King Victor and King Charles/1730/I

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King Victor and King Charles by Robert Browning
1730, Part I


Part I.

Charles. Polyxena.

You think so? Well, I do not.

                               My beloved,
All must clear up—we shall be happy yet:
This cannot last forever . . oh, may change
To-day, or any day!

                   —May change? Ah yes—
May change!

            Endure it, then.

                             No doubt, a life
Like this drags on, now better and now worse;
My father may . . . may take to loving me;
And he may take, too, D'Ormea closer yet
To counsel him;—may even cast off her
—That bad Sebastian; but he also may
. . Or, no, Polyxena, my only friend,
He may not force you from me?

                              Now, force me
From you!—me, close by you as if there gloomed
No D'Ormeas, no Sebastians on our path—
At Rivoli or Turin, still at hand,
Arch-counsellor, prime confidant . . . force me!

Because I felt as sure, as I feel sure
We clasp hands now, of being happy once.
Young was I, quite neglected, nor concerned
By the world's business that engrossed so much
My father and my brother: if I peered
From out my privacy,—amid the crash
And blaze of nations, domineered those two;
'Twas war, peace—France our foe, now—England, friend—
In love with Spain—at feud with Austria!—Well—
I wondered—laughed a moment's laugh for pride
In the chivalrous couple—then let drop
My curtain—"I am out of it," I said—
When . . .

          You have told me, Charles.

When suddenly,—a warm March day, just that!
Just so much sunshine as the cottager's child
Basks in delighted, while the cottager
Takes off his bonnet, as he ceases work,
To catch the more of it—and it must fall
Heavily on my brother . . . had you seen
Philip—the lion-featured!—not like me!

I know—

        And Philip's mouth yet fast to mine,
His dead cheek on my cheek, his arm still round
My neck,—they bade me rise, "for I was heir
To the Duke," they said, "the right hand of the Duke;"
Till then he was my father, not the Duke!
So . . let me finish . . the whole intricate
World's business their dead boy was born to, I
Must conquer,—ay, the brilliant thing he was,
I, of a sudden, must be: my faults, my follies,
—All bitter truths were told me, all at once
To end the sooner. What I simply styled
Their overlooking me, had been contempt:
How should the Duke employ himself, forsooth,
With such an one while lordly Philip rode
By him their Turin through? But he was punished,
And must put up with—me! 'Twas sad enough
To learn my future portion and submit—
And then the wear and worry, blame on blame!
—For, spring-sounds in my ears, spring-smells about,
How could I but grow dizzy in their pent
Dim palace-rooms at first? My mother's look
As they discussed my insignificance—
(She and my father, and I sitting by,)—
I bore:—I knew how brave a son they missed:
Philip had gayly passed state-papers o'er,
While Charles was spelling at them painfully!
But Victor was my father spite of that.
"Duke Victor's entire life has been," I said,
"Innumerable efforts to one end;
"And, on the point now of that end's success,
"Our Ducal turning to a Kingly crown,
"Where's time to be reminded 'tis his child
"He spurns?" And so I suffered . . yet scarce suffered,
Since I had you at length!

                           To serve in place
Of monarch, minister and mistress, Charles.

But, once that crown obtained, then was't not like
Our lot would alter?—"When he rests, takes breath,
"Glances around, and sees who's left to love—
"Now that my mother's dead, sees I am left—
"Is it not like he'll love me at the last?"
Well: Savoy turns Sardinia—the Duke's King!
Could I—precisely then—could you expect
His harshness to redouble? These few months
Have been . . . have been . . Polyxena, do you
And God conduct me, or I lose myself!
What would he have? What is't they want with me?
Him with this mistress and this minister,
—You see me and you hear me; judge us both!
Pronounce what I should do, Polyxena!

Endure, endure, beloved! Say you not
That he's your Father? All's so incident
To novel sway! Beside, our life must change:
Or you'll acquire his kingcraft, or he'll find
Harshness a sorry way of teaching it.
I bear this—not that there's so much to bear—

You bear it? don't I know that you, tho' bound
To silence for my sake, are perishing
Piecemeal beside me? and how otherwise?
—When every creephole from the hideous Court
Is stopt; the Minister to dog me, here—
The Mistress posted to entrap you, there!
And thus shall we grow old in such a life—
Not careless,—never estranged,—but old: to alter
Our life, there is so much to alter!

Is it agreed that we forego complaints
Even at Turin, yet complain we here
At Rivoli? 'Twere wiser you announced
Our presence to the king. What's now a-foot,
I wonder?—Not that any more's to dread
Than every day's embarrassment—but guess,
For me, why train so fast succeeded train
On the high-road, each gayer still than each;
I noticed your Archbishop's pursuivant,
The sable cloak and silver cross; such pomp
Bodes . . what now, Charles? Can you conceive?

                                               Not I,

A matter of some moment—

                        There's our life!
Which of the group of loiterers that stared
From the lime-avenue, divines that I—
About to figure presently, he thinks,
In face of all assembled—am the one
Who knows precisely least about it?

D'Ormea's contrivance!

                       Ay—how otherwise
Should the young Prince serve for the old King's foil?
—So that the simplest courtier may remark,
'Twere idle raising parties for a Prince
Content to linger D'Ormea's laughing-stock!
Something, 'tis like, about that weary business
[Pointing to papers he has laid down, and which Polyxena examines.]
—Not that I comprehend three words, of course,
After all last night's study.

                              The faint heart!
Why, as we rode and you rehearsed just now
Its substance . . (that's the folded speech I mean,
Concerning the Reduction of the Fiefs . .)
—What would you have?—I fancied while you spoke,
Some tones were just your father's.


I fancied so:—and here lurks, sure enough,
My note upon the Spanish Claims! You've mastered
The fief-speech thoroughly—this other, mind,
Is an opinion you deliver,—stay,
Best read it slowly over once to me;
Read—there's bare time; you read it firmly—loud
—Rather loud—looking in his face,—don't sink
Your eye once—ay, thus! "If Spain claims . . ." begin
—Just as you look at me!

                         At you! Oh, truly,
You have I seen, say, marshalling your troops—
Dismissing councils—or, through doors ajar,
Head sunk on hand, devoured by slow chagrins
—Then radiant, for a crown had all at once
Seemed possible again! I can behold
Him, whose least whisper ties my spirit fast,
In this sweet brow, nought could divert me from,
Save objects like Sebastian's shameless lip,
Or, worse, the dipt gray hair and dead white face,
And dwindling eye as if it ached with guile,
Which D'Ormea wears . . .
[As he kisses her, enter from the King's apartment D'Ormea.]
                      . . I said he would divert
My kisses from your brow!

[Aside.] Here! So King Victor
Spoke truth for once; and who's ordained, but I,
To make that memorable? Both in call,
As he declared! Were't better gnash the teeth,
Or laugh outright now?

[to Polyxena.] What's his visit for?

[Aside.] I question if they'll even speak to me.

[to Charles.] Face D'Ormea, he'll suppose you fear him, else.
[Aloud.] The Marquis bears the King's command, no doubt.

[Aside.] Precisely!—If I threatened him, perhaps?
Well, this at least is punishment enough!
Men used to promise punishment would come.

Deliver the King's message, Marquis!

[Aside.] Ah—
So anxious for his fate? [Aloud.] A word, my Prince,
Before you see your father—just one word
Of counsel!

            Oh, your counsel certainly—
Polyxena, the Marquis counsels us!
Well, sir? Be brief, however!

                              What? you know
As much as I?—preceded me, most like,
In knowledge? So! ('Tis in his eye, beside—
His voice—he knows it and his heart's on flame
Already!) You surmise why you, myself,
Del Borgo, Spava, fifty nobles more,
Are summoned thus?

                   Is the Prince used to know,
At any time, the pleasure of the King,
Before his minister?—Polyxena,
Stay here till I conclude my task—I feel
Your presence—(smile not)—thro' the walls, and take
Fresh heart. The King's within that chamber?

[Passing the table whereon a paper lies, exclaims, as he glances at it,]

[Aside to Charles.] Tarry awhile: what ails the minister?

Madam, I do not often trouble you.
The Prince loathes, and you loathe me—let that pass;
But since it touches him and you, not me,
Bid the Prince listen!

[to Charles.] Surely you will listen!
—Deceit?—Those fingers crumpling up his vest?

Deceitful to the very fingers' ends!

[who has approached them, overlooks the other paper Charles continues to hold]
My project for the Fiefs! As I supposed!
Sir, I must give you light upon those measures
—For this is mine, and that I spied of Spain,
Mine too!

Release me! Do you gloze on me
Who bear in the world's face (that is, the world
You've made for me at Turin) your contempt?
—Your measures?—When was any hateful task
Not D'Ormea's imposition? Leave my robe!
What post can I bestow, what grant concede?
Or do you take me for the King?

                                Not I!
Not yet for King,—not for, as yet, thank God,
One, who in . . shall I say a year—a month?
Ay!—shall be wretcheder than e'er was slave
In his Sardinia,—Europe's spectacle,
And the world's byword! What? The Prince aggrieved
That I've excluded him our counsels? Here
[Touching the paper in Charles's hand.]
Accept a method of extorting gold
From Savoy's nobles, who must wring its worth
In silver first from tillers of the soil,
Whose hinds again have to contribute brass
To make up the amount—there's counsel, sir!
My counsel, one year old; and the fruit, this—
Savoy's become a mass of misery
And wrath, which one man has to meet—the King:
You're not the King! Another counsel, sir!
Spain entertains a project (here it lies)
Which, guessed, makes Austria offer that same King
Thus much to baffle Spain; he promises;
Then comes Spain, breathless lest she be forestalled,
Her offer follows; and he promises . . .

—Promises, sir, when he before agreed
To Austria's offer?

                    That's a counsel, Prince!
But past our foresight, Spain and Austria (choosing
To make their quarrel up between themselves
Without the intervention of a friend)
Produce both treaties, and both promises . . .


D' O.
     Prince, a counsel!—And the fruit of that?
Both parties covenant afresh, to fall
Together on their friend, blot out his name,
Abolish him from Europe. So take note,
Here's Austria and here's Spain to fight against,
And what sustains the King but Savoy here,
A miserable people mad with wrongs?
You're not the King!

                     Polyxena, you said
All would clear up—all does clear up to me!

Clears up? "Tis no such thing to envy, then?
You see the King's state in its length and breadth?
You blame me, now, for keeping you aloof
From counsels and the fruit of counsels?—Wait
Till I've explained this morning's business!

[Aside.] No—
Stoop to my father, yes,—to D'Ormea, no;
—The King's son, not to the King's counsellor!
I will do something,—but at least retain
The credit of my deed! [Aloud.] Then, D'Ormea, this
You now expressly come to tell me?

To tell! You apprehend me?

And further, D'Ormea, you have shown yourself,
For the first time these many weeks and months,
Disposed to do my bidding?

                           From the heart!

Acquaint my father, first, I wait his pleasure:
Next... or, I'll tell you at a fitter time.
Acquaint the King!

[Aside.] If I 'scape Victor yet!
First, to prevent this stroke at me—if not,—
Then, to avenge it! [To Charles.] Gracious sir, I go.

God, I forbore! Which more offends—that man
Or that man's master? Is it come to this?
Have they supposed (the sharpest insult yet)
I needed e'en his intervention? No!
No—dull am I, conceded,—but so dull,
Scarcely! Their step decides me.

How decides?

You would be free from D'Ormea's eye and hers?
—Could fly the court with me and live content?
So—this it is for which the knights assemble!
The whispers and the closeting of late,
The savageness and insolence of old,
—For this!

           What mean you?

                          How? you fail to catch
Their clever plot? I missed it—but could you?
These last two months of care to inculcate
How dull I am,—with D'Ormea's present visit
To prove that, being dull, I might be worse
Were I a king—as wretched as now dull—
You recognize in it no winding up
Of a long plot?

                Why should there be a plot?

The crown's secure now; I should shame the crown—
An old complaint; the point is, how to gain
My place for one more fit in Victor's eyes,
His mistress', the Sebastian's child.

                                      In truth?

They dare not quite dethrone Sardinia's Prince:
But they may descant on my dulness till
They sting me into even praying them
For leave to hide my head, resign my state,
And end the coil. Not see now? In a word,
They'd have me tender them myself my rights
As one incapable:—some cause for that,
Since I delayed thus long to see their drift!
I shall apprise the King he may resume
My rights this moment.

                       Pause—I dare not think
So ill of Victor.

                  Think no ill of him!

—Nor think him, then, so shallow as to suffer
His purpose be divined thus easily.
And yet—you are the last of a great line;
There's a great heritage at stake; new days
Seemed to await this newest of the realms
Of Europe:—Charles, you must withstand this!

You dare not then renounce the splendid court
For one whom all the world despises? Speak!

My gentle husband, speak I will, and truth.
Were this as you believe, and I once sure
Your duty lay in so renouncing rule,
I could . . could? Oh, what happiness it were—
To live, my Charles, and die alone with you!

I grieve I asked you. To the Presence, then!
D'Ormea acquaints the King by this, no doubt,
He fears I am too simple for mere hints,
And that no less will serve than Victor's mouth
Teaching me in full council what I am.
—I have not breathed, I think, these many years!

Why—it may be!—if he desires to wed
That woman and legitimate her child—

You see as much? Oh, let his will have way!
You'll not repent confiding in me, love?
There's many a brighter spot in Piedmont, far,
Than Rivoli. I'll seek him—or, suppose
You hear first how I mean to speak my mind?
—Loudly and firmly both, this time, be sure!
I yet may see your Rhine-land—who can tell?
Once away, ever then away! I breathe.

And I too breathe!

                   Come, my Polyxena!