The Vespers of Palermo/The Vespers of Palermo, Act Two

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Scene I.—Apartment in a Palace.


Constance. Will you not hear me?—Oh! that they who need
Hourly forgiveness, they who do but live,
While Mercy's voice, beyond th' eternal stars,
Wins the great Judge to listen, should be thus,
In their vain exercise of pageant power,
Hard and relentless!—Gentle brother, yet,
'T is in your choice to imitate that heaven
Whose noblest joy is pardon.

Eribert.'T is too late.
You have a soft and moving voice, which pleads
With eloquent melody—but they must die.

Con. What, die!—for words?—for breath, which leaves no trace
To sully the pure air, wherewith it blends,
And is, being utter'd, gone?—Why, 't were enough
For such a venial fault, to be deprived
One little day of man's free heritage,
Heaven's warm and sunny light! —Oh! if you deem
That evil harbours in their souls, at least

Delay the stroke, till guilt, made manifest,
Shall bid stern Justice wake.

Eri.I am not one
Of those weak spirits, that timorously keep watch
For fair occasions, thence to borrow hues
Of virtue for their deeds. My school hath been
Where power sits crown'd and arm'd.—And, mark me, sister!
To a distrustful nature it might seem
Strange, that your lips thus earnestly should plead
For these Sicilian rebels. O'er my being
Suspicion holds no power.—And yet take note.
—I have said, and they must die.

Con. Have you no fear?

Eri. Of what?—that heaven should fall?

Con. No!—but that earth
Should arm in madness.—Brother! I have seen
Dark eyes bent on you, e'en midst festal throngs,
With such deep hatred settled in their glance,
My heart hath died within me.

Eri.Am I then
To pause, and doubt, and shrink, because a girl,
A dreaming girl, hath trembled at a look?

Con. Oh! looks are no illusions, when the soul,
Which may not speak in words, can find no way
But theirs, to liberty!—Have not these men
Brave sons, or noble brothers?

Eri.Yes! whose name
It rests with me to make a word of fear,
A sound forbidden midst the haunts of men.

Con. But not forgotten!—Ah! beware, beware!
—Nay, look not sternly on me.—There is one
Of that devoted band, who yet will need
Years to be ripe for death.—He is a youth,
A very boy, on whose unshaded cheek
The spring-time glow is lingering. 'T was but now
His mother left me, with a timid hope
Just dawning in her breast;—and I—I dared
To foster its faint spark.—You smile!—Oh! then
He will be saved!

Eri.Nay, I but smiled to think
What a fond fool is hope!—She may be taught
To deem that the great sun will change his course
To work her pleasure; or the tomb give back
Its inmates to her arms.—In sooth, 't is strange!
Yet, with your pitying heart, you should not thus
Have mock'd the boy's sad mother—I have said,
You should not thus have mock'd her!—Now, farewell.
[Exit Eribert.

Con. Oh, brother! hard of heart!—for deeds like these
There must be fearful chastening, if on high
Justice doth hold her state.—And I must tell
Yon desolate mother that her fair young son
Is thus to perish!—Haply the dread tale
May slay her too;—for heaven is merciful.
—'Twill be a bitter task!
[Exit Constance.

Scene II.—A ruined Tower, surrounded by Woods.


Procida. Thy vassals are prepared then?

Vittoria. Yes, they wait
Thy summons to their task.

Pro. Keep the flame bright,
But hidden, till its hour.—Wouldst thou dare, lady,
To join our councils at the night's mid-watch,
In the lone cavern by the rock-hewn cross?

Vit. What should I shrink from?

Pro. Oh! The forest-paths
Are dim and wild, e'en when the sunshine streams
Thro' their high arches: but when powerful night
Comes, with her cloudy phantoms, and her pale
Uncertain moonbeams, and the hollow sounds
Of her mysterious winds; their aspect then
Is of another and more fearful world;
A realm of indistinct and shadowy forms,
Wakening strange thoughts, almost too much for this,
Our frail terrestrial nature.

Vit. Well I know
All this, and more. Such scenes have been th' abodes
Where thro' the silence of my soul have pass'd
Voices, and visions from the sphere of those
That have to die no more!—Nay, doubt it not!
If such unearthly intercourse hath e'er
Been granted to our nature, 'tis to hearts

Whose love is with the dead. They, they alone,
Unmadden'd could sustain the fearful joy
And glory of its trances!—at the hour
Which makes guilt tremulous, and peoples earth
And air with infinite, viewless multitudes,
I will be with thee, Procida.

Pro. Thy presence
Will kindle nobler thoughts, and, in the souls
Of suffering and indignant men, arouse
That which may strengthen our majestic cause
With yet a deeper power.—Know'st thou the spot?

Vit. Full well. There is no scene so wild and lone
In these dim woods, but I have visited
Its tangled shades.

Pro. At midnight then we meet.
[Exit Procida.

Vit. Why should I fear?—Thou wilt be with me,—thou,
Th' immortal dream and shadow of my soul,
Spirit of him I love! that meet'st me still
In loneliness and silence; in the noon
Of the wild night, and in the forest-depths,
Known but to me; for whom thou giv'st the winds
And sighing leaves a cadence of thy voice,
Till my heart faints with that o'erthrilling joy!
Thou wilt be with me there, and lend my lips
Words, fiery words, to flush dark cheeks with shame,
That thou art unavenged!
[Exit Vittoria.

Scene III.—A Chapel, with a Monument, on which is laid a Sword.—Moonlight.


Montalba. And know you not my story?

Procida. In the lands
Where I have been a wanderer, your deep wrongs
Were number'd with our country's; but their tale
Came only in faint echoes to mine ear.
I would fain hear it now.

Mon. Hark! while you spoke,
There was a voice-like murmur in the breeze,
Which ev'n like death came o'er me:—'twas a night
Like this, of clouds contending with the moon,
A night of sweeping winds, of rustling leaves,
And swift wild shadows floating o'er the earth,
Clothed with a phantom-life; when, after years
Of battle and captivity, I spurr'd
My good steed homewards.—Oh! what lovely dreams
Rose on my spirit!—There were tears and smiles,
But all of joy!—And there were bounding steps,
And clinging arms, whose passionate clasp of love
Doth twine so fondly round the warrior's neck,
When his plumed helm is doff'd.—Hence, feeble thoughts!
—I am sterner now, yet once such dreams were mine!

Raimond. And were they realiz'd?

Mon. Youth! Ask me not,

But listen!—I drew near my own fair home;
There was no light along its walls, no sound
Of bugle pealing from the watch-tower's height
At my approach, although my trampling steed
Made the earth ring; yet the wide gates were thrown
All open.—Then my heart misgave me first,
And on the threshold of my silent hall
I paused a moment, and the wind swept by
With the same deep and dirge-like tone which pierced
My soul e'en now.—I call'd—my struggling voice
Gave utterance to my wife's, my children's, names;
They answer'd not—I roused my failing strength,
And wildly rush'd within—and they were there.

Rai. And was all well?

Mon. Ay, well!—for death is well,
And they were all at rest!—I see them yet,
Pale in their innocent beauty, which had fail'd
To stay th' assassin's arm!

Rai. Oh, righteous heaven!
Who had done this?

Mon. Who!

Pro. Can'st thou question, who?
Whom hath the earth to perpetrate such deeds,
In the cold-blooded revelry of crime,
But those whose yoke is on us?

Rai. Man of woe!
What words hath pity for despair like thine?

Mon. Pity!—fond youth!—My soul disdains the grief
Which doth unbosom its deep secrecies,

To ask a vain companionship of tears,
And so to be relieved!

Pro. For woes like these,
There is no sympathy but vengeance.

Therefore I brought you hither, that your hearts
Might catch the spirit of the scene!—Look round!
We are in the awful presence of the dead;
Within yon tomb they sleep, whose gentle blood
Weighs down the murderer's soul.—They sleep!—but I
Am wakeful o'er their dust!—I laid my sword,
Without its sheath, on their sepulchral stone,
As on an altar; and th' eternal stars,
And heaven, and night, bore witness to my vow,
No more to wield it save in one great cause,
The vengeance of the grave!—And now the hour
Of that atonement comes!
(He takes the sword from the tomb.

Rai. My spirit burns!
And my full heart almost to bursting swells.
—Oh! for the day of battle!

Pro. Raimond! they
Whose souls are dark with guiltless blood must die;
—But not in battle.

Rai. How, my father!

Pro. No!
Look on that sepulchre, and it will teach
Another lesson.—But th' appointed hour
Advances.—Thou wilt join our chosen band,
Noble Montalba?

Mon. Leave me for a time,
That I may calm my soul by intercourse
With the still dead, before I mix with men,
And with their passions. I have nursed for years,
In silence and in solitude, the flame
Which doth consume me; and it is not used
Thus to be look'd or breath'd on.—Procida!
I would be tranquil—or appear so—ere
I join your brave confederates. Thro' my heart
There struck a pang—but it will soon have pass'd.

Pro. Remember!—in the cavern by the cross.
Now, follow me, my son.
[Exeunt Procida and Raimond.

Mon. (after a pause, leaning on the tomb.)
Said he, "my son?"—Now, why should this man’s life
Go down in hope, thus resting on a son,
And I be desolate?—How strange a sound
Was that—"my son!"—I had a boy, who might
Have worn as free a soul upon his brow
As doth this youth.—Why should the thought of him
Thus haunt me?—when I tread the peopled ways
Of life again, I shall be pass'd each hour
By fathers with their children, and I must
Learn calmly to look on.—Methinks 'twere now
A gloomy consolation to behold
All men bereft, as I am!—But away,
Vain thoughts!—One task is left for blighted hearts,
And it shall be fulfill'd.
[Exit Montalba.

Scene IV.—Entrance of a Cave, surrounded by Rocks and Forests. A rude Cross seen amongst the Rocks.


Procida. And it is thus, beneath the solemn skies
Of midnight, and in solitary caves,
Where the wild forest-creatures make their lair,—
Is't thus the chiefs of Sicily must hold
The councils of their country!

Raimond. Why, such scenes
In their primeval majesty, beheld
Thus by faint starlight, and the partial glare
Of the red-streaming lava, will inspire
Far deeper thoughts than pillar'd halls, wherein
Statesmen hold weary vigils.—Are we not
O'ershadow'd by that Etna, which of old
With its dread prophecies, hath struck dismay
Thro' tyrants' hearts, and bade them seek a home
In other climes?—Hark! from its depths e'en now
What hollow moans are sent!

Enter Montalba, Guido, and other Sicilians.

Pro. Welcome,my brave associates!—We can share
The wolf's wild freedom here!—Th' oppressor’s haunt
Is not midst rocks and caves. Are we all met?

Sicilians. All, all!

Pro. The torchlight, sway'd by every gust,
But dimly shows your features.—Where is he

Who from his battles had return'd to breathe
Once more, without a corslet, and to meet
The voices, and the footsteps, and the smiles,
Blent with his dreams of home?—Of that dark tale
The rest is known to vengeance!—Art thou here,
With thy deep wrongs and resolute despair,
Childless Montalba?

Mon. (advancing.) He is at thy side.
Call on that desolate father, in the hour
When his revenge is nigh.

Pro. Thou, too, come forth,
From thine own halls an exile!—Dost thou make
The mountain-fastnesses thy dwelling still,
While hostile banners, o'er thy rampart walls,
Wave their proud blazonry?

1 Sici. Even so. I stood
Last night before my own ancestral towers
An unknown outcast, while the tempest beat
On my bare head—what reck'd it?—There was joy
Within, and revelry; the festive lamps
Were streaming from each turret, and gay songs,
I 'th' stranger's tongue, made mirth. They little deem'd
Who heard their melodies!—but there are thoughts
Best nurtured in the wild; there are dread vows
Known to the mountain-echoes.—Procida!
Call on the outcast when revenge is nigh.

Pro. I knew a young Sicilian, one whose heart
Should be all fire. On that most guilty day,
When, with our martyr'd Conradin, the flower

Of the land's knighthood perish'd; he, of whom
I speak, a weeping boy, whose innocent tears
Melted a thousand hearts that dared not aid,
Stood by the scaffold, with extended arms,
Calling upon his father, whose last look
Turn'd full on him its parting agony.
That father's blood gush'd o'er him!—and the boy
Then dried his tears, and, with a kindling eye,
And a proud flush on his young cheek, look'd up
To the bright heaven.—Doth he remember still
That bitter hour?

2 Sici. He bears a sheathless sword!
—Call on the orphan when revenge is nigh.

Pro. Our band shows gallantly—but there are men
Who should be with us now, had they not dared
In some wild moment of festivity
To give their full hearts way, and breathe a wish
For freedom!—and some traitor—it might be
A breeze perchance—bore the forbidden sound
To Eribert:—so they must die—unless
Fate, (who at times is wayward) should select
Some other victim first!—But have they not
Brothers or sons amongst us?

Guido. Look on me!
I have a brother, a young high-soul'd boy,
And beautiful as a sculptor's dream, with brow
That wears, amidst its dark rich curls, the stamp
Of inborn nobleness. In truth, he is
A glorious creature!—But his doom is seal'd
With their's of whom you spoke; and I have knelt—

—Ay, scorn me not! 'twas for his life—I knelt
E'en at the viceroy's feet, and he put on
That heartless laugh of cold malignity
We know so well, and spurn'd me.— But the stain
Of shame like this, takes blood to wash it off,
And thus it shall be cancell'd!—Call on me,
When the stern moment of revenge is nigh.

Pro. I call upon thee now! The land's high soul
Is roused, and moving onward, like a breeze
Or a swift sunbeam, kindling nature's hues
To deeper life before it. In his chains,
The peasant dreams of freedom!—ay, 'tis thus
Oppression fans th' imperishable flame
With most unconscious hands.—No praise be her's
For what she blindly works!—When slavery's cup
O'erflows its bounds, the creeping poison, meant
To dull our senses, thro' each burning vein
Pours fever, lending a delirious strength
To burst man's fetters—and they shall be burst!
I have hoped, when hope seemed frenzy; but a power
Abides in human will, when bent with strong
Unswerving energy on one great aim,
To make and rule its fortunes!—I have been
A wanderer in the fulness of my years,
A restless pilgrim of the earth and seas,
Gathering the generous thoughts of other lands,
To aid our holy cause. And aid is near:
But we must give the signal. Now, before
The majesty of yon pure heaven, whose eye
Is on our hearts, whose righteous arm befriends

The arm that strikes for freedom; speak! decree
The fate of our oppressors.

Mon. Let them fall
When dreaming least of peril!—When the heart,
Basking in sunny pleasure, doth forget
That hate may smile, but sleeps not.—Hide the sword
With a thick veil of myrtle, and in halls
Of banquetting, where the full wine-cup shines
Red in the festal torch-light; meet we there,
And bid them welcome to the feast of death.

Pro. Thy voice is low and broken, and thy words
Scarce meet our ears.

Mon. Why, then, I thus repeat
Their import. Let th' avenging sword burst forth
In some free festal hour, and woe to him
Who first shall spare!

Rai. Must innocence and guilt
Perish alike?

Mon. Who talks of innocence?
When hath their hand been stay'd for innocence?
Let them all perish!—Heaven will chuse its own.
Why should their children live?—The earthquake whelms
Its undistinguish'd thousands, making graves
Of peopled cities in its path—and this
Is Heaven's dread justice—ay, and it is well!
Why then should we be tender, when the skies
Deal thus with man?—What, if the infant bleed?
Is there not power to hush the mother's pangs?
What, if the youthful bride perchance should fall

In her triumphant beauty?—Should we pause?
As if death were not mercy to the pangs
Which make our lives the records of our foes?
Let them all perish!—And if one be found
Amidst our band, to stay th' avenging steel
For pity, or remorse, or boyish love,
Then be his doom as theirs![A pause.
Why gaze ye thus?
Brethren, what means your silence?

Sici. Be it so!
If one amongst us stay th' avenging steel
For love or pity, be his doom as theirs!
Pledge we our faith to this!

Rai. (Rushing forward indignantly.)
Our faith to this!
No! I but dreamt I heard it!—Can it be?
My countrymen, my father!—Is it thus
That freedom should be won?—Awake! Awake
To loftier thoughts!—Lift up, exultingly,
On the crown'd heights, and to the sweeping winds,
Your glorious banner!—Let your trumpet's blast
Make the tombs thrill with echoes! Call aloud,
Proclaim from all your hills, the land shall bear
The stranger's yoke no longer!—What is he
Who carries on his practised lip a smile,
Beneath his vest a dagger, which but waits
Till the heart bounds with joy, to still its beatings?
That which our nature's instinct doth recoil from,
And our blood curdle at—Ay, yours and mine—
A murderer!—Heard ye?—Shall that name with ours

Go down to after days?—Oh, friends! a cause
Like that for which we rise, hath made bright names
Of the elder time as rallying-words to men,
Sounds full of might and immortality!
And shall not ours be such?

Mon. Fond dreamer, peace!
Fame! What is fame?—Will our unconscious dust
Start into thrilling rapture from the grave,
At the vain breath of praise?—I tell thee, youth,
Our souls are parch'd with agonizing thirst,
Which must be quench'd tho' death were in the draught:
We must have vengeance, for our foes have left
No other joy unblighted.

Pro. Oh! my son,
The time is past for such high dreams as thine.
Thou know' st not whom we deal with. Knightly faith,
And chivalrous honour, are but things whereon
They cast disdainful pity. We must meet
Falsehood with wiles, and insult with revenge.
And, for our names—whate'er the deeds, by which
We burst our bondage—is it not enough
That in the chronicle of days to come,
We, thro' a bright 'For Ever,' shall be call'd
The men who saved their country?

Rai. Many a land
Hath bow'd beneath the yoke, and then arisen,
As a strong lion rending silken bonds,
And on the open field, before high heaven,
Won such majestic vengeance, as hath made
Its name a power on earth.—Ay, nations own

It is enough of glory to be call'd
The children of the mighty, who redeem'd
Their native soil—but not by means like these.

Mon. I have no children.—Of Montalba's blood
Not one red drop doth circle thro' the veins
Of aught that breathes!—Why, what have I to do
With far futurity?—My spirit lives
But in the past.—Away! when thou dost stand
On this fair earth, as doth a blasted tree
Which the warm sun revives not, then return,
Strong in thy desolation: but, till then,
Thou art not for our purpose; we have need
Of more unshrinking hearts.

Rai. Montalba, know,
I shrink from crime alone. Oh! if my voice
Might yet have power amongst you, I would say,
Associates, leaders, be avenged! but yet
As knights, as warriors!

Mon. Peace! have we not borne
Th' indelible taint of contumely and chains?
We are not knights and warriors.—Our bright crests
Have been defiled and trampled to the earth.
Boy! we are slaves—and our revenge shall be
Deep as a slave's disgrace.

Rai. Why, then, farewell:
I leave you to your councils. He that still
Would hold his lofty nature undebased,
And his name pure, were but a loiterer here.

Pro. And is it thus indeed?—dost thou forsake
Our cause, my son?

Rai. Oh, father! what proud hopes
This hour hath blighted!—yet, whate'er betide
It is a noble privilege to look up
Fearless in heaven's bright face.—and this is mine,
And shall be still.— [Exit Raimond.

Pro. He's gone!—Why, let it be!
I trust our Sicily hath many a son
Valiant as mine.—Associates!—'tis decreed
Our foes shall perish. We have but to name
The hour, the scene, the signal.

Mon. It should be
In the full city, when some festival
Hath gathered throngs, and lull'd infatuate hearts
To brief security. Hark! is there not
A sound of hurrying footsteps on the breeze?
We are betray'd.—Who art thou?

Vittoria enters.

Pro. One alone
Should be thus daring. Lady, lift the veil
That shades thy noble brow.

(She raises her veil, the Sicilians draw back with respect.)

Sici. Th' affianced bride
Of our lost King!

Pro. And more, Montalba; know
Within this form there dwells a soul as high,
As warriors in their battles e'er have proved,
Or patriots on the scaffold.

Vittoria. Valiant men!
I come to ask your aid. Ye see me, one

Whose widow'd youth hath all been consecrate
To a proud sorrow, and whose life is held
In token and memorial of the dead.
Say, is it meet that, lingering thus on earth,
But to behold one great atonement made,
And keep one name from fading in men's hearts,
A tyrant's will should force me to profane
Heaven's altar with unhallow'd vows—and live
Stung by the keen, unutterable scorn
Of my own bosom, live—another's bride?

Sici. Never, oh never!—fear not, noble lady!
Worthy of Conradin!

Vit. Yet hear me still.
His bride, that Eribert's, who notes our tears
With his insulting eye of cold derision,
And, could he pierce the depths where feeling works,
Would number e'en our agonies as crimes.
—Say, is this meet?

Guido. We deem'd these nuptials, lady,
Thy willing choice; but 'tis a joy to find
Thou art noble still. Fear not; by all our wrongs
This shall not be.

Pro. Vittoria, thou art come
To ask our aid, but we have need of thine.
Know, the completion of our high designs
Requires—a festival; and it must be
Thy bridal!

Vit. Procida!

Pro. Nay, start not thus.
'Tis no hard task to bind your raven hair

With festal garlands, and to bid the song
Rise, and the wine-cup mantle. No—nor yet
To meet your suitor at the glittering shrine,
Where death, not love, awaits him!

Vit. Can my soul
Dissemble thus?

Pro. We have no other means
Of winning our great birthright back from those
Who have usurp'd it, than so lulling them
Into vain confidence, that they may deem
All wrongs forgot; and this may best be done
By what I ask of thee.

Mon. Then will we mix
With the flush'd revellers, making their gay feast
The harvest of the grave.

Vit. A bridal day!
—Must it be so?—Then, chiefs of Sicily,
I bid you to my nuptials! but be there
With your bright swords unsheath'd, for thus alone
My guests should be adorn'd.

Pro. And let thy banquet
Be soon announced, for there are noble men
Sentenced to die, for whom we fain would purchase
Reprieve with other blood.

Vit. Be it then the day
Preceding that appointed for their doom.

Guido. My brother, thou shalt live!—Oppression boasts
No gift of prophecy!—It but remains
To name our signal, chiefs!

Mon. The Vesper-bell.

Pro. Even so, the vesper-bell, whose deep-toned peal
Is heard o'er land and wave. Part of our band,
Wearing the guise of antic revelry,
Shall enter, as in some fantastic pageant,
The halls of Eribert; and at the hour
Devoted to the sword's tremendous task,
I follow with the rest.—The vesper-bell!
That sound shall wake th' avenger; for 'tis come,
The time when power is in a voice, a breath,
To burst the spell which bound us.—But the night
Is waning, with her stars, which, one by one,
Warn us to part. Friends, to your homes!—your homes?
That name is yet to win.—Away, prepare
For our next meeting in Palermo's walls.
The Vesper-bell! Remember!

Sici. Fear us not.
The Vesper-bell! [Exeunt omnes.