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The Cenci

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

Act II

SCENE I. -- An Apartment in the Cenci Palace. Enter LUCRETIA and BERNARDO.
      WEEP not, my gentle boy; he struck but me,
      Who have borne deeper wrongs. In truth, if he
      Had killed me, he had done a kinder deed.
      O God Almighty, do thou look upon us,
      We have no other friend but only thee!
      Yet weep not; though I love you as my own,
      I am not your true mother.

                                  Oh, more, more
      Than ever mother was to any child,
      That have you been to me! Had he not been
      My father, do you think that I should weep?                     10

      Alas! poor boy, what else could'st thou have done!


BEATRICE (in a hurried voice)
      Did he pass this way? Have you seen him, brother?
      Ah, no! that is his step upon the stairs;
      'T is nearer now; his hand is on the door;
      Mother, if I to thee have ever been
      A duteous child, now save me! Thou, great God,
      Whose image upon earth a father is,
      Dost thou indeed abandon me? He comes;
      The door is opening now; I see his face;
      He frowns on others, but he smiles on me,                       20
      Even as he did after the feast last night.

Enter a Servant
      Almighty God, how merciful thou art!
      'T is but Orsino's servant.--Well, what news?

      My master bids me say the Holy Father
      Has sent back your petition thus unopened.
                                                      (Giving a paper)
      And he demands at what hour 't were secure
      To visit you again?

                           At the Ave Mary.
                                                        [Exit Servant.
      So, daughter, our last hope has failed. Ah me,
      How pale you look! you tremble, and you stand
      Wrapped in some fixed and fearful meditation,                   30
      As if one thought were overstrong for you;
      Your eyes have a chill glare; oh, dearest child!
      Are you gone mad? If not, pray speak to me.

      You see I am not mad; I speak to you.

      You talked of something that your father did
      After that dreadful feast? Could it be worse
      Than when he smiled, and cried, 'My sons are dead!'
      And every one looked in his neighbor's face
      To see if others were as white as he?
      At the first word he spoke I felt the blood                     40
      Rush to my heart, and fell into a trance;
      And when it passed I sat all weak and wild;
      Whilst you alone stood up, and with strong words
      Checked his unnatural pride; and I could see
      The devil was rebuked that lives in him.
      Until this hour thus you have ever stood
      Between us and your father's moody wrath
      Like a protecting presence; your firm mind
      Has been our only refuge and defence.
      What can have thus subdued it? What can now                     50
      Have given you that cold melancholy look,
      Succeeding to your unaccustomed fear?

      What is it that you say? I was just thinking
      'T were better not to struggle any more.
      Men, like my father, have been dark and bloody;
      Yet never--oh! before worse comes of it,
      'T were wise to die; it ends in that at last.

      Oh, talk not so, dear child! Tell me at once
      What did your father do or say to you?
      He stayed not after that accursèd feast                        60
      One moment in your chamber.--Speak to me.

      Oh, sister, sister, prithee, speak to us!

BEATRICE (speaking very slowly, with a forced calmness)
      It was one word, mother, one little word;
      One look, one smile.
                            Oh! he has trampled me
      Under his feet, and made the blood stream down
      My pallid cheeks. And he has given us all
      Ditch-water, and the fever-stricken flesh
      Of buffaloes, and bade us eat or starve,
      And we have eaten. He has made me look
      On my beloved Bernardo, when the rust                           70
      Of heavy chains has gangrened his sweet limbs;
      And I have never yet despaired--but now!
      What would I say?
                                                  (Recovering herself)
                         Ah no! 't is nothing new.
      The sufferings we all share have made me wild;
      He only struck and cursed me as he passed;
      He said, he looked, he did,--nothing at all
      Beyond his wont, yet it disordered me.
      Alas! I am forgetful of my duty;
      I should preserve my senses for your sake.

      Nay, Beatrice; have courage, my sweet girl.                     80
      If any one despairs it should be I,
      Who loved him once, and now must live with him
      Till God in pity call for him or me.
      For you may, like your sister, find some husband,
      And smile, years hence, with children round your knees;
      Whilst I, then dead, and all this hideous coil,
      Shall be remembered only as a dream.

      Talk not to me, dear Lady, of a husband.
      Did you not nurse me when my mother died?
      Did you not shield me and that dearest boy?                     90
      And had we any other friend but you
      In infancy, with gentle words and looks,
      To win our father not to murder us?
      And shall I now desert you? May the ghost
      Of my dead mother plead against my soul,
      If I abandon her who filled the place
      She left, with more, even, than a mother's love!

      And I am of my sister's mind. Indeed
      I would not leave you in this wretchedness,
      Even though the Pope should make me free to live               100
      In some blithe place, like others of my age,
      With sports, and delicate food, and the fresh air.
      Oh, never think that I will leave you, mother!

      My dear, dear children!

Enter CENCI, suddenly

                               What! Beatrice here!
      Come hither!
                               [She shrinks back, and covers her face.
                    Nay, hide not your face, 't is fair;
      Look up! Why, yesternight you dared to look
      With disobedient insolence upon me,
      Bending a stern and an inquiring brow
      On what I meant; whilst I then sought to hide
      That which I came to tell you--but in vain.                    110

BEATRICE (wildly staggering towards the door)
      Oh, that the earth would gape! Hide me, O God!

      Then it was I whose inarticulate words
      Fell from my lips, and who with tottering steps
      Fled from your presence, as you now from mine.
      Stay, I command you! From this day and hour
      Never again, I think, with fearless eye,
      And brow superior, and unaltered cheek,
      And that lip made for tenderness or scorn,
      Shalt thou strike dumb the meanest of mankind;
      Me least of all. Now get thee to thy chamber!                  120
      Thou too, loathed image of thy cursèd mother,

      Thy milky, meek face makes me sick with hate!

                                 [Exeunt BEATRICE and BERNARDO.
      (Aside) So much has passed between us as must make
      Me bold, her fearful.--'T is an awful thing
      To touch such mischief as I now conceive;
      So men sit shivering on the dewy bank
      And try the chill stream with their feet; once in--
      How the delighted spirit pants for joy!

LUCRETIA (advancing timidly towards him)
      O husband! pray forgive poor Beatrice.
      She meant not any ill.

                              Nor you perhaps?                       130
      Nor that young imp, whom you have taught by rote
      Parricide with his alphabet? nor Giacomo?
      Nor those two most unnatural sons who stirred
      Enmity up against me with the Pope?
      Whom in one night merciful God cut off.
      Innocent lambs! They thought not any ill.
      You were not here conspiring? you said nothing
      Of how I might be dungeoned as a madman;
      Or be condemned to death for some offence,
      And you would be the witnesses? This failing,                  140
      How just it were to hire assassins, or
      Put sudden poison in my evening drink?
      Or smother me when overcome by wine?
      Seeing we had no other judge but God,
      And he had sentenced me, and there were none
      But you to be the executioners
      Of his decree enregistered in heaven?
      Oh, no! You said not this?

                                  So help me God,
      I never thought the things you charge me with!

      If you dare to speak that wicked lie again,                    150
      I'll kill you. What! it was not by your counsel
      That Beatrice disturbed the feast last night?
      You did not hope to stir some enemies
      Against me, and escape, and laugh to scorn
      What every nerve of you now trembles at?
      You judged that men were bolder than they are;
      Few dare to stand between their grave and me.

      Look not so dreadfully! By my salvation
      I knew not aught that Beatrice designed;
      Nor do I think she designed anything                           160
      Until she heard you talk of her dead brothers.

      Blaspheming liar! you are damned for this!
      But I will take you where you may persuade
      The stones you tread on to deliver you;
      For men shall there be none but those who dare
      All things--not question that which I command.
      On Wednesday next I shall set out; you know
      That savage rook, the Castle of Petrella;
      'T is safely walled, and moated round about;
      Its dungeons under ground and its thick towers                 170
      Never told tales; though they have heard and seen
      What might make dumb things speak. Why do you linger?
      Make speediest preparation for the journey!
                                                       [Exit LUCRETIA.
      The all-beholding sun yet shines; I hear
      A busy stir of men about the streets;
      I see the bright sky through the window panes.
      It is a garish, broad, and peering day;
      Loud, light, suspicious, full of eyes and ears;
      And every little corner, nook, and hole,
      Is penetrated with the insolent light.                         180
      Come, darkness! Yet, what is the day to me?
      And wherefore should I wish for night, who do
      A deed which shall confound both night and day?
      'T is she shall grope through a bewildering mist
      Of horror; if there be a sun in heaven,
      She shall not dare to look upon its beams;
      Nor feel its warmth. Let her, then, wish for night;
      The act I think shall soon extinguish all
      For me; I bear a darker, deadlier gloom
      Than the earth's shade, or interlunar air,                     190
      Or constellations quenched in murkiest cloud,
      In which I walk secure and unbeheld
      Towards my purpose.--Would that it were done!
SCENE II. -- A Chamber in the Vatican. Enter CAMILLO and GIACOMO, in conversation.
      There is an obsolete and doubtful law
      By which you might obtain a bare provision
      Of food and clothing.

                             Nothing more? Alas!
      Bare must be the provision which strict law
      Awards, and aged sullen avarice pays.
      Why did my father not apprentice me
      To some mechanic trade? I should have then
      Been trained in no highborn necessities
      Which I could meet not by my daily toil.
      The eldest son of a rich nobleman                               10
      Is heir to all his incapacities;
      He has wide wants, and narrow powers. If you,
      Cardinal Camillo, were reduced at once
      From thrice-driven beds of down, and delicate food,
      An hundred servants, and six palaces,
      To that which nature doth indeed require?--

      Nay, there is reason in your plea; 't were hard.

      'T is hard for a firm man to bear; but I
      Have a dear wife, a lady of high birth,
      Whose dowry in ill hour I lent my father,                       20
      Without a bond or witness to the deed;
      And children, who inherit her fine senses,
      The fairest creatures in this breathing world;
      And she and they reproach me not. Cardinal,
      Do you not think the Pope will interpose
      And stretch authority beyond the law?

      Though your peculiar case is hard, I know
      The Pope will not divert the course of law.
      After that impious feast the other night
      I spoke with him, and urged him then to check                   30
      Your father's cruel hand; he frowned and said,
      'Children are disobedient, and they sting
      Their fathers' hearts to madness and despair,
      Requiting years of care with contumely.
      I pity the Count Cenci from my heart;
      His outraged love perhaps awakened hate,
      And thus he is exasperated to ill.
      In the great war between the old and young,
      I, who have white hairs and a tottering body,
      Will keep at least blameless neutrality.'                       40

      You, my good lord Orsino, heard those words.

      What words?

                   Alas, repeat them not again!
      There then is no redress for me; at least
      None but that which I may achieve myself,
      Since I am driven to the brink.--But, say,
      My innocent sister and my only brother
      Are dying underneath my father's eye.
      The memorable torturers of this land,
      Galeaz Visconti, Borgia, Ezzelin,
      Never inflicted on their meanest slave                          50
      What these endure; shall they have no protection?

      Why, if they would petition to the Pope,
      I see not how he could refuse it; yet
      He holds it of most dangerous example
      In aught to weaken the paternal power,
      Being, as 't were, the shadow of his own.
      I pray you now excuse me. I have business
      That will not bear delay.
                                                        [Exit CAMILLO.

                                 But you, Orsino,
      Have the petition; wherefore not present it?

      I have presented it, and backed it with                         60
      My earnest prayers and urgent interest;
      It was returned unanswered. I doubt not
      But that the strange and execrable deeds
      Alleged in it--in truth they might well baffle
      Any belief--have turned the Pope's displeasure
      Upon the accusers from the criminal.
      So I should guess from what Camillo said.

      My friend, that palace-walking devil, Gold,
      Has whispered silence to His Holiness;
      And we are left, as scorpions ringed with fire.                 70
      What should we do but strike ourselves to death?
      For he who is our murderous persecutor
      Is shielded by a father's holy name,
      Or I would--
                                                      [Stops abruptly.

                    What? Fear not to speak your thought.
      Words are but holy as the deeds they cover;
      A priest who has forsworn the God he serves,
      A judge who makes Truth weep at his decree,
      A friend who should weave counsel, as I now,
      But as the mantle of some selfish guile,
      A father who is all a tyrant seems,--                           80
      Were the profaner for his sacred name.

      Ask me not what I think; the unwilling brain
      Feigns often what it would not; and we trust
      Imagination with such fantasies
      As the tongue dares not fashion into words--
      Which have no words, their horror makes them dim
      To the mind's eye. My heart denies itself
      To think what you demand.

                                 But a friend's bosom
      Is as the inmost cave of our own mind,
      Where we sit shut from the wide gaze of day                     90
      And from the all-communicating air.
      You look what I suspected--

                                   Spare me now!
      I am as one lost in a midnight wood,
      Who dares not ask some harmless passenger
      The path across the wilderness, lest he,
      As my thoughts are, should be--a murderer.
      I know you are my friend, and all I dare
      Speak to my soul that will I trust with thee.
      But now my heart is heavy, and would take
      Lone counsel from a night of sleepless care.                   100
      Pardon me that I say farewell--farewell!
      I would that to my own suspected self
      I could address a word so full of peace.

      Farewell!--Be your thoughts better or more bold.
                                                        [Exit GIACOMO.
      I had disposed the Cardinal Camillo
      To feed his hope with cold encouragement.
      It fortunately serves my close designs
      That 't is a trick of this same family
      To analyze their own and other minds.
      Such self-anatomy shall teach the will                         110
      Dangerous secrets; for it tempts our powers,
      Knowing what must be thought, and may be done,
      Into the depth of darkest purposes.
      So Cenci fell into the pit; even I,
      Since Beatrice unveiled me to myself,
      And made me shrink from what I cannot shun,
      Show a poor figure to my own esteem,
      To which I grow half reconciled. I 'll do
      As little mischief as I can; that thought
      Shall fee the accuser conscience.
                                                       (After a pause)
                                         Now what harm               120
      If Cenci should be murdered?--Yet, if murdered,
      Wherefore by me? And what if I could take
      The profit, yet omit the sin and peril
      In such an action? Of all earthly things
      I fear a man whose blows outspeed his words;
      And such is Cenci; and, while Cenci lives,
      His daughter's dowry were a secret grave
      If a priest wins her.--O fair Beatrice!
      Would that I loved thee not, or, loving thee,
      Could but despise danger and gold and all                      130
      That frowns between my wish and its effect,
      Or smiles beyond it! There is no escape;
      Her bright form kneels beside me at the altar,
      And follows me to the resort of men,
      And fills my slumber with tumultuous dreams,
      So when I wake my blood seems liquid fire;
      And if I strike my damp and dizzy head,
      My hot palm scorches it; her very name,
      But spoken by a stranger, makes my heart
      Sicken and pant; and thus unprofitably                         140
      I clasp the phantom of unfelt delights
      Till weak imagination half possesses
      The self-created shadow. Yet much longer
      Will I not nurse this life of feverous hours.
      From the unravelled hopes of Giacomo
      I must work out my own dear purposes.
      I see, as from a tower, the end of all:
      Her father dead; her brother bound to me
      By a dark secret, surer than the grave;
      Her mother scared and unexpostulating                          150
      From the dread manner of her wish achieved;
      And she!--Once more take courage, my faint heart;
      What dares a friendless maiden matched with thee?
      I have such foresight as assures success.
      Some unbeheld divinity doth ever,
      When dread events are near, stir up men's minds
      To black suggestions; and he prospers best,
      Not who becomes the instrument of ill,
      But who can flatter the dark spirit that makes
      Its empire and its prey of other hearts                        160
      Till it become his slave--as I will do.