Italy's Fair Assassin

July 08, 2014

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822). The Cenci.
Vol. 18, pp. 288-300 of The Harvard Classics

When the monstrous Cenci forced his daughter Beatrice into a horrible situation, she revolted and boldly struck for freedom. Shelley tells her pitiful story in one of his best works.
(Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned, July 8, 1822.)

Act I
Scene III

A Magnificent Hall in the Cenci Palace. A Banquet.


  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
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,
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,
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.
  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;
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,
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,
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!
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;
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.  [LUCRETIA sinks, half-fainting; BEATRICEsupports 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
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,
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.
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!
I do believe it is some jest; tho’ 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!
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 lamp-light, as my spirits do,
To hear the death of my accursèd sons!
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,
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!
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,
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
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
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!
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
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,
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.
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’Sspeech; he hears the conclusion, and now advances.)              I hope my good friends here
Will think of their own daughters—or perhaps
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
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!
  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!
  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 must overbear this company,
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.
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
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!
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;
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;
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.

Act II
Scene I

An Apartment in the Cenci Palace.


  Lucretia.  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.
  Bernardo.                O 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!
  Lucretia.  Alas! Poor boy, what else couldst 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;
’Tis nearer now; his hand in 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,
Even as he did after the feast last night.
  Enter a Servant
  Almighty God, how merciful thou art!
’Tis but Orsino’s servant.—Well, what news?
  Servant.  My master bids me say, the Holy Father
Has sent back your petition thus unopened.  [Giving a paper.
And he demands at what hour ’twere secure
To visit you again?
  Lucretia.                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,
As if one thought were over strong for you:
Your eyes have a chill glare; O, dearest child!
Are you gone mad? If not, pray speak to me.
  Beatrice.  You see I am not mad: I speak to you.
  Lucretia.  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 neighbour’s face
To see if others were as white as he?
At the first word he spoke I felt the blood
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 have you 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
Have given you that cold melancholy look,
Succeeding to your unaccustomed fear?
  Beatrice.  What is it that you say? I was just thinking
’Twere better not to struggle any more.
Men, like my father, have been dark and bloody,
Yet never—Oh! Before worse comes of it
’Twere wise to die: it ends in that at last.
  Lucretia.  O 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
One moment in your chamber.—Speak to me.
  Bernardo.  O 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. (Wildly.) 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
Of heavy chains has gangrened his sweet limbs,
And I have never yet despaired—but now!
What could I say?  [Recovering herself.
                Ah! No, ’tis 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.
  Lucretia.  Nay, Beatrice! have courage, my sweet girl,
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.
  Beatrice.  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?
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!
  Bernardo.  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
In some blithe place, like others of my age,
With sports, and delicate food, and the fresh air.
O never think that I will leave you, Mother!
  Lucretia.  My dear, dear children!

Enter CENCI suddenly
  Cenci.                What, Beatrice here!
Come hither!  [She shrinks back, and covers her face.
              Nay, hide not your face, ’tis 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.
  Beatrice  (wildly, staggering towards the door). O that the earth would gape! Hide me, O God!
  Cenci.  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!
Thou too, loathed image of thy cursed mother,  [To BERNARDO.
Thy milky, meek face makes me sick with hate!  [Exeunt BEATRICE and BERNARDO.
(Aside.) So much has past between us as must make
Me bold, her fearful.—’Tis 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.
  Cenci.                Nor you perhaps?
Nor that young imp, whom you have taught by rote
Parricide with his alphabet? Nor Giacomo?
Nor those two must 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 witness?—This failing,
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 this decree enregistered in heaven?
Oh, no! You said not this?
  Lucretia.                So help me God,
I never thought the things you charge me with!
  Cenci.  If you dare speak that wicked lie again
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.
  Lucretia.  Look not so dreadfully! By my salvation
I knew not aught that Beatrice designed;
Nor do I think she designed any thing
Until she heard you talk of her dead brothers.
  Cenci.  Blaspheming liar! You are damned for his!
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 rock, the Castle of Petrella:
’Tis safely walled, and moated round about:
Its dungeons underground, and its thick towers
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.
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?
’Tis 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,
Or constellations quenched in murkiest cloud,
In which I walk secure and unbeheld
Towards my purpose.—Would that it were done!  [Exit.

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