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The Cenci

By Percy Bysshe Shelley


SCENE I. -- An Apartment in the Cenci Palace. LUCRETIA; to her enter BEATRICE.
BEATRICE (she enters staggering and speaks wildly)

REACH me that handkerchief!--My brain is hurt;
      My eyes are full of blood; just wipe them for me--
      I see but indistinctly.

                               My sweet child,
      You have no wound; 't is only a cold dew
      That starts from your dear brow.--Alas, alas!
      What has befallen?

                          How comes this hair undone?
      Its wandering strings must be what blind me so,
      And yet I tied it fast.--Oh, horrible!
      The pavement sinks under my feet! The walls
      Spin round! I see a woman weeping there,                        10
      And standing calm and motionless, whilst I
      Slide giddily as the world reels.--My God!
      The beautiful blue heaven is flecked with blood!
      The sunshine on the floor is black! The air
      Is changed to vapors such as the dead breathe
      In charnel pits! Pah! I am choked! There creeps
      A clinging, black, contaminating mist
      About me--'t is substantial, heavy, thick;
      I cannot pluck it from me, for it glues
      My fingers and my limbs to one another,                         20
      And eats into my sinews, and dissolves
      My flesh to a pollution, poisoning
      The subtle, pure, and inmost spirit of life!
      My God! I never knew what the mad felt
      Before; for I am mad beyond all doubt!
                                                         (More wildly)
      No, I am dead! These putrefying limbs
      Shut round and sepulchre the panting soul
      Which would burst forth into the wandering air!
                                                             (A pause)
      What hideous thought was that I had even now?
      'T is gone; and yet its burden remains here                     30
      O'er these dull eyes--upon this weary heart!
      O world! O life! O day! O misery!

      What ails thee, my poor child? She answers not.
      Her spirit apprehends the sense of pain,
      But not it cause; suffering has dried away
      The source from which it sprung.

BEATRICE (frantically)
                                        Like Parricide--
      Misery has killed its father; yet its father
      Never like mine--O God! what thing am I?

      My dearest child, what has your father done?

BEATRICE (doubtfully)
      Who art thou, questioner? I have no father.                     40
      She is the madhouse nurse who tends on me,
      It is a piteous office.

(To LUCRETIA, in a slow, subdued voice)
                               Do you know,
      I thought I was that wretched Beatrice
      Men speak of, whom her father sometimes hales
      From hall to hall by the entangled hair;
      At others, pens up naked in damp cells
      Where scaly reptiles crawl, and starves her there
      Till she will eat strange flesh. This woful story
      So did I overact in my sick dreams
      That I imagined--no, it cannot be!                              50
      Horrible things have been in this wild world,
      Prodigious mixtures, and confusions strange
      Of good and ill; and worse have been conceived
      Than ever there was found a heart to do.
      But never fancy imaged such a deed
                               (Pauses, suddenly recollecting herself)
            Who art thou? Swear to me, ere I die
      With fearful expectation, that indeed
      Thou art not what thou seemest--Mother!

      My sweet child, know you--

                                  Yet speak it not;
      For then if this be truth, that other too                       60
      Must be a truth, a firm enduring truth,
      Linked with each lasting circumstance of life,
      Never to change, never to pass away.
      Why so it is. This is the Cenci Palace;
      Thou art Lucretia; I am Beatrice.
      I have talked some wild words, but will no more.
      Mother, come near me; from this point of time,
      I am--
                                         (Her voice dies away faintly)

              Alas! what has befallen thee, child?
      What has thy father done?

                                 What have I done?
      Am I not innocent? Is it my crime                               70
      That one with white hair and imperious brow,
      Who tortured me from my forgotten years
      As parents only dare, should call himself
      My father, yet should be!--Oh, what am I?
      What name, what place, what memory shall be mine?
      What retrospects, outliving even despair?

      He is a violent tyrant, surely, child;
      We know that death alone can make us free;
      His death or ours. But what can he have done
      Of deadlier outrage or worse injury?                            80
      Thou art unlike thyself; thine eyes shoot forth
      A wandering and strange spirit. Speak to me,
      Unlock those pallid hands whose fingers twine
      With one another.

                         'T is the restless life
      Tortured within them. If I try to speak,
      I shall go mad. Ay, something must be done;
      What, yet I know not--something which shall make
      The thing that I have suffered but a shadow
      In the dread lightning which avenges it;
      Brief, rapid, irreversible, destroying                          90
      The consequence of what it cannot cure.
      Some such thing is to be endured or done;
      When I know what, I shall be still and calm,
      And never anything will move me more.
      But now!--O blood, which art my father's blood,
      Circling through these contaminated veins,
      If thou, poured forth on the polluted earth,
      Could wash away the crime and punishment
      By which I suffer--no, that cannot be!
      Many might doubt there were a God above                        100
      Who sees and permits evil, and so die;
      That faith no agony shall obscure in me.

      It must indeed have been some bitter wrong;
      Yet what, I dare not guess. Oh, my lost child,
      Hide not in proud impenetrable grief
      Thy sufferings from my fear.

                                    I hide them not.
      What are the words which yon would have me speak?
      I, who can feign no image in my mind
      Of that which has transformed me; I, whose thought
      Is like a ghost shrouded and folded up                         110
      In its own formless horror--of all words,
      That minister to mortal intercourse,
      Which wouldst thou hear? for there is none to tell
      My misery; if another ever knew
      Aught like to it, she died as I will die,
      And left it, as I must, without a name.
      Death, death! our law and our religion call thee
      A punishment and a reward; oh, which
      Have I deserved?

                        The peace of innocence,
      Till in your season you be called to heaven.                   120
      Whate'er you may have suffered, you have done
      No evil. Death must be the punishment
      Of crime, or the reward of trampling down
      The thorns which God has strewed upon the path
      Which leads to immortality.

                                   Ay, death--
      The punishment of crime. I pray thee, God,
      Let me not be bewildered while I judge.
      If I must live day after day, and keep
      These limbs, the unworthy temple of thy spirit,
      As a foul den from which what thou abhorrest                   130
      May mock thee unavenged--it shall not be!
      Self-murder--no, that might be no escape,
      For thy decree yawns like a Hell between
      Our will and it.--Oh! in this mortal world
      There is no vindication and no law,
      Which can adjudge and execute the doom
      Of that through which I suffer.

                                         (She approaches him solemnly)
                                        Welcome, friend!
      I have to tell you that, since last we met,
      I have endured a wrong so great and strange
      That neither life nor death can give me rest.                  140
      Ask me not what it is, for there are deeds
      Which have no form, sufferings which have no tongue.

      And what is he who has thus injured you?

      The man they call my father; a dread name.

      It cannot be--

                      What it can be, or not,
      Forbear to think. It is, and it has been;
      Advise me how it shall not be again.
      I thought to die; but a religious awe
      Restrains me, and the dread lest death itself
      Might be no refuge from the consciousness                      150
      Of what is yet unexpiated. Oh, speak!

      Accuse him of the deed, and let the law
      Avenge thee.

                    Oh, ice-hearted counsellor!
      If I could find a word that might make known
      The crime of my destroyer; and that done,
      My tongue should like a knife tear out the secret
      Which cankers my heart's core; ay, lay all bare,
      So that my unpolluted fame should be
      With vilest gossips a stale mouthèd story;
      A mock, a byword, an astonishment:--                           160
      If this were done, which never shall be done,
      Think of the offender's gold, his dreaded hate,
      And the strange horror of the accuser's tale,
      Baffling belief, and overpowering speech;
      Scarce whispered, unimaginable, wrapped
      In hideous hints--Oh, most assured redress!

      You will endure it then?

      It seems your counsel is small profit.
                          (Turns from him, and speaks half to herself)
      All must be suddenly resolved and done.
      What is this undistinguishable mist                            170
      Of thoughts, which rise, like shadow after shadow,
      Darkening each other?

                             Should the offender live?
      Triumph in his misdeed? and make, by use,
      His crime, whate'er it is, dreadful no doubt,
      Thine element; until thou mayest become
      Utterly lost; subdued even to the hue
      Of that which thou permittest?

BEATRICE (to herself)
                                      Mighty death!
      Thou double-visaged shadow! only judge!
      Rightfullest arbiter!
                                    (She retires, absorbed in thought)

                               If the lightning
      Of God has e'er descended to avenge--                          180

      Blaspheme not! His high Providence commits
      Its glory on this earth and their own wrongs
      Into the hands of men; if they neglect
      To punish crime--

                         But if one, like this wretch,
      Should mock with gold opinion, law and power?
      If there be no appeal to that which makes
      The guiltiest tremble? if, because our wrongs,
      For that they are unnatural, strange and monstrous,
      Exceed all measure of belief? Oh, God!
      If, for the very reasons which should make                     190
      Redress most swift and sure, our injurer triumphs?
      And we, the victims, bear worse punishment
      Than that appointed for their torturer?

                                               Think not
      But that there is redress where there is wrong,
      So we be bold enough to seize it.

      If there were any way to make all sure,
      I know not--but I think it might be good

            Why, his late outrage to Beatrice--
      For it is such, as I but faintly guess,
      As makes remorse dishonor, and leaves her                      200
      Only one duty, how she may avenge;
      You, but one refuge from ills ill endured;
      Me, but one counsel--

                             For we cannot hope
      That aid, or retribution, or resource
      Will arise thence, where every other one
      Might find them with less need.
                                                   [BEATRICE advances.


                                               Peace, Orsino!
      And, honored Lady, while I speak, I pray
      That you put off, as garments overworn,
      Forbearance and respect, remorse and fear,
      And all the fit restraints of daily life,                      210
      Which have been borne from childhood, but which now
      Would be a mockery to my holier plea.
      As I have said, I have endured a wrong,
      Which, though it be expressionless, is such
      As asks atonement, both for what is passed,
      And lest I be reserved, day after day,
      To load with crimes an overburdened soul,
      And be--what ye can dream not. I have prayed
      To God, and I have talked with my own heart,
      And have unravelled my entangled will,                         220
      And have at length determined what is right.
      Art thou my friend, Orsino? False or true?
      Pledge thy salvation ere I speak.

                                         I swear
      To dedicate my cunning, and my strength,
      My silence, and whatever else is mine,
      To thy commands.

                        You think we should devise
      His death?

                  And execute what is devised,
      And suddenly. We must be brief and bold.

      And yet most cautious.

                              For the jealous laws
      Would punish us with death and infamy                          230
      For that which it became themselves to do.

      Be cautious as ye may, but prompt. Orsino,
      What are the means?

                           I know two dull, fierce outlaws,
      Who think man's spirit as a worm's, and they
      Would trample out, for any slight caprice,
      The meanest or the noblest life. This mood
      Is marketable here in Rome. They sell
      What we now want.

                         To-morrow, before dawn,
      Cenci will take us to that lonely rock,
      Petrella, in the Apulian Apennines.                            240
      If he arrive there--

                            He must not arrive.

      Will it be dark before you reach the tower?

      The sun will scarce be set.

                                   But I remember
      Two miles on this side of the fort the road
      Crosses a deep ravine; 't is rough and narrow,
      And winds with short turns down the precipice;
      And in its depth there is a mighty rock,
      Which has, from unimaginable years,
      Sustained itself with terror and with toil
      Over a gulf, and with the agony                                250
      With which it clings seems slowly coming down;
      Even as a wretched soul hour after hour
      Clings to the mass of life; yet, clinging, leans;
      And, leaning, makes more dark the dread abyss
      In which it fears to fall; beneath this crag
      Huge as despair, as if in weariness,
      The melancholy mountain yawns; below,
      You hear but see not an impetuous torrent
      Raging among the caverns, and a bridge
      Crosses the chasm; and high above there grow,                  260
      With intersecting trunks, from crag to crag,
      Cedars, and yews, and pines; whose tangled hair
      Is matted in one solid roof of shade
      By the dark ivy's twine. At noonday here
      'T is twilight, and at sunset blackest night.

      Before you reach that bridge make some excuse
      For spurring on your mules, or loitering

               What sound is that?

      Hark! No, it cannot be a servant's step;
      It must be Cenci, unexpectedly                                 270
      Returned--make some excuse for being here.

BEATRICE (to ORSINO as she goes out)
      That step we hear approach must never pass
      The bridge of which we spoke.
                                    [Exeunt LUCRETIA and BEATRICE.

                                     What shall I do?
      Cenci must find me here, and I must bear
      The imperious inquisition of his looks
      As to what brought me hither; let me mask
      Mine own in some inane and vacant smile.

Enter GIACOMO, in a hurried manner
      How! have you ventured hither? know you then
      That Cenci is from home?

                                I sought him here;
      And now must wait till he returns.

                                          Great God!                 280
      Weigh you the danger of this rashness?

      Does my destroyer know his danger? We
      Are now no more, as once, parent and child,
      But man to man; the oppressor to the oppressed,
      The slanderer to the slandered; foe to foe.
      He has cast Nature off, which was his shield,
      And Nature casts him off, who is her shame;
      And I spurn both. Is it a father's throat
      Which I will shake, and say, I ask not gold;
      I ask not happy years; nor memories                            290
      Of tranquil childhood; nor home-sheltered love;
      Though all these hast thou torn from me, and more;
      But only my fair fame; only one hoard
      Of peace, which I thought hidden from thy hate
      Under the penury heaped on me by thee;
      Or I will--God can understand and pardon,
      Why should I speak with man?

                                    Be calm, dear friend.

      Well, I will calmly tell you what he did.
      This old Francesco Cenci, as you know,
      Borrowed the dowry of my wife from me,                         300
      And then denied the loan; and left me so
      In poverty, the which I sought to mend
      By holding a poor office in the state.
      It had been promised to me, and already
      I bought new clothing for my ragged babes,
      And my wife smiled; and my heart knew repose;
      When Cenci's intercession, as I found,
      Conferred this office on a wretch, whom thus
      He paid for vilest service. I returned
      With this ill news, and we sate sad together                   310
      Solacing our despondency with tears
      Of such affection and unbroken faith
      As temper life's worst bitterness; when he,
      As he is wont, came to upbraid and curse,
      Mocking our poverty, and telling us
      Such was God's scourge for disobedient sons.
      And then, that I might strike him dumb with shame,
      I spoke of my wife's dowry; but he coined
      A brief yet specious tale, how I had wasted
      The sum in secret riot; and he saw                             320
      My wife was touched, and he went smiling forth.
      And when I knew the impression he had made,
      And felt my wife insult with silent scorn
      My ardent truth, and look averse and cold,
      I went forth too; but soon returned again;
      Yet not so soon but that my wife had taught
      My children her harsh thoughts, and they all cried,
      'Give us clothes, father! Give us better food!
      What you in one night squander were enough
      For months!' I looked, and saw that home was hell.             330
      And to that hell will I return no more,
      Until mine enemy has rendered up
      Atonement, or, as he gave life to me,
      I will, reversing Nature's law--

                                        Trust me,
      The compensation which thou seekest here
      Will be denied.

                       Then--Are you not my friend?
      Did you not hint at the alternative,
      Upon the brink of which you see I stand,
      The other day when we conversed together?
      My wrongs were then less. That word, parricide,                340
      Although I am resolved, haunts me like fear.

      It must be fear itself, for the bare word
      Is hollow mockery. Mark how wisest God
      Draws to one point the threads of a just doom,
      So sanctifying it; what you devise
      Is, as it were, accomplished.

                                     Is he dead?

      His grave is ready. Know that since we met
      Cenci has done an outrage to his daughter.

      What outrage?

                     That she speaks not, but you may
      Conceive such half conjectures as I do                         350
      From her fixed paleness, and the lofty grief
      Of her stern brow, bent on the idle air,
      And her severe unmodulated voice,
      Drowning both tenderness and dread; and last
      From this; that whilst her step-mother and I,
      Bewildered in our horror, talked together
      With obscure hints, both self-misunderstood,
      And darkly guessing, stumbling, in our talk,
      Over the truth and yet to its revenge,
      She interrupted us, and with a look                            360
      Which told, before she spoke it, he must die--

      It is enough. My doubts are well appeased;
      There is a higher reason for the act
      Than mine; there is a holier judge than me,
      A more unblamed avenger. Beatrice,
      Who in the gentleness of thy sweet youth
      Hast never trodden on a worm, or bruised
      A living flower, but thou hast pitied it
      With needless tears! fair sister, thou in whom
      Men wondered how such loveliness and wisdom                    370
      Did not destroy each other! is there made
      Ravage of thee? O heart, I ask no more
      Justification! Shall I wait, Orsino,
      Till he return, and stab him at the door?

      Not so, some accident might interpose
      To rescue him from what is now most sure;
      And you are unprovided where to fly,
      How to excuse or to conceal. Nay, listen;
      All is contrived; success is so assured
      Enter BEATRICE

              'T is my brother's voice! You know me not?             380

      My sister, my lost sister!

                                  Lost indeed!
      I see Orsino has talked with you, and
      That you conjecture things too horrible
      To speak, yet far less than the truth. Now stay not,
      He might return; yet kiss me; I shall know
      That then thou hast consented to his death.
      Farewell, farewell! Let piety to God,
      Brotherly love, justice and clemency,
      And all things that make tender hardest hearts,
      Make thine hard, brother. Answer not--farewell.                390
                                                    [Exeunt severally.
SCENE II. -- A mean Apartment in GIACOMO'S House. GIACOMO alone.
      'T is midnight, and Orsino comes not yet.
                                   (Thunder, and the sound of a storm)
      What! can the everlasting elements
      Feel with a worm like man? If so, the shaft
      Of mercy-wingèd lightning would not fall
      On stones and trees. My wife and children sleep;
      They are now living in unmeaning dreams;
      But I must wake, still doubting if that deed
      Be just which was most necessary. Oh,
      Thou unreplenished lamp, whose narrow fire
      Is shaken by the wind, and on whose edge                        10
      Devouring darkness hovers! thou small flame,
      Which, as a dying pulse rises and falls,
      Still flickerest up and down, how very soon,
      Did I not feed thee, wouldst thou fail and be
      As thou hadst never been! So wastes and sinks
      Even now, perhaps, the life that kindled mine;
      But that no power can fill with vital oil,--
      That broken lamp of flesh. Ha! 't is the blood
      Which fed these veins that ebbs till all is cold;
      It is the form that moulded mine that sinks                     20
      Into the white and yellow spasms of death;
      It is the soul by which mine was arrayed
      In God's immortal likeness which now stands
      Naked before Heaven's judgment-seat!
                                                      (A bell strikes)
                                            One! Two!
      The hours crawl on; and, when my hairs are white,
      My son will then perhaps be waiting thus,
      Tortured between just hate and vain remorse;
      Chiding the tardy messenger of news
      Like those which I expect. I almost wish
      He be not dead, although my wrongs are great;                   30
      Yet--'t is Orsino's step.


                                         I am come
      To say he has escaped.


                                        And safe
      Within Petrella. He passed by the spot
      Appointed for the deed an hour too soon.

      Are we the fools of such contingencies?
      And do we waste in blind misgivings thus
      The hours when we should act? Then wind and thunder,
      Which seemed to howl his knell, is the loud laughter
      With which Heaven mocks our weakness! I henceforth
      Will ne'er repent of aught designed or done,                    40
      But my repentance.

                          See, the lamp is out.

      If no remorse is ours when the dim air
      Has drunk this innocent flame, why should we quail
      When Cenci's life, that light by which ill spirits
      See the worst deeds they prompt, shall sink forever?
      No, I am hardened.

                          Why, what need of this?
      Who feared the pale intrusion of remorse
      In a just deed? Although our first plan failed,
      Doubt not but he will soon be laid to rest.
      But light the lamp; let us not talk i' the dark.                50

GIACOMO (lighting the lamp)
      And yet, once quenched, I cannot thus relume
      My father's life; do you not think his ghost
      Might plead that argument with God?

                                           Once gone,
      You cannot now recall your sister's peace;
      Your own extinguished years of youth and hope;
      Nor your wife's bitter words; nor all the taunts
      Which, from the prosperous, weak misfortune takes;
      Nor your dead mother; nor--

                                   Oh, speak no more!
      I am resolved, although this very hand
      Must quench the life that animated it.                          60

      There is no need of that. Listen; you know
      Olimpio, the castellan of Petrella
      In old Colonna's time; him whom your father
      Degraded from his post? And Marzio,
      That desperate wretch, whom he deprived last year
      Of a reward of blood, well earned and due?

      I knew Olimpio; and they say he hated
      Old Cenci so, that in his silent rage
      His lips grew white only to see him pass.
      Of Marzio I know nothing.

                                 Marzio's hate                        70
      Matches Olimpio's. I have sent these men,
      But in your name, and as at your request,
      To talk with Beatrice and Lucretia.

      Only to talk?

                     The moments which even now
      Pass onward to to-morrow's midnight hour
      May memorize their flight with death; ere then
      They must have talked, and may perhaps have done,
      And made an end.

                        Listen! What sound is that?

      The house-dog moans, and the beams crack; nought else.

      It is my wife complaining in her sleep;                         80
      I doubt not she is saying bitter things
      Of me; and all my children round her dreaming
      That I deny them sustenance.

                                    Whilst he
      Who truly took it from them, and who fills
      Their hungry rest with bitterness, now sleeps
      Lapped in bad pleasures, and triumphantly
      Mocks thee in visions of successful hate
      Too like the truth of day.

                                  If e'er he wakes
      Again, I will not trust to hireling hands--

      Why, that were well. I must be gone; good night!                90
      When next we meet, may all be done!

                                           And all
      Forgotten! Oh, that I had never been!