Pieces People Ask For/Scene from "Ion"

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Adrastus discovered.Crythes introducing Ion.

Cry. The king!
Ad. Stranger, I bid thee welcome:
We are about to tread the same dark passage,
Thou almost on the instant. — Is the sword [To Crythes.
Of justice sharpened, and the headsman ready?
Cry. Thou mayst behold them plainly in the court;
Even now the solemn soldiers line the ground,
The steel gleams on the altar, and the slave
Disrobes himself for duty.
Ad. (to Ion) Dost thou see them?
Ion. I do.
Ad. By Heaven! he does not change.
If, even now, thou wilt depart, and leave
Thy traitorous thoughts unspoken, thou art free.
Ion. I thank thee for thy offer; but I stand
Before thee for the lives of thousands, rich
In all that makes life precious to the brave;
Who perish not alone, but in their fall
Break the far-spreading tendrils that they feed,
And leave them nurtureless. If thou wilt hear me
For them, I am content to speak no more.
Ad. Thou hast thy wish, then.—Crythes! till yon dial
Casts its thin shadow on the approaching hour,
I hear this gallant traitor. On the instant,
Come without word, and lead him to his doom.
Now leave us.
Cry. What, alone ?
Ad. Yes, slave, alone:
He is no assassin! [Exit Crythes.
Tell me who thou art.
What generous source owns that heroic blood,
Which holds its course thus bravely? What great wars
Have nursed the courage that can look on death—
Certain and speedy death—with placid eye?
Ion. I am a simple youth who never bore
The weight of armor ; one who may not boast
Of noble birth, or valor of his own.
Deem not the powers which nerve me thus to speak
In thy great presence, and have made my heart,
Upon the verge of bloody death, as calm,
As equal in its beatings, as when sleep
Approached me nestling from the sportive toils
Of thoughtless childhood, and celestial forms
Began to glimmer through the deepening shadows
Of soft oblivion,—to belong to me!
These are the strengths of Heaven; to thee they speak,
Bid thee to hearken to thy people's cry,
Or warn thee that thy hour must shortly come!
Ad. I know it must ; so mayst thou spare thy warnings.
The envious gods in me have doomed a race,
Whose glories stream from the same cloud-girt founts
Whence their own dawn upon the infant world;
And I shall sit on my ancestral throne
To meet their vengeance ; but till then I rule
As I have ever ruled, and thou wilt feel.
Ion. I will not further urge thy safety to thee;
It may be, as thou sayest, too late; nor seek
To make thee tremble at the gathering curse
Which shall burst forth in mockery at thy fall;
But thou art gifted with a nobler sense,—
I know thou art my sovereign!—sense of pain
Endured by myriad Argives, in whose souls,
And in whose fathers' souls, thou and thy fathers
Have kept- their cherished state ; whose heart-strings, still
The living fibres of thy rooted power,
Quiver with agonies thy crimes have drawn
From heavenly justice on them.
Ad. How! my crimes?
Ion. Yes; 'tis the eternal law, that where guilt is,
Sorrow shall answer it; and thou hast not
A poor man's privilege to bear alone,
Or in the narrow circle of his kinsmen,
The penalties of evil ; for in thine,
A nation's fate lies circled. King Adrastus!
Steeled as thy heart is with the usages
Of pomp and power, a few short summers since
Thou wert a child, and canst not be relentless.
Oh, if maternal love embraced thee then,
Think of the mothers who with eyes unwet
Glare o'er their perishing children; hast thou shared
The glow of a first friendship which is born
'Midst the rude sports of boyhood, think of youth
Smitten amidst its playthings; let the spirit
Of thy own innocent childhood whisper pity!
Ad. In every word thou dost but steel my soul.
My youth was blasted: parents, brother, kin—
All that should people infancy with joy—
Conspired to poison mine; despoiled my life
Of innocence and hope,—all but the sword
And sceptre. Dost thou wonder at me now?
Ion. I know that we should pity—
Ad. Pity! Dare
To speak that word again, and torture waits thee!
I am yet king of Argos. Well, go on;
The time is short, and I am pledged to hear.
Ion. If thou hast ever loved—
Ad. Beware! beware!
Ion. Thou hast! I see thou hast! Thou art not marble,
And thou shalt hear me! Think upon the time
When the clear depths of thy yet lucid soul
Were ruffled with the troublings of strange joy,
As if some unseen visitant from heaven
Touched the calm lake, and wreathed its images
In sparkling waves ; recall the dallying hope
That on the margin of assurance trembled,
As loath to lose in certainty too blest
Its happy being ; taste in thought again
Of the stolen sweetness of those evening walks,
When pansied turf was air to winged feet,
And circling forests, by ethereal touch
Enchanted, wore the livery of the sky,
As if about to melt in golden light,
Shapes of one heavenly vision ; and thy heart,
Enlarged by its new sympathy with one,
Grew bountiful to all!
Ad. That tone! that tone!
Whence came it? from thy lips? It cannot be
The long-hushed music of the only voice
That ever spake unbought affection to me,
And waked my soul to blessing. O sweet hours
Of golden joy, ye come! your glories break
Through my pavilion'd spirit's sable folds.
Roll on! roll on! — Stranger, thou dost enforce me
To speak of things unbreathed by lip of mine
To human ear: wilt listen?
Ion. As a child.
Ad. Again! that voice again ! Thou hast seen me moved
As never mortal saw me, by a tone
Which some light breeze, enamoured of the sound,
Hath wafted through the woods, till thy young voice
Caught it to rive and melt me. At my birth
This city, which, expectant of its prince,
Lay hushed, broke out in clamorous ecstasies;
Yet, in that moment, while the uplifted cups
Foamed with the choicest product of the sun,
And welcome thundered from a thousand throats,
My doom was sealed. From the hearth's vacant space,
In the dark chamber where my mother lay,
Faint with the sense of pain-bought happiness,
Came forth in heart-appalling tone, these words
Of me, the nursling: "Woe unto the babe!
Against the life which now begins shall life,
Lighted from thence, be armed, and, both soon quenched,
<poem> End this great line in sorrow!" Ere I grew Of years to know myself a thing accursed, A second son was born, to steal the love Which fate had else scarce rifled: he became My parents' hope, the darling of the crew Who lived upon their smiles, and thought it flattery To trace in every foible of my youth— A prince's youth—the workings of the curse. My very mother—Jove! I cannot bear To speak it now—looked freezingly upon me. Ion.But thy brother — Ad.Died. Thou hast heard the lie, The common lie that every peasant tells Of me, his master,—that I slew the boy. 'Tis false! One summer's eve, below a crag Which, in his wilful mood, he strove to climb, He lay a mangled corpse: the very slaves, Whose cruelty had shut him from my heart, Now coined their own injustice into proofs To brand me as his murderer. Ion.Did they dare Accuse thee ? Ad.Not in open speech: they felt I should have seized the miscreant by the throat, And crushed the lie half-spoken with the life Of the base speaker: but the tale looked out From the stolen gaze of coward eyes, which shrank When mine have met them; murmured through the crowd That at the sacrifice, or feast, or game, Stood distant from me; burnt into my soul, When I beheld it in my father's shudder! Ion.Didst not declare thy innocence? Ad.To whom? To parents who could doubt me? To the ring Of grave impostors, or their shallow sons, Who should have studied to prevent my wish Before it grew to language; hailed my choice To service as a prize to wrestle for; And whose reluctant courtesy I bore, Pale with proud anger, till from lips compressed The blood has started? To the common herd, The vassals of our ancient house, the mass Of bones and muscles framed to till the soil A few brief years, then rot unnamed beneath it;
Or, decked for slaughter at their master's call,
To smite, and to be smitten, and lie crushed
In heaps to swell his glory or his shame?
Answer to them? No! though my heart had burst,
As it was nigh to bursting! To the mountains
I fled, and on their pinnacles of snow
Breasted the icy wind, in hope to cool
My spirit's fever; struggled with the oak
In search of weariness, and learned to rive
Its stubborn boughs, till limbs once lightly strung
Might mate in cordage with its infant stems;
Or on the sea-beat rock tore off the vest
Which burnt upon my bosom, and to air
Headlong committed, clove the water's depth
Which plummet never sounded,—but in vain.
Ion. Yet succor came to thee?
Ad. A blessed one!
Which the strange magic of thy voice revives,
And thus unlocks my soul. My rapid steps
Were in a wood-encircled valley stayed
By the bright vision of a maid, whose face
Most lovely, more than loveliness revealed
In touch of patient grief, which dearer seemed
Than happiness to spirit seared like mine.
With feeble hands she strove to lay in earth
The body of her aged sire, whose death
Left her alone. I aided her sad work;
And soon two lonely ones by holy rites
Became one happy being. Days, weeks, months,
In streamlike unity flowed silent by us
In our delightful nest. My father's spies—
Slaves, whom my nod should have consigned to stripes
Or the swift falchion—tracked our sylvan home,
Just as my bosom knew its second joy,
And, spite of fortune, I embraced a son.
Ion. Urged by thy trembling parents to avert
That dreadful prophecy.
Ad. Fools! did they deem
Its worst accomplishment could match the ill
Which they wrought on me ? It had left unharmed
A thousand ecstasies of passioned years,
Which, tasted once, live ever, and disdain
Fate's iron grapple! Could I now behold
That son with knife uplifted at my heart,
A moment ere my life-blood followed it,
I would embrace him with my dying eyes,
And pardon destiny! While jocund smiles
Wreathed on the infant's face, as if sweet spirits
Suggested pleasant fancies to its soul,
The ruffians broke upon us—seized the child—
Dashed through the thicket to the beetling rock
'Neath which the deep sea eddies; I stood still,
As stricken into stone: I heard him cry,
Pressed by the rudeness of the murderer's grip,
Severer ill unfearing—then the splash
Of waters that shall cover him forever;
And could not stir to save him!
Ion. And the mother?
Ad. She spake no word; but clasped me in her arms,
And laid her down to die! A lingering gaze
Of love she fixed on me,— none other loved,—
And so passed from hence. By Jupiter! her look,
Her dying patience glimmers in thy face!
She lives again! She looks upon me now!
There's magic in't. Bear with me—I am childish.

Enter Crythes and Guards.

Why art thou here?
Cry. The dial points the hour.
Ad. Dost thou not see that horrid purpose passed?
Hast thou no heart—no sense?
Cry. Scarce half an hour
Hath flown since the command on which I wait.
Ad. Scarce half an hour ! Years, years have rolled since then.
Begone ! Remove that pageantry of death;
It blasts my sight. And hearken! Touch a hair
Of this brave youth, or look on him as now,
With thy cold headsman's eye, and yonder band
Shall not expect a fearful show in vain.
Hence ! without a word.

[Exit Crythes

What wouldst thou have me do?
Ion. Let thy awakened heart speak its own language:
Convene thy sages; frankly, nobly meet them;
Explore with them the pleasure of the gods,
And whatsoe'er the sacrifice, perform it.
Ad. Well, I will seek their presence in an hour:
Go summon them, young hero! Hold! no word
Of the strange passion thou hast witnessed here.
Ion. Distrust me not.—Benignant powers! I thank ye!


Ad. Yet stay!—He's gone—his spell is on me yet;
What have I promised him? To meet the men
Who from my living head would strip the crown,
And sit in judgment on me? I must do it.
Yet shall my band be ready to o'erawe
The cause of liberal speech, and if it rise
So as too loudly to offend my ear,
Strike the rash brawler dead! What idle dream
Of long-past days had melted me? It fades—
It vanishes—I am again a king.

Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd.