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They Loved in Vain

Robert Browning

Robert Browning (1812–1889). A Blot in the ’Scutcheon.
Vol. 18, pp. 359-368 of The Harvard Classics

"Browning's play has thrown me into a perfect passion of sorrow," wrote Charles Dickens of "The Blot in the 'Scutcheon." Like Shakespeare's Juliet, Browning's Mildred plays the role of a youthful lover in a tragic drama.

Act I
Scene I

The Interior of a Lodge in Lord Tresham’s Park. Many Retainers crowded at the window, supposed to command a view of the entrance to his Mansion.

GERARD, the Warrener, his back to a table on which are flagons, etc.

  First Retainer
AY, do! push, friends, and then you’ll push down me!
—What for? Does any hear a runner’s foot
Or a steed’s trample or a coach-wheel’s cry?
Is the Earl come or his least poursuivant?
But there’s no breeding in a man of you
Save Gerard yonder: here’s a half-place yet,
Old Gerard!
  Gerard.  Save your courtesies, my friend. Here is my place.
  Second Retainer.  Now, Gerard, out with it!
What makes you sullen, this of all the days
I’ the year? To-day that young rich bountiful
Handsome Earl Mertoun, whom alone they match
With our Lord Tresham through the country-side,
Is coming here in utmost bravery
To ask our master’s sister’s hand?
  Gerard.                What then?

  Second Retainer.  What then? Why, you, she speaks to, if she meets
Your worship, smiles on as you hold apart
The boughs to let her through her forest walks,
You, always favourite for your no-deserts,
You’ve heard, these three days, how Earl Mertoun sues
To lay his heart and house and broad lands too
At Lady Mildred’s feet: and while we squeeze
Ourselves into a mousehole lest we miss
One congee of the least page in his train,
You sit ’o one side—“there’s the Earl,” say I—
“What then?” say you!
  Third Retainer.                I’ll wager he has let
Both swans he tamed for Lady Mildred swim
Over the falls and gain the river!
  Gerard.                Ralph,
Is not to-morrow my inspecting-day
For you and for your hawks?
  Fourth Retainer.                Let Gerard be!
He’s coarse-grained, like his carved black cross-bow stock.
Ha, look now, while we squabble with him, look!
Well done, now—is not this beginning, now,
To purpose?
  First Retainer.            Our retainers look as fine—
That’s comfort. Lord, how Richard holds himself
With his white staff! Will not a knave behind
Prick him upright?
  Fourth Retainer.  He’s only bowing, fool!
The Earl’s man bent us lower by this much.
  First Retainer.  That’s comfort. Here’s a very cavalcade!
  Third Retainer.  I don’t see wherefore Richard, and his troop
Of silk and silver varlets there, should find
Their perfumed selves so indispensable
On high days, holidays! Would it so disgrace
Our family, if I, for instance, stood—
In my right hand a cast of Swedish hawks,
A leash of greyhounds in my left?—
  Gerard.                —With Hugh
The logman for supporter, in his right
The bill-hook, in his left the brushwood-shears!
  Third Retainer.  Out on you, crab! What next, what next? The Earl!
  First Retainer.  Oh Walter, groom, our horses, do they match.
The Earl’s? Alas, that first pair of the six—
They paw the ground—Ah Walter! and that brute
Just on his haunches by the wheel!
  Sixth Retainer.                Ay—ay!
You, Philip, are a special hand, I hear,
At soups and sauces: what’s a horse to you
D’ye mark that beast they’ve slid into the midst
So cunningly?—then, Philip, mark this further;
No leg has he to stand on!
  First Retainer.                No? that’s comfort.
  Second Retainer.  Peace, Cook! The Earl descends. Well, Gerard, see
The Earl at least! Come, there’s a proper man,
I hope! Why, Ralph, no falcon, Pole or Swede,
Has got a starrier eye.
  Third Retainer.                His eyes are blue:
But leave my hawks alone!
  Fourth Retainer.                So young, and yet
So tall and shapely!
  Fifth Retainer.  Here’s Lord Tresham’s self!
There now—there’s what a nobleman should be!
He’s older, graver, loftier, he’s more like
A House’s head.
  Second Retainer.  But you’d not have a boy
—And what’s the Earl beside?—possess too soon
That stateliness?
  First Retainer.  Our master takes his hand—
Richard and his white staff are on the move—
Back fall our people—(tsh!—there’s Timothy
Sure to get tangled in his ribbon-ties,
And Peter’s cursed rosette’s a-coming off!)
—At last I see our lord’s back and his friend’s;
And the whole beautiful bright company
Close round them—in they go!  [Jumping down from the window-bench, and making for the table and its jugs.] Good health, long life,
Great joy to our Lord Tresham and his House!
  Sixth Retainer.  My father drove his father first to court,
After his marriage-day—ay, did he!
  Second Retainer.                God bless
Lord Tresham, Lady Mildred, and the Earl!
Here, Gerard, reach your beaker!
  Gerard.                Drink, my boys!
Don’t mind me—all’s not right about me—drink!
  Second Retainer  [aside]. He’s vexed, now, that he let the show escape!
[To GERARD.]  Remember that the Earl returns this way.
  Gerard.  That way?
  Second Retainer.  Just so.
  Gerard.          Then my way’s here.  [Goes.
  Second Retainer.                Old Gerard
Will die soon—mind, I said it! He was used
To care about the pitifullest thing
That touched the House’s honour, not an eye
But his could see wherein: and on a cause
Of scarce a quarter this importance, Gerard
Fairly had fretted flesh and bone away
In cares that this was right, nor that was wrong,
Such point decorous, and such square by rule—
He knew such niceties, no herald more:
And now—you see his humour: die he will!
  Second Retainer.  God help him! Who’s for the great servants’ hall
To hear what’s going on inside! They’d follow
Lord Tresham into the saloon.
  Third Retainer.                I!—
  Fourth Retainer.                I!—
Leave Frank alone for catching, at the door,
Some hint of how the parley goes inside!
Prosperity to the great House once more!
Here’s the last drop!
  First Retainer.                Have at you! Boys, hurrah!

Act I
Scene II

A Saloon in the Mansion


  Tresham.  I welcome you, Lord Mertoun, yet once more,
To this ancestral roof of mine. Your name
—Noble among the noblest in itself,
Yet taking in your person, fame avers,
New price and lustre,—(as that gem you wear,
Transmitted from a hundred knightly breasts,
Fresh chased and set and fixed by its last lord,
Seems to re-kindle at the core)—your name
Would win you welcome!—
  Mertoun.                Thanks!
    Tresham.                —But add to that,
The worthiness and grace and dignity
Of your proposal for uniting both
Our Houses even closer than respect
Unites them now—add these, and you must grant
One favour more, nor that the least,—to think
The welcome I should give;—’tis given! My lord,
My only brother, Austin: he’s the king’s.
Our cousin, Lady Guendolen—betrothed
To Austin: all are yours.
  Mertoun.                I thank you—less
For the expressed commendings which your seal,
And only that, authenticates—forbids
My putting from me … to my heart I take
Your praise … but praise less claims my gratitude,
Than the indulgent insight it implies
Of what must needs be uppermost with one
Who comes, like me, with the bare leave to ask,
In weighed and measured unimpassioned words,
A gift, which, if as calmly ’tis denied,
He must withdraw, content upon his cheek,
Despair within his soul. That I dare ask
Firmly, near boldly, near with confidence
That gift, I have to thank you. Yes, Lord Tresham,
I love your sister—as you’d have one love
That lady … oh more, more I love her! Wealth,
Rank, all the world thinks me, they’re yours, you know,
To hold or part with, at your choice—but grant
My true self, me without a rood of land,
A piece of gold, a name of yesterday,
Grant me that lady, and you … Death or life?
  Guendolen  [apart to AUSTIN]. Why, this is loving, Austin!
  Austin.  He’s so young!
  Guendolen.  Young? Old enough, I think, to half surmise
He never had obtained an entrance here,
Were all this fear and trembling needed.
  Austin.                Hush!
He reddens.
  Guendolen.  Mark him, Austin; that’s true love!
Ours must begin again.
  Tresham.                We’ll sit, my lord.
Ever with best desert goes diffidence.
I may speak plainly nor be misconceived
That I am wholly satisfied with you
On this occasion, when a falcon’s eye
Were dull compared with mine to search out faults,
Is somewhat. Mildred’s hand is hers to give
Or to refuse.
  Mertoun.              But you, you grant my suit?
I have your word if hers?
  Tresham.                My best of words
If hers encourage you. I trust it will.
Have you seen Lady Mildred, by the way?
  Mertoun.  I … I … our two demesnes, remember, touch,
I have been used to wander carelessly
After my stricken game: the heron roused
Deep in my woods, has trailed its broken wing
Thro’ thicks and glades a mile in yours,—or else
Some eyass ill-reclaimed has taken flight
And lured me after her from tree to tree,
I marked not whither. I have come upon
The lady’s wondrous beauty unaware,
And—and then … I have seen her.
  Guendolen  [aside to AUSTIN]. Note that mode
Of faltering out that, when a lady passed,
He, having eyes, did see her! You had said—
“On such a day I scanned her, head to foot;
Observed a red, where red should not have been,
Outside her elbow; but was pleased enough
Upon the whole.” Let such irreverent talk
Be lessoned for the future!
  Tresham.                What’s to say
May be said briefly. She has never known
A mother’s care; I stand for father too.
Her beauty is not strange to you, it seems—
You cannot know the good and tender heart,
Its girl’s trust and its woman’s constancy,
How pure yet passionate, how calm yet kind,
How grave yet joyous, how reserved yet free
As light where friends are—how imbued with lore
The world most prizes, yet the simplest, yet
The … one might know I talked of Mildred—thus
We brothers talk!
  Mertoun.                I thank you.
  Tresham.                In a word,
Control’s not for this lady; but her wish
To please me outstrips in its subtlety
My power of being pleased: herself creates
The want she means to satisfy. My heart
Prefers your suit to her as ’twere its own.
Can I say more?
  Mertoun.                No more—thanks, thanks—no more!
  Tresham.  This matter then discussed…
  Mertoun.                —We’ll waste no breath
On aught less precious. I’m beneath the roof
Which holds her: while I thought of that, my speech
To you would wander—as it must not do,
Since as you favour me I stand or fall.
I pray you suffer that I take my leave!
  Tresham.  With less regret ’tis suffered, that again
We meet, I hope, so shortly.
  Mertoun.                We? again?—
Ah yes, forgive me—when shall … you will crown
Your goodness by forthwith apprising me
When … if … the lady will appoint a day
For me to wait on you—and her.
  Tresham.                So soon
As I am made acquainted with her thoughts
On your proposal—howsoe’er they lean—
A messenger shall bring you the result.
  Mertoun.  You cannot bind me more to you, my lord.
Farewell till we renew … I trust, renew
A converse ne’er to disunite again.
  Tresham.  So may it prove!
  Mertoun.                You, lady, you, sir, take
My humble salutation!
  Guendolen and Austin.                Thanks!
  Tresham.                Within there!  [Servants enter. TRESHAM conducts MERTOUN to the door. Meantime AUSTIN remarks,                Well,
Here I have an advantage of the Earl,
Confess now! I’d not think that all was safe
Because my lady’s brother stood my friend!
Why, he makes sure of her—“do you say yes—
She’ll not say, no,”—what comes it to beside?
I should have prayed the brother, “speak this speech,
For Heaven’s sake urge this on her—put in this—
Forget not, as you’d save me, t’other thing,—
Then set down what she says, and how she looks,
And if she smiles, and” (in an under breath)
“Only let her accept me, and do you
And all the world refuse me, if you dare!”
  Guendolen.  That way you’d take, friend Austin? What a shame
I was your cousin, tamely from the first
Your bride, and all this fervour’s run to waste!
Do you know you speak sensibly to-day?
The Earl’s a fool.
  Austin.                Here’s Thorold. Tell him so!
  Tresham  [returning]. Now, voices, voices! ’St! the lady’s first!
How seems he?—seems he not … come, faith give fraud
The mercy-stroke whenever they engage!
Down with fraud, up with faith! How seems the Earl?
A name! a blazon! if you knew their worth,
As you will never! come—the Earl?
  Guendolen.                He’s young.
  Tresham.  What’s she? an infant save in heart and brain.
Young! Mildred is fourteen, remark! And you…
Austin, how old is she?
  Guendolen.                There’s tact for you!
I meant that being young was good excuse
If one should tax him…
  Tresham.                Well?
  Guendolen.                —With lacking wit.
  Tresham.  He lacked wit? Where might he lack wit, so please you?
  Guendolen.  In standing straighter than the steward’s rod
And making you the tiresomest harangue,
Instead of slipping over to my side
And softly whispering in my ear, “Sweet lady,
Your cousin there will do me detriment
He little dreams of: he’s absorbed, I see,
In my old name and fame—be sure he’ll leave
My Mildred, when his best account of me
Is ended, in full confidence I wear
My grandsire’s periwig down either cheek.
I’m lost unless your gentleness vouchsafes”…
  Tresham …”To give a best of best accounts, yourself,
Of me and my demerits.” You are right!
He should have said what now I say for him.
Yon golden creature, will you help us all?
Here’s Austin means to vouch for much, but you
—You are … what Austin only knows! Come up,
All three of us: she’s in the library
No doubt, for the day’s wearing fast. Precede!
  Guendolen.  Austin, how we must—!
  Tresham.                Must what? Must speak truth,
Malignant tongue? Detect one fault in him!
I challenge you!
  Guendolen.                Witchcraft’s a fault in him,
For you’re bewitched.
  Tresham.                What’s urgent we obtain
Is, that she soon receive him—say, to-morrow—
Next day at furthest.
  Guendolen.                Ne’er instruct me!
  Tresham.                Come!
—He’s out of your good graces, since forsooth,
He stood not as he’d carry us by storm
With his perfections! You’re for the composed
Manly assured becoming confidence!
—Get her to say, “to-morrow,” and I’ll give you…
I’ll give you black Urganda, to be spoiled
With petting and snail-paces. Will you? Come!


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