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Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley

THE CENCI: ACT 1.


ACT 1.

SCENE 1.1:
AN APARTMENT IN THE CENCI PALACE.
ENTER COUNT CENCI AND CARDINAL CAMILLO.

CAMILLO:
That matter of the murder is hushed up
If you consent to yield his Holiness
Your fief that lies beyond the Pincian gate.--
It needed all my interest in the conclave
To bend him to this point; he said that you _5
Bought perilous impunity with your gold;
That crimes like yours if once or twice compounded
Enriched the Church, and respited from hell
An erring soul which might repent and live: --
But that the glory and the interest _10
Of the high throne he fills, little consist
With making it a daily mart of guilt
As manifold and hideous as the deeds
Which you scarce hide from men's revolted eyes.

CENCI:
The third of my possessions--let it go! _15
Ay, I once heard the nephew of the Pope
Had sent his architect to view the ground,
Meaning to build a villa on my vines
The next time I compounded with his uncle:
I little thought he should outwit me so! _20
Henceforth no witness--not the lamp--shall see
That which the vassal threatened to divulge
Whose throat is choked with dust for his reward.
The deed he saw could not have rated higher
Than his most worthless life:--it angers me! _25
Respited me from Hell! So may the Devil
Respite their souls from Heaven! No doubt Pope Clement,
And his most charitable nephews, pray
That the Apostle Peter and the Saints
Will grant for their sake that I long enjoy _30
Strength, wealth, and pride, and lust, and length of days
Wherein to act the deeds which are the stewards
Of their revenue.--But much yet remains
To which they show no title.

CAMILLO:
Oh, Count Cenci!
So much that thou mightst honourably live _35
And reconcile thyself with thine own heart
And with thy God, and with the offended world.
How hideously look deeds of lust and blood
Through those snow white and venerable hairs!--
Your children should be sitting round you now, _40
But that you fear to read upon their looks
The shame and misery you have written there.
Where is your wife? Where is your gentle daughter?
Methinks her sweet looks, which make all things else
Beauteous and glad, might kill the fiend within you. _45
Why is she barred from all society
But her own strange and uncomplaining wrongs?
Talk with me, Count,--you know I mean you well.
I stood beside your dark and fiery youth
Watching its bold and bad career, as men _50
Watch meteors, but it vanished not--I marked
Your desperate and remorseless manhood; now
Do I behold you in dishonoured age
Charged with a thousand unrepented crimes.
Yet I have ever hoped you would amend, _55
And in that hope have saved your life three times.

CENCI:
For which Aldobrandino owes you now
My fief beyond the Pincian.--Cardinal,
One thing, I pray you, recollect henceforth,
And so we shall converse with less restraint. _60
A man you knew spoke of my wife and daughter--
He was accustomed to frequent my house;
So the next day HIS wife and daughter came
And asked if I had seen him; and I smiled:
I think they never saw him any more. _65

CAMILLO:
Thou execrable man, beware!--

CENCI:
Of thee?
Nay, this is idle: --We should know each other.
As to my character for what men call crime
Seeing I please my senses as I list,
And vindicate that right with force or guile, _70
It is a public matter, and I care not
If I discuss it with you. I may speak
Alike to you and my own conscious heart--
For you give out that you have half reformed me,
Therefore strong vanity will keep you silent _75
If fear should not; both will, I do not doubt.
All men delight in sensual luxury,
All men enjoy revenge; and most exult
Over the tortures they can never feel--
Flattering their secret peace with others' pain. _80
But I delight in nothing else. I love
The sight of agony, and the sense of joy,
When this shall be another's, and that mine.
And I have no remorse and little fear,
Which are, I think, the checks of other men. _85
This mood has grown upon me, until now
Any design my captious fancy makes
The picture of its wish, and it forms none
But such as men like you would start to know,
Is as my natural food and rest debarred _90
Until it be accomplished.

CAMILLO:
Art thou not
Most miserable?

CENCI:
Why miserable?--
No.--I am what your theologians call
Hardened;--which they must be in impudence,
So to revile a man's peculiar taste. _95
True, I was happier than I am, while yet
Manhood remained to act the thing I thought;
While lust was sweeter than revenge; and now
Invention palls:--Ay, we must all grow old--
And but that there remains a deed to act _100
Whose horror might make sharp an appetite
Duller than mine--I'd do,--I know not what.
When I was young I thought of nothing else
But pleasure; and I fed on honey sweets:
Men, by St. Thomas! cannot live like bees, _105
And I grew tired:--yet, till I killed a foe,
And heard his groans, and heard his children's groans,
Knew I not what delight was else on earth,
Which now delights me little. I the rather
Look on such pangs as terror ill conceals, _110
The dry fixed eyeball; the pale, quivering lip,
Which tell me that the spirit weeps within
Tears bitterer than the bloody sweat of Christ.
I rarely kill the body, which preserves,
Like a strong prison, the soul within my power, _115
Wherein I feed it with the breath of fear
For hourly pain.

NOTE:
_100 And but that edition 1821; But that editions 1819, 1839.

CAMILLO:
Hell's most abandoned fiend
Did never, in the drunkenness of guilt,
Speak to his heart as now you speak to me;
I thank my God that I believe you not. _120

[ENTER ANDREA.]

ANDREA:
My Lord, a gentleman from Salamanca
Would speak with you.

CENCI:
Bid him attend me
In the grand saloon.

[EXIT ANDREA.]

CAMILLO:
Farewell; and I will pray
Almighty God that thy false, impious words
Tempt not his spirit to abandon thee. _125

[EXIT CAMILLO.]

CENCI:
The third of my possessions! I must use
Close husbandry, or gold, the old man's sword,
Falls from my withered hand. But yesterday
There came an order from the Pope to make
Fourfold provision for my cursed sons; _130
Whom I had sent from Rome to Salamanca,
Hoping some accident might cut them off;
And meaning if I could to starve them there.
I pray thee, God, send some quick death upon them!
Bernardo and my wife could not be worse _135
If dead and damned:--then, as to Beatrice--
[LOOKING AROUND HIM SUSPICIOUSLY.]
I think they cannot hear me at that door;
What if they should? And yet I need not speak
Though the heart triumphs with itself in words.
O, thou most silent air, that shalt not hear _140
What now I think! Thou, pavement, which I tread
Towards her chamber,--let your echoes talk
Of my imperious step scorning surprise,
But not of my intent!--Andrea!

NOTES:
_131 Whom I had edition 1821; Whom I have editions 1819, 1839.
_140 that shalt edition 1821; that shall editions 1819, 1839.

[ENTER ANDREA.]

ANDREA:
My lord?

CENCI:
Bid Beatrice attend me in her chamber _145
This evening:--no, at midnight and alone.

[EXEUNT.]

SCENE 1.2:
A GARDEN OF THE CENCI PALACE.
ENTER BEATRICE AND ORSINO, AS IN CONVERSATION.

BEATRICE:
Pervert not truth,
Orsino. You remember where we held
That conversation;--nay, we see the spot
Even from this cypress;--two long years are past
Since, on an April midnight, underneath _5
The moonlight ruins of Mount Palatine,
I did confess to you my secret mind.

ORSINO:
You said you loved me then.

BEATRICE:
You are a Priest.
Speak to me not of love.

ORSINO:
I may obtain
The dispensation of the Pope to marry. _10
Because I am a Priest do you believe
Your image, as the hunter some struck deer,
Follows me not whether I wake or sleep?

BEATRICE:
As I have said, speak to me not of love;
Had you a dispensation I have not; _15
Nor will I leave this home of misery
Whilst my poor Bernard, and that gentle lady
To whom I owe life, and these virtuous thoughts,
Must suffer what I still have strength to share.
Alas, Orsino! All the love that once _20
I felt for you, is turned to bitter pain.
Ours was a youthful contract, which you first
Broke, by assuming vows no Pope will loose.
And thus I love you still, but holily,
Even as a sister or a spirit might; _25
And so I swear a cold fidelity.
And it is well perhaps we shall not marry.
You have a sly, equivocating vein
That suits me not.--Ah, wretched that I am!
Where shall I turn? Even now you look on me _30
As you were not my friend, and as if you
Discovered that I thought so, with false smiles
Making my true suspicion seem your wrong.
Ah, no! forgive me; sorrow makes me seem
Sterner than else my nature might have been; _35
I have a weight of melancholy thoughts,
And they forebode,--but what can they forebode
Worse than I now endure?

NOTE:
_24 And thus editions 1821, 1839; And yet edition 1819.

ORSINO:
All will be well.
Is the petition yet prepared? You know
My zeal for all you wish, sweet Beatrice; _40
Doubt not but I will use my utmost skill
So that the Pope attend to your complaint.

BEATRICE:
Your zeal for all I wish;--Ah me, you are cold!
Your utmost skill...speak but one word...
[ASIDE.]
Alas!
Weak and deserted creature that I am, _45
Here I stand bickering with my only friend!
[TO ORSINO.]
This night my father gives a sumptuous feast,
Orsino; he has heard some happy news
From Salamanca, from my brothers there,
And with this outward show of love he mocks _50
His inward hate. 'Tis bold hypocrisy,
For he would gladlier celebrate their deaths,
Which I have heard him pray for on his knees:
Great God! that such a father should be mine!
But there is mighty preparation made, _55
And all our kin, the Cenci, will be there,
And all the chief nobility of Rome.
And he has bidden me and my pale Mother
Attire ourselves in festival array.
Poor lady! She expects some happy change _60
In his dark spirit from this act; I none.
At supper I will give you the petition:
Till when--farewell.

ORSINO:
Farewell.
[EXIT BEATRICE.]
I know the Pope
Will ne'er absolve me from my priestly vow
But by absolving me from the revenue _65
Of many a wealthy see; and, Beatrice,
I think to win thee at an easier rate.
Nor shall he read her eloquent petition:
He might bestow her on some poor relation
Of his sixth cousin, as he did her sister, _70
And I should be debarred from all access.
Then as to what she suffers from her father,
In all this there is much exaggeration:--
Old men are testy and will have their way;
A man may stab his enemy, or his vassal, _75
And live a free life as to wine or women,
And with a peevish temper may return
To a dull home, and rate his wife and children;
Daughters and wives call this foul tyranny.
I shall be well content if on my conscience _80
There rest no heavier sin than what they suffer
From the devices of my love--a net
From which he shall escape not. Yet I fear
Her subtle mind, her awe-inspiring gaze,
Whose beams anatomize me nerve by nerve _85
And lay me bare, and make me blush to see
My hidden thoughts.--Ah, no! A friendless girl
Who clings to me, as to her only hope:--
I were a fool, not less than if a panther
Were panic-stricken by the antelope's eye, _90
If she escape me.

NOTE:
_75 vassal edition 1821; slave edition 1819.

[EXIT.]

SCENE 1.3:
A MAGNIFICENT HALL IN THE CENCI PALACE.
A BANQUET.
ENTER CENCI, LUCRETIA, BEATRICE, ORSINO, CAMILLO, NOBLES.

CENCI:
Welcome, my friends and kinsmen; welcome ye,
Princes and Cardinals, pillars of the church,
Whose presence honours our festivity.
I have too long lived like an anchorite,
And in my absence from your merry meetings _5
An evil word is gone abroad of me;
But I do hope that you, my noble friends,
When you have shared the entertainment here,
And heard the pious cause for which 'tis given,
And we have pledged a health or two together, _10
Will think me flesh and blood as well as you;
Sinful indeed, for Adam made all so,
But tender-hearted, meek and pitiful.

FIRST GUEST:
In truth, my Lord, you seem too light of heart,
Too sprightly and companionable a man, _15
To act the deeds that rumour pins on you.
[TO HIS COMPANION.]
I never saw such blithe and open cheer
In any eye!

SECOND GUEST:
Some most desired event,
In which we all demand a common joy,
Has brought us hither; let us hear it, Count. _20

CENCI:
It is indeed a most desired event.
If when a parent from a parent's heart
Lifts from this earth to the great Father of all
A prayer, both when he lays him down to sleep,
And when he rises up from dreaming it; _25
One supplication, one desire, one hope,
That he would grant a wish for his two sons,
Even all that he demands in their regard--
And suddenly beyond his dearest hope
It is accomplished, he should then rejoice, _30
And call his friends and kinsmen to a feast,
And task their love to grace his merriment,--
Then honour me thus far--for I am he.

BEATRICE [TO LUCRETIA]:
Great God! How horrible! some dreadful ill
Must have befallen my brothers.

LUCRETIA:
Fear not, child, _35
He speaks too frankly.

BEATRICE:
Ah! My blood runs cold.
I fear that wicked laughter round his eye,
Which wrinkles up the skin even to the hair.

CENCI:
Here are the letters brought from Salamanca;
Beatrice, read them to your mother. God! _40
I thank thee! In one night didst thou perform,
By ways inscrutable, the thing I sought.
My disobedient and rebellious sons
Are dead!--Why, dead!--What means this change of cheer?
You hear me not, I tell you they are dead; _45
And they will need no food or raiment more:
The tapers that did light them the dark way
Are their last cost. The Pope, I think, will not
Expect I should maintain them in their coffins.
Rejoice with me--my heart is wondrous glad. _50

[LUCRETIA SINKS, HALF FAINTING; BEATRICE SUPPORTS HER.]

BEATRICE :
It is not true!--Dear Lady, pray look up.
Had it been true, there is a God in Heaven,
He would not live to boast of such a boon.
Unnatural man, thou knowest that it is false.

CENCI:
Ay, as the word of God; whom here I call _55
To witness that I speak the sober truth;--
And whose most favouring Providence was shown
Even in the manner of their deaths. For Rocco
Was kneeling at the mass, with sixteen others,
When the church fell and crushed him to a mummy, _60
The rest escaped unhurt. Cristofano
Was stabbed in error by a jealous man,
Whilst she he loved was sleeping with his rival;
All in the self-same hour of the same night;
Which shows that Heaven has special care of me. _65
I beg those friends who love me, that they mark
The day a feast upon their calendars.
It was the twenty-seventh of December:
Ay, read the letters if you doubt my oath.

[THE ASSEMBLY APPEARS CONFUSED; SEVERAL OF THE GUESTS RISE.]

FIRST GUEST:
Oh, horrible! I will depart--

SECOND GUEST:
And I.--

THIRD GUEST:
No, stay! _70
I do believe it is some jest; though faith!
'Tis mocking us somewhat too solemnly.
I think his son has married the Infanta,
Or found a mine of gold in El Dorado.
'Tis but to season some such news; stay, stay! _75
I see 'tis only raillery by his smile.

CENCI [FILLING A BOWL OF WINE, AND LIFTING IT UP]:
Oh, thou bright wine whose purple splendour leaps
And bubbles gaily in this golden bowl
Under the lamplight, as my spirits do,
To hear the death of my accursed sons! _80
Could I believe thou wert their mingled blood,
Then would I taste thee like a sacrament,
And pledge with thee the mighty Devil in Hell,
Who, if a father's curses, as men say,
Climb with swift wings after their children's souls, _85
And drag them from the very throne of Heaven,
Now triumphs in my triumph!--But thou art
Superfluous; I have drunken deep of joy,
And I will taste no other wine to-night.
Here, Andrea! Bear the bowl around.

A GUEST [RISING]:
Thou wretch! _90
Will none among this noble company
Check the abandoned villain?

CAMILLO:
For God's sake,
Let me dismiss the guests! You are insane,
Some ill will come of this.

SECOND GUEST:
Seize, silence him!

FIRST GUEST:
I will!

THIRD GUEST:
And I!

CENCI [ADDRESSING THOSE WHO RISE WITH A THREATENING GESTURE]:
Who moves? Who speaks?
[TURNING TO THE COMPANY.]
'tis nothing, _95
Enjoy yourselves.--Beware! For my revenge
Is as the sealed commission of a king
That kills, and none dare name the murderer.

[THE BANQUET IS BROKEN UP; SEVERAL OF THE GUESTS ARE DEPARTING.]

BEATRICE:
I do entreat you, go not, noble guests;
What, although tyranny and impious hate _100
Stand sheltered by a father's hoary hair?
What if 'tis he who clothed us in these limbs
Who tortures them, and triumphs? What, if we,
The desolate and the dead, were his own flesh,
His children and his wife, whom he is bound _105
To love and shelter? Shall we therefore find
No refuge in this merciless wide world?
O think what deep wrongs must have blotted out
First love, then reverence in a child's prone mind,
Till it thus vanquish shame and fear! O think! _110
I have borne much, and kissed the sacred hand
Which crushed us to the earth, and thought its stroke
Was perhaps some paternal chastisement!
Have excused much, doubted; and when no doubt
Remained, have sought by patience, love, and tears _115
To soften him, and when this could not be
I have knelt down through the long sleepless nights
And lifted up to God, the Father of all,
Passionate prayers: and when these were not heard
I have still borne,--until I meet you here, _120
Princes and kinsmen, at this hideous feast
Given at my brothers' deaths. Two yet remain,
His wife remains and I, whom if ye save not,
Ye may soon share such merriment again
As fathers make over their children's graves. _125
O Prince Colonna, thou art our near kinsman,
Cardinal, thou art the Pope's chamberlain,
Camillo, thou art chief justiciary,
Take us away!

CENCI [HE HAS BEEN CONVERSING WITH CAMILLO DURING THE FIRST PART OF
BEATRICE'S SPEECH; HE HEARS THE CONCLUSION, AND NOW ADVANCES]:
I hope my good friends here
Will think of their own daughters--or perhaps _130
Of their own throats--before they lend an ear
To this wild girl.

BEATRICE [NOT NOTICING THE WORDS OF CENCI]:
Dare no one look on me?
None answer? Can one tyrant overbear
The sense of many best and wisest men?
Or is it that I sue not in some form _135
Of scrupulous law, that ye deny my suit?
O God! That I were buried with my brothers!
And that the flowers of this departed spring
Were fading on my grave! And that my father
Were celebrating now one feast for all! _140

NOTE:
_132 no edition 1821; not edition 1819.

CAMILLO:
A bitter wish for one so young and gentle.
Can we do nothing?

COLONNA:
Nothing that I see.
Count Cenci were a dangerous enemy:
Yet I would second any one.

A CARDINAL:
And I.

CENCI:
Retire to your chamber, insolent girl! _145

BEATRICE:
Retire thou, impious man! Ay, hide thyself
Where never eye can look upon thee more!
Wouldst thou have honour and obedience
Who art a torturer? Father, never dream,
Though thou mayst overbear this company, _150
But ill must come of ill.--Frown not on me!
Haste, hide thyself, lest with avenging looks
My brothers' ghosts should hunt thee from thy seat!
Cover thy face from every living eye,
And start if thou but hear a human step: _155
Seek out some dark and silent corner, there,
Bow thy white head before offended God,
And we will kneel around, and fervently
Pray that he pity both ourselves and thee.

CENCI:
My friends, I do lament this insane girl _160
Has spoilt the mirth of our festivity.
Good night, farewell; I will not make you longer
Spectators of our dull domestic quarrels.
Another time.--
[EXEUNT ALL BUT CENCI AND BEATRICE.]
My brain is swimming round;
Give me a bowl of wine!
[TO BEATRICE.]
Thou painted viper! _165
Beast that thou art! Fair and yet terrible!
I know a charm shall make thee meek and tame,
Now get thee from my sight!
[EXIT BEATRICE.]
Here, Andrea,
Fill up this goblet with Greek wine. I said
I would not drink this evening; but I must; _170
For, strange to say, I feel my spirits fail
With thinking what I have decreed to do.--
[DRINKING THE WINE.]
Be thou the resolution of quick youth
Within my veins, and manhood's purpose stern,
And age's firm, cold, subtle villainy; _175
As if thou wert indeed my children's blood
Which I did thirst to drink! The charm works well;
It must be done; it shall be done, I swear!

[EXIT.]

END OF ACT 1.