King Victor and King Charles/1731/I

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King Victor and King Charles by Robert Browning
1731, Part I

SECOND YEAR 1731.—KING CHARLES. Part I.

Enter Queen Polyxena and D'Ormea.—A pause.



Polyxena.
And now, sir, what have you to say?

D'Ormea.
Count Tende . . .

Polyxena.
Affirm not I betrayed you; you resolve
On uttering this strange intelligence
—Nay, post yourself to find me ere I reach
The capital, because you know King Charles
Tarries a day or two at Evian baths
Behind me:—but take warning,—here and thus
[Seating herself in the royal seat.]
I listen, if I listen—not your friend.
Explicitly the statement, if you still
Persist to urge it on me, must proceed:
I am not made for aught else.

D'Ormea.
Good! Count Tende . . .

Polyxena.
I, who mistrust you, shall acquaint King Charles,
Who even more mistrusts you.

D'Ormea.
Does he so?

Polyxena.
Why should he not?

D'Ormea.
Ay, why not? Motives, seek
You virtuous people, motives! Say, I serve
God at the devil's bidding—will that do?
I'm proud: our People have been pacified
(Really I know not how)—

Polyxena.
By truthfulness.

D'Ormea.
Exactly ; that shows I had nought to do
With pacifying them: our foreign perils
Also exceed my means to stay: but here
'Tis otherwise, and my pride's piqued. Count Tende
Completes a full year's absence: would you, madam,
Have the old monarch back, his mistress back,
His measures back? I pray you, act upon
My counsel, or they will be.

Polyxena.
When?

D'Ormea.
Let's think.
Home-matters settled—Victor's coming now;
Let foreign matters settle—Victor's here:
Unless I stop him; as I will, this way.

Polyxena.
[Reading the papers he presents.]
If this should prove a plot 'twixt you and Victor?
You seek annoyances to give him pretext
For what you say you fear!

D'Ormea.
                           Oh, possibly!
I go for nothing. Only show King Charles
That thus Count Tende purposes return,
And style me his inviter, if you please.

Polyxena.
Half of your tale is true; most like, the Count
Seeks to return: but why stay you with us?
To aid in such emergencies.

D'Ormea.
                            Keep safe
Those papers: or, to serve me, leave no proof
I thus have counselled: when the Count returns,
And the King abdicates, 'twill stead me little
To have thus counselled.

Polyxena.
The King abdicate!

D'Ormea.
He's good, we knew long since—wise, we discover—
Firm, let us hope:—but I'd have gone to work
With him away. Well!

[Charles without.] In the Council Chamber?

D'Ormea.
All's lost!

Polyxena.
            Oh, surely, not King Charles! He's changed—
That's not this year's care-burdened voice and step:
'Tis last year's step—the Prince's voice!

D'Ormea.
                                          I know!

[Enter Charles:—D'Ormea retiring a little.]

Charles.
Now wish me joy, Polyxena! Wish it me
The old way!
[She embraces him.]
              There was too much cause for that!
But I have found myself again! What's news
At Turin? Oh, if you but felt the load
I'm free of—free! I said this year would end
Or it, or me—but I am free, thank God!

Polyxena.
How, Charles?

Charles.
You do not guess? The day I found
Sardinia's hideous coil, at home, abroad,
And how my father was involved in it,—
Of course, I vowed to rest or smile no more
Until I freed his name from obloquy.
We did the people right—'twas much to gain
That point, redress our nobles' grievance, too—
But that took place here, was no crying shame:
All must be done abroad,—if I abroad
Appeased the justly angered Powers, destroyed
The scandal, took down Victor's name at last
From a bad eminence, I then might breathe
And rest! No moment was to lose. Behold
The proud result—a Treaty, Austria, Spain
Agree to—

D'Ormea.
[Aside.] I shall merely stipulate
For an experienced headsman.

Charles.
                             Not a soul
Is compromised: the blotted Past's a blank:
Even D'Ormea will escape unquestioned. See!
It reached me from Vienna; I remained
At Evian to despatch the Count his news;
'Tis gone to Chambery a week ago—
And here am I: do I deserve to feel
Your warm white arms around me?

D'Ormea.
[coming forward.] He knows that?

Charles.
What, in Heaven's name, means this?

D'Ormea.
                                    He knows that matters
Are settled at Vienna? Not too late!

D'Ormea.
Plainly, unless you post this very hour
Some man you trust (say, me) to Chambery,
And take precautions I'll acquaint you with,
Your father will return here.

Charles.
                              Is he crazed,
This D'Ormea? Here? For what? As well return
To take his crown!

D'Ormea.
                   He will return for that.

Charles.
[to Polyxena.]
You have not listened to this man?

Polyxena.
                                   He spoke
About your safety—and I listened.

[He disengages himself from her arm.]

Charles.
[to D'Ormea.] What
Apprised you of the Count's intentions?

D'Ormea.
Me? His heart, Sire; you may not be used to read
Such evidence, however; therefore read
[Pointing to Polyxena's papers.]
My evidence.

Charles.
[to Polyxena.] Oh, worthy this of you!
And of your speech I never have forgotten,
Tho' I professed forgetfulness; which haunts me
As if I did not know how false it was;
Which made me toil unconsciously thus long
That there might be no least occasion left
For aught of its prediction coming true!
And now, when there is left no least occasion
To instigate my father to such crime;
When I might venture to forget (I hoped)
That speech and recognize Polyxena—
Oh, worthy, to revive, and tenfold worse,
That plague now! D'Ormea at your ear, his slanders
Still in your hand! Silent?

Polyxena.
As the wronged are.

Charles.
And, D'Ormea, pray, since when have you presumed
To spy upon my father? (I conceive
What that wise paper shows, and easily.) Since when?

D'Ormea.
The when, and where, and how, belong
To me. 'Tis sad work, but I deal in such.
You ofttimes serve yourself—I'd serve you here:
Use makes me not so squeamish. In a word,
Since the first hour he went to Chambery,
Of his seven servants, five have I suborned.

Charles.
You hate my father?

D'Ormea.
                    Oh, just as you will!
[Looking at Polyxena.]
A minute since, I loved him—hate him, now!
What matters?—If you'll ponder just one thing:
Has he that Treaty?—He is setting forward
Already. Are your guards here?

Charles.
                               Well for you
They are not! [To Polyxena.] Him I knew of old, but you—
To hear that pickthank, further his designs!
[To D'Ormea.]
Guards?—were they here, I'd bid them, for your trouble,
Arrest you.

D'Ormea.
Guards you shall not want. I lived
The servant of your choice, not of your need.
You never greatly needed me till now
That you discard me. This is my arrest.
Again I tender you my charge—its duty
Would bid me press you read those documents.
Here, Sire! [Offering his badge of office.]

Charles.
[taking it.] The papers also! Do you think
I dare not read them?

Polyxena.
                      Read them, sir!

Charles.
                                      They prove,
My father, still a month within the year
Since he so solemnly consigned it me,
Means to resume his crown? They shall prove that,
Or my best dungeon . . .

D'Ormea.
                     Even say, Chambery!
'Tis vacant, I surmise, by this.

Charles.
                                 You prove
Your words or pay their forfeit, sir. Go there!
Polyxena, one chance to rend the veil
Thickening and blackening 'twixt us two! Do say,
You'll see the falsehood of the charges proved!
Do say, at least, you wish to see them proved
False charges—my heart's love of other times!

Polyxena.
Ah, Charles!

Charles.
[to D'Ormea.] Precede me, sir!

D'Ormea.
                                   And I'm at length
A martyr for the truth! No end, they say,
Of miracles. My conscious innocence!

[As they go out, enter—by the middle door, at which he pauses—Victor.]

Victor.
Sure I heard voices? No! Well, I do best
To make at once for this, the heart o' the place.
The old room! Nothing changed!—So near my seat,
D'Ormea? [Pushing away the stool which is by the King's chair.]
           I want that meeting over first,
I know not why. Tush, D'Ormea won't be slow
To hearten me, the supple knave! That burst
Of spite so eased him! He'll inform me . . .
                                         What?
Why come I hither? All's in rough—let all
Remain rough; there's full time to draw back—nay,
There's nought to draw back from, as yet; whereas,
If reason should be, to arrest a course
Of error—reason good, to interpose
And save, as I have saved so many times,
Our House, admonish my son's giddy youth,
Relieve him of a weight that proves too much—
Now is the time,—or now, or never. 'Faith,
This kind of step is pitiful—not due
To Charles, this stealing back—hither, because
He's from his Capital! Oh, Victor! Victor!
But thus it is: the age of crafty men
Is loathsome; youth contrives to carry off
Dissimulation; we may intersperse
Extenuating passages of strength,
Ardour, vivacity, and wit—may turn
E'en guile into a voluntary grace,—
But one's old age, when graces drop away
And leave guile the pure staple of our lives—
Ah, loathsome!
              Not so—or why pause I? Turin
Is mine to have, were I so minded, for
The asking ; all the Army's mine—I've witnessed
Each private fight beneath me; all the Court's
Mine too; and, best of all, my D'Ormea's still
His D'Ormea; no! There's some grace clinging yet.
Had I decided on this step, ere midnight
I'd take the crown.
                    No! Just this step to rise
Exhausts me! Here am I arrived: the rest
Must be done for me.. Would I could sit here
And let things right themselves, the masque unmasque
—Of the King, crownless, gray hairs and hot blood,—
The young King, crowned, but calm before his time,
They say,—the eager woman with her taunts,—
And the sad earnest wife who motions me
Away—ay, there she knelt to me! E'en yet
I can return and sleep at Chambery
A dream out.
             Rather shake it off at Turin,
King Victor! Is't to Turin—yes, or no?
'Tis this relentless noonday-lighted chamber,
Lighted like life, but silent as the grave,
That disconcerts me! There must be the change—
No silence last year: some one flung doors wide
(Those two great doors which scrutinize me now)
And out I went 'mid crowds of men—men talking,
Men watching if my lip fell or brow changed;
Men saw me safe forth—put me on my road:
That makes the misery of this return!
Oh, had a battle done it! Had I dropped
—Haling some battle, three entire days old,
Hither and thither by the forehead—dropped
In Spain, in Austria, best of all, in France—
Spurned on its horns or underneath its hooves,
When the spent monster goes upon its knees
To pad and pash the prostrate wretch—I, Victor,
Sole to have stood up against France—beat down
By inches, brayed to pieces finally
By some vast unimaginable charge,
A flying hell of horse and foot and guns
Over me, and all's lost, forever lost,
There's no more Victor when the world wakes up!
Then silence, as of a raw battle-field,
Throughout the world. Then after (as whole days
After, you catch at intervals faint noise
Thro' the stiff crust of frozen blood)—there creeps
A rumour forth, so faint, no noise at all,
That a strange old man, with face outworn for wounds,
Is stumbling on from frontier town to town,
Begging a pittance that may help him find
His Turin out; what scorn and laughter follow
The coin you fling into his cap: and last,
Some bright morn, how men crowd about the midst
Of the market-place, where takes the old king breath
Ere with his crutch he strike the palace-gate
Wide ope!
          To Turin, yes or no—or no?

[Re-enter Charles with papers.]

Charles.
Just as I thought! A miserable falsehood
Of hirelings discontented with their pay
And longing for enfranchisement! A few
Testy expressions of old age that thinks
To keep alive its dignity o'er slaves
By means that suit their natures!
[Tearing them.] Thus they shake
My faith in Victor!

[Turning, he discovers Victor.]

Victor.
[after a pause.] Not at Evian, Charles?
What's this? Why do you run to close the doors?
No welcome for your father?

Charles.
[Aside.] Not his voice!
What would I give for one imperious tone
Of the old sort! That's gone forever.

Victor.
                                      Must
I ask once more . . .

Charles.
                 No—I concede it, sir!
You are returned for . . . true, your health declines
True, Chambery's a bleak unkindly spot;
You'd choose one fitter for your final lodge—
Veneria—or Moncaglier—ay, that's close,
And I concede it.

Victor.
                  I received advices
Of the conclusion of the Spanish matter
Dated from Evian baths . . .

Charles.
                        And you forbore
To visit me at Evian, satisfied
The work I had to do would fully task
The little wit I have, and that your presence
Would only disconcert me—

Victor.
                         Charles?

Charles.
                                 —Me—set
Forever in a foreign course to yours,
And . . .
          Sir, this way of wile were good to catch,
But I have not the sleight of it. The truth!
Though I sink under it! What brings you here?

Victor.
Not hope of this reception, certainly,
From one who'd scarce assume a stranger mode
Of speech, did I return to bring about
Some awfulest calamity!

Charles.
                        —You mean,
Did you require your crown again! Oh yes,
I should speak otherwise! But turn not that
To jesting! Sir, the truth! Your health declines?
Is aught deficient in your equipage?
Wisely you seek myself to make complaint,
And foil the malice of the world which laughs
At petty discontents; but I shall care
That not a soul knows of this visit. Speak!

Victor.
[Aside.] Here is the grateful, much-professing son
Who was to worship me, and for whose sake
I think to waive my plans of public good!
[Aloud.] Nay, Charles, if I did seek to take once more
My crown, were so disposed to plague myself—
What would be warrant for this bitterness?
I gave it—grant, I would resume it—well?

Charles.
I should say simply—leaving out the why
And how—you made me swear to keep that crown:
And as you then intended . . .

Victor.
                          Fool! What way
Could I intend or not intend? As man,
With a man's life, when I say "I intend,"
I can intend up to a certain point,
No further. I intended to preserve
The Crown of Savoy and Sardinia whole:
And if events arise demonstrating
The way I took to keep it. rather's like
To lose it . . .

Charles.
           Keep within your sphere and mine!
It is God's province we usurp on, else.
Here, blindfold thro' the maze of things we walk
By a slight thread of false, true, right and wrong;
All else is rambling and presumption. I
Have sworn to keep this kingdom: there's my truth.

Victor.
Truth, boy, is here—within my breast; and in
Your recognition of it, truth is, too ;
And in the effect of all this tortuous dealing
With falsehood, used to carry out the truth,
—In its success, this falsehood turns, again,
Truth for the world! But you are right: these themes
Are over-subtle. I should rather say
In such a case, frankly,—it fails, my scheme:
I hoped to see you bring about, yourself,
What I must bring about: I interpose
On your behalf—with my son's good in sight—
To hold what he is nearly letting go—
Confirm his title—add a grace, perhaps—
There's Sicily, for instance,—granted me
And taken back, some years since—till I give
That island with the rest, my work's half done.
For his sake, therefore, as of those he rules . . .

Charles.
Our sakes are one—and that, you could not say,
Because my answer would present itself
Forthwith ;—a year has wrought an age's change:
This people's not the people now, you once
Could benefit; nor is my policy
Your policy.

Victor.
[with an outburst.'] I know it! You undo
All I have done—my life of toil and care!
I left you this the absolutest rule
In Europe—do you think I will sit still
And see. you throw all power off to the people—
See my Sardinia, that has stood apart,
Join in the mad and democratic whirl,
Whereto I see all Europe haste full-tide?
England casts off her kings—France mimics England—
This realm I hoped was safe! Yet here I talk,
When I can save it, not by force alone,
But bidding plagues, which follow sons like you,
Fasten upon my disobedient . . .
[Recollecting himself.]
Surely I could say this—if minded so—my son?

Charles.
You could not! Bitterer curses than your curse
Have I long since denounced upon myself
If I misused my power. In fear of these
I entered on those measures—will abide
By them: so, I should say, Count Tende . . .

Victor.
                                          No!
But no! But if, my Charles, your—more than old—
Half-foolish father urged these arguments,
And then confessed them futile, but said plainly
That he forgot his promise, found his strength
Fail him, had thought at savage Chambery
Too much of brilliant Turin, Rivoli here,
And Susa, and Veneria, and Superga—
Pined for the pleasant places he had built
When he was fortunate and young—

Charles.
                                My father!

Victor.
Stay yet—and if he said he could not die
Deprived of baubles he had put aside,
He deemed, forever—of the Crown that binds
Your brain up, whole, sound, and impregnable,
Creating kingliness—the Sceptre, too,
Whose mere wind, should you wave it, back would beat
Invaders—and the golden Ball which throbs
As if you grasped the palpitating heart
Indeed o' the realm, to mould as you may choose!
—If I must totter up and down the.streets
My sires built, where myself have introduced
And fostered laws and letters, sciences,
The civil and the military arts—
Stay, Charles—I see you letting me pretend
To live my former self once more—King Victor,
The venturous yet politic—they style me
Again, the Father of the Prince—friends wink
Good-humouredly at the delusion you
So sedulously guard from all rough truths
That else would break upon the dotage!—You—
Whom now I see preventing my old shame—
I tell not, point by cruel point, my tale—
For is't not in your breast my brow is hid?
Is not your hand extended? Say you not . . .

[Enter D'Ormea, leading in Polyxena.]

Polyxena.
[advancing and withdrawing Charles—to Victor.]
In this conjuncture, even, he would say—
(Tho' with a moistened eye and quivering lip)
The suppliant is my father—I must save
A great man from himself, nor see him fling
His well-earned fame away: there must not follow
Ruin so utter, a break-down of worth
So absolute: no enemy shall learn,
He thrust his child 'twixt danger and himself,
And, when that child somehow stood danger out,
Stole back with serpent wiles to ruin Charles
—Body, that's much,—and soul, that's more—and realm,
That's most of all! No enemy shall say . . .

D'Ormea.
Do you repent, sir?

Victor.
[resuming himself.] D'Ormea? This is well!
Worthily done, King Charles, craftily done!
Judiciously you post these, to o'erhear
The little your importunate father thrusts
Himself on you to say! Ay, they'll correct
The amiable blind facility
You showed in answering his peevish suit:
What can he need to sue for? Bravely, D'Ormea,
Have you fulfilled your office: but for you,
The old Count might have drawn some few more livres
To swell his income! Had you, Lady, missed
The moment, a permission had been granted
To build afresh my ruinous old pile—
But you remembered properly the list
Of wise precautions I took when I gave
Nearly as much away—to reap the fruits
I should have looked for!

Charles.
                          Thanks, sir: degrade me,
So you remain yourself. Adieu!

Victor.
                               I'll not
Forget it for the future, nor presume
Next time to slight such potent mediators!
Had I first moved them both to intercede,
I might have had a chamber in Moncaglier
—Who knows?

Charles.
            Adieu!

Victor.
                   You bid me this adieu
With the old spirit?

Charles.
                     Adieu!

Victor.
                            Charles—Charles—

Charles.
                                            Adieu!

[Victor goes.]

Charles.
You were mistaken, Marquis, as you hear!
'Twas for another purpose the Count came.
The Count desires Moncaglier. Give the order!

D'Ormea.
[leisurely.] Your minister has lost your confidence,
Asserting late, for his own purposes,
Count Tende would . . .

Charles.
[flinging his badge back.] Be still our minister!
And give a loose to your insulting joy—
It irks me more thus stifled than expressed.
Loose it!

D'Ormea.
          There's none to loose, alas!—I see
I never am to die a martyr!

Polyxena.
                            Charles!

Charles.
No praise, at least, Polyxena—no praise!