natural guardians? “Oh, and shift the care
“You shift the cost, too; Pietro pays in turn,
“And lightens Guido of a load! And then,
“Villa or convent, two names for one thing,
“Always the sojourn means imprisonment,
“Domum pro carcere—nowise we relax,
“Nothing abate: how answers Paolo?”
What would you answer? All so smooth and fair,
Even Paul’s astuteness sniffed no harm i’ the world.
He authorised the transfer, saw it made,
And, two months after, reaped the fruit of the same,
Having to sit down, rack his brain and find
What phrase should serve him best to notify
Our Guido that by happy providence
A son and heir, a babe was born to him
I’ the villa,—go tell sympathising friends!
Yes, such had been Pompilia’s privilege:
She, when she fled, was one month gone with child,
Known to herself or unknown, either way
Availing to explain (say men of art)
The strange and passionate precipitance
Of maiden startled into motherhood
Which changes body and soul by nature’s law.
So when the she-dove breeds, strange yearnings come
For the unknown shelter by undreamed-of shores,
And there is born a blood-pulse in her heart
To fight if needs be, though with flap of wing,
For the wool-flock or the fur-tuft, though a hawk
Contest the prize,—wherefore, she knows not yet.
Anyhow, thus to Guido came the news.
“I shall have quitted Rome ere you arrive
“To take the one step left,”—wrote Paolo.
Then did the winch o’ the winepress of all hate,
Vanity, disappointment, grudge, and greed,
Take the last turn that screws out pure revenge
With a bright bubble at the brim beside—
By an heir’s birth he was assured at once
O’ the main prize, all the money in dispute:
Pompilia’s dowry might revert to her
Or stay with him as law’s caprice should point,—
But now—now—what was Pietro’s shall be hers,
What was hers shall remain her own,—if hers,
Why then,—oh, not her husband’s but—her heir’s!
That heir being his too, all grew his at last
By this road or by that road, since they join.
Before, why, push he Pietro out o’ the world,—
The current of the money stopped, you see,
Pompilia being proved no Pietro’s child:
Or let it be Pompilia’s life he quenched,
Again the current of the money stopped,—
Guido debarred his rights as husband soon,
So the new process threatened;—now, the chance,
Now, the resplendent minute! Clear the earth,
Cleanse the house, let the three but disappear
A child remains, depositary of all,
That Guido may enjoy his own again!
Repair all losses by a master-stroke,
Wipe out the past, all done and left undone,
Swell the good present to best evermore,
Die into new life, which let blood baptise!
So, i’ the blue of a sudden sulphur-blaze,
And why there was one step to take at Rome,
And why he should not meet with Paolo there,
He saw—the ins and outs to the heart of hell—
And took the straight line thither swift and sure.
He rushed to Vittiano, found four sons o’ the soil,
Brutes of his breeding, with one spark i’ the clod
That served for a soul, the looking up to him
Or aught called Franceschini as life, death,
Heaven, hell,—lord paramount, assembled these,
Harangued, equipped, instructed, pressed each clod
With his will’s imprint; then took horse, plied spur,
And so arrived, all five of them, at Rome
On Christmas-Eve, and forthwith found themselves
Installed i’ the vacancy and solitude
Left them by Paolo, the considerate man
Who, good as his word, disappeared at once
As if to leave the stage free. A whole week
Did Guido spend in study of his part,
Then played it fearless of a failure. One,
Struck the year’s clock whereof the hours are days,
And off was rung o’ the little wheels the chime
“Goodwill on earth and peace to man:” but, two,
Proceeded the same bell and, evening come,
The dreadful five felt finger-wise their way
Across the town by blind cuts and black turns
To the little lone suburban villa; knocked—
“Who may be outside?” called a well-known voice.
“A friend of Caponsacchi’s bringing friends
That’s a test, the excusers say:
Ay, and a test conclusive, I return.
What? Had that name brought touch of guilt or taste
Of fear with it, aught to dash the present joy
With memory of the sorrow just at end,—
She, happy in her parents’ arms at length
With the new blessing of the two weeks’ babe,—
How had that name’s announcement moved the wife?
Or, as the other slanders circulate,
Were Caponsacchi no rare visitant
On nights and days whither safe harbour lured,
What bait had been i’ the name to ope the door?
The promise of a letter? Stealthy guests
Have secret watchwords, private entrances:
The man’s own self might have been found inside
And all the scheme made frustrate by a word.
No: but since Guido knew, none knew so well,
The man had never since returned to Rome
Nor seen the wife’s face more than villa’s front,
So, could not be at hand to warn or save,—
For that, he took this sure way to the end.
“Come in,” bade poor Violante cheerfully,
Drawing the door-bolt: that death was the first,
Stabbed through and through. Pietro, close on her heels,
Set up a cry—“Let me confess myself!
“Grant but confession!” Cold steel was the grant.
Then came Pompilia’s turn.
Then they escaped.
The noise o’ the slaughter roused the neighbourhood.
They had forgotten just the one thing more
Which saves i’ the circumstance, the ticket to wit
Which puts post-horses at a traveller’s use:
So, all on foot, desperate through the dark
Reeled they like drunkards along open road,
Accomplished a prodigious twenty miles
Homeward, and gained Baccano very near,
Stumbled at last, deaf, dumb, blind through the feat,
Into a grange and, one dead heap, slept there
Till the pursuers hard upon their trace
Reached them and took them, red from head to heel,
And brought them to the prison where they lie.
The couple were laid i’ the church two days ago,
And the wife lives yet by miracle.
All is told.
You hardly need ask what Count Guido says,
Since something he must say. “I own the deed—”
(He cannot choose,—but—) “I declare the same
“Just and inevitable,—since no way else
“Was left me, but by this of taking life,
“To save my honour which is more than life.
“I exercised a husband’s rights.” To which
The answer is as prompt—“There was no fault
“In any one o’ the three to punish thus:
“Neither i’ the wife, who kept all faith to you,
“Nor in the parents, whom yourself first duped,
“Robbed and maltreated, then turned out of doors.
“You wronged and they endured wrong; yours the fault.
“Next, had endurance overpassed the mark
“And turned resentment needing remedy,—
“Nay, put the absurd impossible case, for once—
“You were all blameless of the blame alleged
“And they blameworthy where you fix all blame,
“Still, why this violation of the law?
“Yourself elected law should take its course,
“Avenge wrong, or show vengeance not your right;
“Why, only when the balance in law’s hand
“Trembles against you and inclines the way
“O’ the other party, do you make protest,
“Renounce arbitrament, flying out of court,
“And crying ‘Honour’s hurt the sword must cure?’
“Aha, and so i’ the middle of each suit
“Trying i’ the courts,—and you had three in play
“With an appeal to the Pope’s self beside,—
“What, you may chop and change and right your wrongs
“Leaving the law to lag as she thinks fit?”
That were too temptingly commodious, Count!
One would have still a remedy in reserve
Should reach the safest oldest sinner, you see!
One’s honour forsooth? Does that take hurt alone
From the extreme outrage? I who have no wife,
Being yet sensitive in my degree
As Guido,—must discover hurt elsewhere
Which, half compounded-for in days gone by,
May profitably break out now afresh,
Need cure from my own expeditious hands.
The lie that was, as it were, imputed me
When you objected to my contract’s clause,—
The theft as good as, one may say, alleged,
When you, co-heir in a will, excepted, Sir,
To my administration of effects,
—Aha, do you think law disposed of these?
My honour’s touched and shall deal death around!
Count, that were too commodious, I repeat!
If any law be imperative on us all,
Of all are you the enemy: out with you
From the common light and air and life of man!