The Vespers of Palermo/The Vespers of Palermo, Act One

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THE

VESPERS OF PALERMO;

A TRAGEDY.


ACT THE FIRST.

Scene I.A Valley, with Vineyards and Cottages.

Groups of Peasants—Procida, disguised as a Pilgrim, amongst them

    1 Peasant. Ay, this was wont to be a festal time
In days gone by! I can remember well
The old familiar melodies that rose
At break of morn, from all our purple hills,
To welcome in the vintage. Never since
Hath music seem'd so sweet! But the light hearts
Which to those measures beat so joyously
Are tamed to stillness now. There is no voice
Of joy thro' all the land.

    2 Pea. Yes! there are sounds
Of revelry within the palaces,
And the fair castles of our ancient lords,
Where now the stranger banquets. Ye may hear,
From thence the peals of song and laughter rise
At midnight's deepest hour.


    3 Pea.Alas! we sat
In happier days, so peacefully beneath
The olives and the vines our fathers rear'd,
Encircled by our children, whose quick steps
Flew by us in the dance! The time hath been
When peace was in the hamlet, wheresoe'er
The storm might gather. But this yoke of France
Falls on the peasant's neck as heavily
As on the crested chieftain's. We are bow'd
E'en to the earth.

    Pea. Child.My father, tell me when
Shall the gay dance and song again resound
Amidst our chesnut-woods, as in those days
Of which thou 'rt wont to tell the joyous tale?

    1 Pea. When there are light and reckless hearts once more
In Sicily's green vales. Alas! my boy,
Men meet not now to quaff the flowing bowl,
To hear the mirthful song, and cast aside
The weight of work-day care:—they meet, to speak
Of wrongs and sorrows, and to whisper thoughts
They dare not breathe aloud.

    Procida. (from the back-ground.) Ay, it is well
So to relieve th' o'erburden'd heart, which pants
Beneath its weight of wrongs; but better far
In silence to avenge them.

    An old Pea.What deep voice
Came with that startling tone?

    1 Pea.It was our guest's,

The stranger pilgrim, who hath sojourn'd here
Since yester-morn. Good neighbours, mark him well:
He hath a stately bearing, and an eye
Whose glance looks thro' the heart. His mien accords
Ill with such vestments. How he folds round him
His pilgrim-cloak, e'en as it were a robe
Of knightly ermine! That commanding step
Should have been used in courts and camps to move.
Mark him!

    Old Pea. Nay, rather, mark him not: the times
Are fearful, and they teach the boldest hearts
A cautious lesson. What should bring him here?

    A Youth. He spoke of vengeance!

    Old Pea. Peace! we are beset
By snares on every side, and we must learn
In silence and in patience to endure.
Talk not of vengeance, for the word is death.

    Pro. (coming forward indignantly.)—The word is death! And what hath life for thee,
That thou shouldst cling to it thus? thou abject thing!
Whose very soul is moulded to the yoke,
And stamp'd with servitude. What! is it life,
Thus at a breeze to start, to school thy voice
Into low fearful whispers, and to cast
Pale jealous looks around thee, lest, e'en then,
Strangers should catch its echo?—Is there aught
In this so precious, that thy furrow'd cheek
Is blanch'd with terror at the passing thought
Of hazarding some few and evil days,
Which drag thus poorly on?


    Some of the Peasants. Away, away!
Leave us, for there is danger in thy presence.

    Pro. Why, what is danger?—Are there deeper ills
Than those ye bear thus calmly? Ye have drain'd
The cup of bitterness, till nought remains
To fear or shrink from—therefore, be ye strong!
Power dwelleth with despair.—Why start ye thus
At words which are but echoes of the thoughts
Lock'd in your secret souls?—Full well I know,
There is not one amongst you, but hath nursed
Some proud indignant feeling, which doth make
One conflict of his life. I know thy wrongs,
And thine—and thine,—but if within your breasts,
There is no chord that vibrates to my voice,
Then fare ye well.

    A Youth. (coming forward.) No, no! say on, say on!
There are still free and fiery hearts e'en here,
That kindle at thy words.

    Peas. If that indeed
Thou hast a hope to give us.

    Pro. There is hope
For all who suffer with indignant thoughts
Which work in silent strength. What! think ye Heaven
O'erlooks th' oppressor, if he bear awhile
His crested head on high?—I tell you, no!
Th' avenger will not sleep. It was an hour
Of triumph to the conqueror, when our king,
Our young brave Conradin, in life's fair morn,
On the red scaffold died. Yet not the less

Is justice throned above; and her good time
Comes rushing on in storms: that royal blood
Hath lifted an accusing voice from earth,
And hath been heard. The traces of the past
Fade in man's heart, but ne'er doth heaven forget.

    Peas. Had we but arms and leaders, we are men
Who might earn vengeance yet; but wanting these,
What woulds't thou have us do?

    Pro. Be vigilant;
And when the signal wakes the land, arise!
The peasant's arm is strong, and there shall be
A rich and noble harvest. Fare ye well. [Exit Procida.

    1 Peas. This man should be a prophet: how he seem'd
To read our hearts with his dark searching glance
And aspect of command! And yet his garb
Is mean as ours.

    2 Peas. Speak low; I know him well.
At first his voice disturb'd me like a dream
Of other days; but I remember now
His form, seen oft when in my youth I served
Beneath the banners of our kings. 'Tis he
Who hath been exiled and proscribed so long,
The Count di Procida.

    Peas. And is this he?
Then heaven protect him! for around his steps
Will many snares be set.

    1 Peas. He comes not thus
But with some mighty purpose; doubt it not:
Perchance to bring us freedom. He is one,
Whose faith, thro' many a trial, hath been proved

True to our native princes. But away!
The noon-tide heat is past, and from the seas
Light gales are wandering thro' the vineyards; now
We may resume our toil.
[Exeunt Peasants.


Scene II.—The Terrace of a Castle.

Eribert.Vittoria.


Vittoria. Have I not told thee, that I bear a heart
Blighted and cold?—Th' affections of my youth
Lie slumbering in the grave; their fount is closed,
And all the soft and playful tenderness
Which hath its home in woman's breast, ere yet
Deep wrongs have sear'd it; all is fled from mine.
Urge me no more.

Eribert.O lady! doth the flower
That sleeps entomb'd thro' the long wintry storms
Unfold its beauty to the breath of spring;
And shall not woman's heart, from chill despair,
Wake at love's voice?

Vit. Love!—make love's name thy spell,
And I am strong!—the very word calls up
'From the dark past, thoughts, feelings, powers, array'd
In arms against thee!—Know'st thou whom I lov'd,
While my soul's dwelling place was still on earth?
One who was born for empire, and endow'd
With such high gifts of princely majesty,
As bow'd all hearts before him!—Was he not
Brave, royal, beautiful?—And such he died;

He died!—hast thou forgotten?—And thou'rt here,
Thou meet'st my glance with eyes which coldly look'd,
—Coldly!—nay, rather with triumphant gaze,
Upon his murder!—Desolate as I am,
Yet in the mien of thine affianced bride,
Oh, my lost Conradin! there should be still
Somewhat of loftiness, which might o'erawe
The hearts of thine assassins.

Eri. Haughty dame!
If thy proud heart to tenderness be closed,
Know, danger is around thee: thou hast foes
That seek thy ruin, and my power alone
Can shield thee from their arts.

Vit.Provençal, tell
Thy tale of danger to some happy heart,
Which hath its little world of loved ones round,
For whom to tremble; and its tranquil joys
That make earth, Paradise. I stand alone;
—They that are blest may fear.

Eri.Is there not one
Who ne'er commands in vain?—proud lady, bend
Thy spirit to thy fate; for know that he,
Whose car of triumph in its earthquake path
O'er the bow'd neck of prostrate Sicily,
Hath borne him to dominion; he, my king,
Charles of Anjou, decrees thy hand the boon
My deeds have well deserved; and who hath power
Against his mandates?

Vit.Viceroy, tell thy lord,
That e'en where chains lie heaviest on the land,

Souls may not all be fetter'd. Oft, ere now,
Conquerors have rock'd the earth, yet fail'd to tame
Unto their purposes, that restless fire,
Inhabiting man's breast.—A spark bursts forth,
And so they perish!—'tis the fate of those
Who sport with lightning—and it may be his:
—Tell him I fear him not, and thus am free.

Eri. 'Tis well. Then nerve that lofty heart to bear
The wrath which is not powerless. Yet again
Bethink thee, lady!— Love may change—hath changed
To vigilant hatred oft, whose sleepless eye
Still finds what most it seeks for. Fare thee well.
—Look to it yet!—To-morrow I return.
[Exit Eribert.

Vit. To-morrow!—Some ere now have slept, and dreamt
Of morrows which ne'er dawn'd—or ne'er for them;
So silently their deep and still repose
Hath melted into death!—Are there not balms
In nature's boundless realm, to pour out sleep
Like this, on me?—Yet should my spirit still
Endure its earthly bonds, till it could bear
To his a glorious tale of his own isle,
Free and avenged.—Thou should'st be now at work,
In wrath, my native Etna! who dost lift
Thy spiry pillar of dark smoke so high,
Thro' the red heaven of sunset!—sleep'st thou still,
With all thy founts of fire, while spoilers tread
The glowing vales beneath?

(Procida enters disguised.)

Ha! who art thou,

Unbidden guest, that with so mute a step
Dost steal upon me?

Pro.One, o'er whom hath pass'd
All that can change man's aspect!—Yet not long
Shalt thou find safety in forgetfulness.
—I am he, to breathe whose name is perilous,
Unless thy wealth could bribe the winds to silence.
—Know'st thou this, lady?— (He shows a ring.

Vit.Righteous Heaven! the pledge
Amidst his people from the scaffold thrown
By him who perish'd, and whose kingly blood
E'en yet is unatoned.—My heart beats high—
—Oh, welcome, welcome! thou art Procida,
Th' Avenger, the Deliverer!

Pro.Call me so
When my great task is done. Yet who can tell
If the return'd be welcome?—Many a heart
Is changed since last we met.

Vit.Why dost thou gaze,
With such a still and solemn earnestness,
Upon my alter'd mien?

Pro.That I may read
If to the widow'd love of Conradin,
Or the proud Eribert's triumphant bride,
I now entrust my fate.

Vit.Thou, Procida!
That thou shouldst wrong me thus!—Prolong thy gaze
Till it hath found an answer.


Pro.'Tis enough.
I find it in thy cheek, whose rapid change
Is from death's hue to fever's; in the wild
Unsettled brightness of thy proud dark eye,
And in thy wasted form. Ay, 'tis a deep
And solemn joy, thus in thy looks to trace,
Instead of youth's gay bloom, the characters
Of noble suffering;—on thy brow the same
Commanding spirit holds its native state
Which could not stoop to vileness. Yet the voice
Of Fame hath told afar that thou shouldst wed
This tyrant, Eribert.

Vit.And told it not
A tale of insolent love repell'd with scorn,
Of stern commands and fearful menaces
Met with indignant courage?—Procida!
It was but now that haughtily I braved
His sovereign's mandate, which decrees my hand,
With its fair appanage of wide domains
And wealthy vassals, a most fitting boon,
To recompense his crimes.—I smiled—ay, smiled
In proud security! for the high of heart
Have still a pathway to escape disgrace,
Tho' it be dark and lone.

Pro.Thou shalt not need
To tread its shadowy mazes. Trust my words:
I tell thee, that a spirit is abroad,
Which will not slumber till its path be traced
By deeds of fearful fame. Vittoria, live!

It is most meet that thou shouldst live, to see
The mighty expiation; for thy heart
(Forgive me that I wrong'd its faith) hath nursed
A high, majestic grief, whose seal is set
Deep on thy marble brow.

Vit.Then thou canst tell,
By gazing on the wither'd rose, that there
Time, or the blight, hath work'd!—Ay, this is in
Thy vision's scope: but oh! the things unseen,
Untold, undreamt of, which like shadows pass
Hourly o'er that mysterious world, a mind
To ruin struck by grief!—Yet doth my soul,
Far, midst its darkness, nurse one soaring hope,
Wherein is bright vitality.—'Tis to see
His blood avenged, and his fair heritage,
My beautiful native land, in glory risen,
Like a warrior from his slumbers!

Pro.Hear'st thou not
With what a deep and ominous moan, the voice
Of our great mountain swells?—There will be soon
A fearful burst!—Vittoria! brood no more
In silence o'er thy sorrows, but go forth
Amidst thy vassals, (yet be secret still)
And let thy breath give nurture to the spark
Thou 'lt find already kindled. I move on
In shadow, yet awakening in my path
That which shall startle nations. Fare thee well.

Vit. When shall we meet again?—Are we not those

Whom most he loved on earth, and think'st thou not
That love e'en yet shall bring his spirit near
While thus we hold communion?

Pro.Yes, I feel
Its breathing influence whilst I look on thee,
Who wert its light in life. Yet will we not
Make womanish tears our offering on his tomb;
He shall have nobler tribute!—I must hence,
But thou shalt soon hear more. Await the time.
[Exeunt separately.


Scene III.—The Sea Shore.

Raimond di Procida. Constance.


Constance. There is a shadow far within your eye,
Which hath of late been deepening. You were wont
Upon the clearness of your open brow
To wear a brighter spirit, shedding round
Joy, like our southern sun. It is not well,
If some dark thought be gathering o'er your soul,
To hide it from affection. Why is this.
My Raimond, why is this?

Raimond.Oh! from the dreams
Of youth, sweet Constance, hath not manhood still
A wild and stormy wakening?—They depart,
Light after light, our glorious visions fade,
The vaguely beautiful! till earth, unveil'd
Lies pale around; and life's realities
Press on the soul, from its unfathom'd depth

Rousing the fiery feelings, and proud thoughts,
In all their fearful strength!—'Tis ever thus,
And doubly so with me; for I awoke
With high aspirings, making it a curse
To breathe where noble minds are bow'd, as here.
—To breathe!—it is not breath!

Con.I know thy grief,
— And is't not mine?—for those devoted men
Doom'd with their life to expiate some wild word,
Born of the social hour. Oh! I have knelt,
E'en at my brother's feet, with fruitless tears,
Imploring him to spare. His heart is shut
Against my voice; yet will I not forsake
The cause of mercy.

Rai.Waste not thou thy prayers,
Oh, gentle love, for them. There's little need
For Pity, tho' the galling chain be worn
By some few slaves the less. Let them depart!
There is a world beyond th' oppressor's reach,
And thither lies their way.

Con.Alas! I see
That some new wrong hath pierced you to the soul.

Rai. Pardon, beloved Constance, if my words,
From feelings hourly stung, have caught, perchance,
A tone of bitterness.—Oh! when thine eyes,
With their sweet eloquent thoughtfulness, are fix'd
Thus tenderly on mine, I should forget
All else in their soft beams; and yet I came
To tell thee—


Con.What? What wouldst thou say? O speak!——
Thou wouldst not leave me!

Rai.I have cast a cloud,
The shadow of dark thoughts and ruin'd fortunes,
O'er thy bright spirit. Haply, were I gone,
Thou wouldst resume thyself, and dwell once more
In the clear sunny light of youth and joy,
E'en as before we met—before we loved!

Con. This is but mockery.—Well thou know’st thy love
Hath given me nobler being; made my heart
A home for all the deep sublimities
Of strong affection; and I would not change
Th' exalted life I draw from that pure source,
With all its checquer'd hues of hope and fear,
Ev'n for the brightest calm. Thou most unkind!
Have I deserved this?

Rai.Oh! thou hast deserved
A love less fatal to thy peace than mine.
Think not 'tis mockery!—But I cannot rest
To be the scorn'd and trampled thing I am
In this degraded land. Its very skies,
That smile as if but festivals were held
Beneath their cloudless azure, weigh me down
With a dull sense of bondage, and I pine
For freedom's charter'd air. I would go forth
To seek my noble father; he hath been
Too long a lonely exile, and his name

Seems fading in the dim obscurity
Which gathers round my fortunes.

Con.Must we part?
And is it come to this?—Oh! I have still
Deem'd it enough of joy with thee to share
E'en grief itself—and now—but this is vain;
Alas! too deep, too fond, is woman's love,
Too full of hope, she casts on troubled waves
The treasures of her soul!

Rai.Oh, speak not thus!
Thy gentle and desponding tones fall cold
Upon my inmost heart.—I leave thee but
To be more worthy of a love like thine.
For I have dreamt of fame!—A few short years,
And we may yet be blest.

Con.A few short years!
Less time may well suffice for death and fate
To work all change on earth!—To break the ties
Which early love had form'd; and to bow down
Th' elastic spirit, and to blight each flower
Strewn in life's crowded path!—But be it so?
Be it enough to know that happiness
Meets thee on other shores.

Rai.Where'er I roam
Thou shalt be with my soul!—Thy soft low voice
Shall rise upon remembrance, like a strain
Of music heard in boyhood, bringing back
Life's morning freshness.—Oh! that there should be
Things, which we love with such deep tenderness,
But, through that love, to learn how much of woe

Dwells in one hour like this!—Yet weep thou not!
We shall meet soon; and many days, dear love,
Ere I depart.

Con.Then there's a respite still.
Days!—not a day but in its course may bring
Some strange vicissitude to turn aside
Th' impending blow we shrink from.—Fare thee well.
(returning.
—Oh, Raimond! this is not our last farewell?
Thou wouldst not so deceive me?

Rai.Doubt me not,
Gentlest and best beloved! we meet again.
[Exit Constance.

Rai. (After a pause.) When shall I breathe in freedom, and give scope
To those untameable and burning thoughts,
And restless aspirations, which consume
My heart i' th' land of bondage?—Oh! with you,
Ye everlasting images of power,
And of infinity! thou blue-rolling deep,
And you, ye stars! whose beams are characters
Wherewith the oracles of fate are traced;
With you my soul finds room, and casts aside
The weight that doth oppress her.—But my thoughts
Are wandering far; there should be one to share
This awful and majestic solitude
Of sea and heaven with me.

(Procida enters unobserved)

It is the hour

He named, and yet he comes not.


Procida. (Coming forward) He is here.

Rai. Now, thou mysterious stranger, thou, whose glance
Doth fix itself on memory, and pursue
Thought, like a spirit, haunting its lone hours;
Reveal thyself; what art thou?

Pro.One, whose life
Hath been a troubled stream, and made its way
Through rocks and darkness, and a thousand storms,
With still a mighty aim.—But now the shades
Of eve are gathering round me, and I come
To this, my native land, that I may rest
Beneath its vines in peace.

Rai.Seek'st thou for peace?
This is no land of peace; unless that deep
And voiceless terror, which doth freeze men's thoughts
Back to their source, and mantle its pale mien
With a dull hollow semblance of repose,
May so be call'd.

Pro.There are such calms full oft
Preceding earthquakes. But I have not been
So vainly school'd by fortune, and inured
To shape my course on peril's dizzy brink,
That it should irk my spirit to put on
Such guise of hush'd submissiveness as best
May suit the troubled aspect of the times.

Rai. Why, then, thou art welcome, stranger! to the land
Where most disguise is needful.—He were bold
Who now should wear his thoughts upon his brow

Beneath Sicilian skies. The brother's eye
Doth search distrustfully the brother's face;
And friends, whose undivided lives have drawn
From the same past, their long remembrances,
Now meet in terror, or no more; lest hearts
Full to o'erflowing, in their social hour,
Should pour out some rash word, which roving winds
Might whisper to our conquerors.—This it is,
To wear a foreign yoke.

Pro.It matters not
To him who holds the mastery o'er his spirit,
And can suppress its workings, till endurance
Becomes as nature. We can tame ourselves
To all extremes, and there is that in life
To which we cling with most tenacious grasp,
Fv'n when its lofty claims are all reduced
To the poor common privilege of breathing.—
Why dost thou turn away?

Rai.What would'st thou with me!
I deem'd thee, by th' ascendant soul which liv'd,
And made its throne on thy commanding brow,
One of a sovereign nature, which would scorn
So to abase its high capacities
For aught on earth.—But thou art like the rest.
What would'st thou with me?

Pro.I would counsel thee,
Thou must do that which men—ay, valiant men,—
Hourly submit to do; in the proud court,
And in the stately camp, and at the board
Of midnight revellers, whose flush'd mirth is all

A strife, won hardly.—Where is he, whose heart
Lies bare, thro' all its foldings, to the gaze
Of mortal eye?—If vengeance wait the foe,
Or fate th' oppressor, 'tis in depths conceal'd
Beneath a smiling surface.—Youth! I say
Keep thy soul down!—Put on a mask!—'tis worn
Alike by power and weakness, and the smooth
And specious intercourse of life requires
Its aid in every scene.

Rai.Away, dissembler!
Life hath its high and its ignoble tasks,
Fitted to every nature. Will the free
And royal eagle stoop to learn the arts
By which the serpent wins his spell-bound prey?
It is because I will not clothe myself-
In a vile garb of coward semblances,
That now, e'en now, I struggle with my heart,
To bid what most I love a long farewell,
And seek my country on some distant shore,
Where such things are unknown!

Pro. (exultingly.)Why, this is joy!
After long conflict with the doubts and fears,
And the poor subtleties of meaner minds,
To meet a spirit, whose bold elastic wing
Oppression hath not crush'd.—High-hearted youth!
Thy father, should his footsteps e'er again
Visit these shores—

Rai. My father! what of him?
Speak! was he known to thee?

Pro.In distant lands

With him I've traversed many a wild, and look'd
On many a danger; and the thought that thou
Wert smiling then in peace, a happy boy,
Oft thro' the storm hath cheer'd him.

Rai. Dost thou deem
That still he lives?—Oh! if it be in chains,
In woe, in poverty's obscurest cell,
Say but he lives—and I will track his steps
E'en to earth's verge!

Pro.It may be that he lives:
Tho' long his name hath ceased to be a word
Familiar in man's dwellings. But its sound
May yet be heard!—Raimond di Procida,
—Rememberest thou thy father?

Rai.From my mind
His form hath faded long, for years have pass'd
Since he went forth to exile: but a vague,
Yet powerful, image of deep majesty,
Still dimly gathering round each thought of him,
Doth claim instinctive reverence; and my love
For his inspiring name hath long become
Part of my being.

Pro.Raimond! doth no voice
Speak to thy soul, and tell thee whose the arms
That would enfold thee now?—My son! my son!

Rai. Father!—Oh God!—my father! Now I know
Why my heart woke before thee!

Pro.Oh! this hour
Makes hope, reality; for thou art all
My dreams had pictured thee!


Rai.Yet why so long,
Ev'n as a stranger, hast thou cross'd my paths,
One nameless and unknown?—and yet I felt
Each pulse within me thrilling to thy voice.

Pro. Because I would not link thy fate with mine,
Till I could hail the day-spring of that hope
Which now is gathering round us.—Listen, youth!
Thou hast told me of a subdued, and scorn'd,
And trampled land, whose very soul is bow'd
And fashion'd to her chains:—but I tell thee
Of a most generous and devoted land,
A land of kindling energies; a land
Of glorious recollections!—proudly true
To the high memory of her ancient kings,
And rising, in majestic scorn, to cast
Her alien bondage off!

Rai.And where is this?

Pro. Here, in our isle, our own fair Sicily!
Her spirit is awake, and moving on,
In its deep silence mightier, to regain
Her place amongst the nations; and the hour
Of that tremendous effort is at hand.

Rai. Can it be thus indeed?—Thou pour'st new life
Thro' all my burning veins!—I am as one
Awakening from a chill and death-like sleep
To the full glorious day.

Pro.Thou shalt hear more!
Thou shalt hear things which would,—which will arouse
The proud, free spirits of our ancestors
E'en from their marble rest. Yet mark me well!

Be secret!—for along my destin'd path
I yet must darkly move.—Now, follow me;
And join a band of men, in whose high hearts
There lies a nation's strength.

Rai.My noble father!
Thy words have given me all for which I pined—
An aim, a hope, a purpose!—And the blood
Doth rush in warmer currents thro' my veins,
As a bright fountain from its icy bonds
By the quick sun-stroke freed.

Pro.Ay, this is well!
Such natures burst men's chains!—Now, follow me.
[Exeunt.



END OF ACT THE FIRST.