Fiction > Harvard Classics > Percy Bysshe Shelley > The Cenci
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822).  The Cenci.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Scene I
An Apartment in the Cenci Palace.
  Beatrice.  (She enters staggering, and speaks wildly.) Reach me that handkerchief!—My brain is hurt;
My eyes are full of blood; just wipe them for me…
I see but indistinctly…        5
  Lucretia.  My sweet child,
You have no wound; ’tis only a cold dew
That starts from your dear brow … Alas! Alas!
What has befallen?
  Beatrice.                How comes this hair undone?        10
Its wandering strings must be what blind me so,
And yet I tied it fast.—O, horrible!
The pavement sinks under my feet! The walls
Spin round! I see a woman weeping there,
And standing calm and motionless, whilst I        15
Slide giddily as the world reels…. My God!
The beautiful blue heaven is flecked with blood!
The sunshine on the floor is black! The air
Is changed to vapours such as the dead breathe
In charnel pits! Pah! I am choked! There creeps        20
A clinging, black contaminating mist
About me … ’tis substantial, heavy, thick,
I cannot pluck it from me, for it glues
My fingers and my limbs to one another,
And eats into my sinews, and dissolves        25
My flesh to a pollution, poisoning
The subtle, pure, and inmost spirit of life!
My God! I never knew what the mad felt
Before; for I am mad beyond all doubt!
(More wildly.) No, I am dead! These putrefying limbs        30
Shut round and sepulchre the panting soul
Which would burst forth into the wandering air! (A pause.)
What hideous thought was that I had even now?
’Tis gone; and yet its burthen remains here
O’er these dull eyes … upon this weary heart!        35
O, world! O, life! O, day! O, misery!
  Lucretia.  What ails thee, my poor child? She answers not:
Her spirit apprehends the sense of pain,
But not its cause; suffering has dried away
The source from which it sprung…        40
  Beatrice (frantically).                Like Parricide…
Misery has killed its father: yet its father
Never like mine … O, God! What thing am I?
  Lucretia.  My dearest child, what has your father done?
  Beatrice  (doubtfully). Who art thou, questioner? I have no father.        45
(Aside.) She is the madhouse nurse who tends on me,
It is a piteous office.
(To Lucretia, in a slow, subdued voice.) Do you know
I thought I was that wretched Beatrice
Men speak of, whom her father sometimes hales        50
From hall to hall by the entangled hair;
At others, pens up naked in damp cells
Where scaly reptiles crawl, and starves her there,
Till she will eat strange flesh. This woful story
So did I overact in my sick dreams,        55
That I imagined … no, it cannot be!
Horrible things have been in this wild world,
Prodigious mixtures, and confusions strange
Of good and ill; and worse have been conceived
Than ever there was found a heart to do.        60
But never fancy imaged such a deed
As… (Pauses, suddenly recollecting herself.)
      Who art thou? Swear to me, ere I die
With fearful expectation, that indeed
Thou art not what thou seemest … Mother!        65
  Lucretia.                Oh!
My sweet child, know you…
  Beatrice.                Yet speak it not:
For then if this be truth, that other too
Must be a truth, a firm enduring truth,        70
Linked with each lasting circumstance of life,
Never to change, never to pass away.
Why so it is. This is the Cenci Palace;
Thou art Lucretia; I am Beatrice.
I have talked some wild words, but will no more.        75
Mother, come near me: from this point of time,
I am… (Her voice dies away faintly.)
  Lucretia.  Alas! What has befallen thee, child?
What has thy father done?
  Beatrice.                What have I done?        80
Am I not innocent? Is it my crime
That one with white hair and imperious brow,
Who tortured me from my forgotten years
As parents only dare, should call himself
My father, yet should be!—Oh, what am I?        85
What name, what place, what memory shall be mine?
What retrospects, outliving even despair?
  Lucretia.  He is a violent tyrant, surely, child:
We know that death alone can make us free;
His death or ours. But what can he have done        90
Of deadlier outrage or worse injury?
Thou art unlike thyself; thine eyes shoot forth
A wandering and strange spirit. Speak to me,
Unlock those pallid hands whose fingers twine
With one another.        95
  Beatrice.                ’Tis the restless life
Tortured within them. If I try to speak
I shall go mad. Ay, something must be done:
What, yet I know not … something which shall make
The thing that I have suffered but a shadow        100
In the dread lightning which avenges it;
Brief, rapid, irreversible, destroying
The consequence of what it cannot cure.
Some such thing is to be endured or done:
When I know what, I shall be still and calm,        105
And never any thing will move me more.
But now!—Oh blood, which art my father’s blood,
Circling thro’ these contaminated veins,
If thou, poured forth on the polluted earth,
Could wash away the crime, and punishment        110
By which I suffer … no, that cannot be!
Many might doubt there were a God above
Who sees and permits evil, and so die:
That faith no agony shall obscure in me.
  Lucretia.  It must indeed have been some bitter wrong;        115
Yet what, I dare not guess. Oh, my lost child,
Hide not in proud impenetrable grief
Thy sufferings from my fear.
  Beatrice.                I hide them not.
What are the words which you would have me speak?        120
I, who can feign no image in my mind
Of that which has transformed me: I, whose thought
Is like a ghost shrouded and folded up
In its own formless horror: of all words,
That minister to mortal intercourse,        125
Which wouldst thou hear? For there is none to tell
My misery: if another ever knew
Aught like to it, she died as I will die,
And left it, as I must, without a name.
Death! Death! Our law and our religion call thee        130
A punishment and a reward … Oh, which
Have I deserved?
  Lucretia.                The peace of innocence;
Till in your season you be called to heaven.
Whate’er you may have suffered, you have done        135
No evil. Death must be the punishment
Of crime, or the reward of trampling down
The thorns which God has strewed upon the path
Which leads to immortality.
  Beatrice.                Ay, death…        140
The punishment of crime. I pray thee, God,
Let me not be bewildered while I judge.
If I must live day after day, and keep
These limbs, the unworthy temple of thy spirit,
As a foul den from which what thou abhorrest        145
May mock thee, unavenged … it shall not be!
Self-murder … no, that might be no escape,
For thy decree yawns like a Hell between
Our will and it:—O! In this mortal world
There is no vindication and no law        150
Which can adjudge and execute the doom
Of that through which I suffer.
  (She approaches him solemnly.) Welcome, Friend!
I have to tell you that, since last we met,        155
I have endured a wrong so great and strange,
That neither life nor death can give me rest.
Ask me not what it is, for there are deeds
Which have no form, sufferings which have no tongue.
  Orsino.  And what is he who has thus injured you?        160
  Beatrice.  The man they call my father: a dread name.
  Orsino.  It cannot be…
  Beatrice.                What it can be, or not,
Forbear to think. It is, and it has been;
Advise me how it shall not be again.        165
I thought to die; but a religious awe
Restrains me, and the dread lest death itself
Might be no refuge from the consciousness
Of what is yet unexpiated. Oh, speak!
  Orsino.  Accuse him of the deed, and let the law avenge thee.        170
  Beatrice.  Oh, ice-hearted counsellor!
If I could find a word that might make known
The crime of my destroyer; and that done,
My tongue should like a knife tear out the secret
Which cankers my heart’s core; ay, lay all bare        175
So that my unpolluted fame should be
With vilest gossips a stale mouthèd story;
A mock, a bye-word, an astonishment:—
If this were done, which never shall be done,
Think of the offender’s gold, his dreaded hate        180
And the strange horror of the accuser’s tale,
Baffling belief, and overpowering speech;
Scarce whispered, unimaginable, wrapt
In hideous hints … Oh, most assured redress!
  Orsino.  You will endure it then?        185
  Beatrice.                Endure?—Orsino,
It seems your counsel is small profit. (Turns from him, and speaks half to herself.)
All must be suddenly resolved and done.
What is this undistinguishable mist        190
Of thoughts, which rise, like shadow after shadow,
Darkening each other?
  Orsino.                Should the offender live?
Triumph in his misdeed? and make, by use,
His crime, whate’er it is, dreadful no doubt,        195
Thine element; until thou mayest become
Utterly lost; subdued even to the hue
Of that which thou permittest?
  Beatrice (to herself).                Mighty death!
Thou double-visaged shadow? Only judge!        200
Rightfullest arbiter! (She retires absorbed in thought.)
  Lucretia.                If the lightning
Of God has e’er descended to avenge…
  Orsino.  Blaspheme not! His high Providence commits
Its glory on this earth, and their own wrongs        205
Into the hands of men; if they neglect
To punish crime…
  Lucretia.  But if one, like this wretch,
Should mock, with gold, opinion, law, and power?
If there be no appeal to that which makes        210
The guiltiest tremble? If because our wrongs,
For that they are unnatural, strange, and monstrous,
Exceed all measure of belief? O God!
If, for the very reasons which should make
Redress most swift and sure, our injurer triumphs?        215
And we, the victims, bear worse punishment
Than that appointed for their torturer?
  Orsino.                Think not
But that there is redress where there is wrong,
So we be bold enough to seize it.        220
  Lucretia.                How?
If there were any way to make all sure,
I know not … but I think it might be good
  Orsino.      Why, his late outrage to Beatrice;        225
For it is such, as I but faintly guess,
As makes remorse dishonour, and leaves her
Only one duty, how she may avenge:
You, but one refuge from ills ill endured;
Me, but one counsel…        230
  Lucretia.                For we cannot hope
That aid, or retribution, or resource
Will arise thence, where every other one
Might find them with less need. (BEATRICE advances.)
  Orsino.                Then…        235
  Beatrice.                Peace, Orsino!
And, honoured Lady, while I speak, I pray
That you put off, as garments overworn,
Forbearance and respect, remorse and fear,
And all the fit restraints of daily life,        240
Which have been borne from childhood, but which now
Would be a mockery to my holier plea.
As I have said, I have endured a wrong,
Which, though it be expressionless, is such
As asks atonement; both for what is past,        245
And lest I be reserved, day after day,
To load with crimes an overburthened soul,
And be … what ye can dream not. I have prayed
To God, and I have talked with my own heart,
And have unravelled my entangled will,        250
And have at length determined what is right.
Art thou my friend, Orsino? False or true?
Pledge thy salvation ere I speak.
  Orsino.                I swear
To dedicate my cunning, and my strength,        255
My silence, and whatever else is mine,
To thy commands.
  Lucretia.                You think we should devise
His death?
  Beatrice.  And execute what is devised,        260
And suddenly. We must be brief and bold.
  Orsino.  And yet most cautious.
  Lucretia.                For the jealous laws
Would punish us with death and infamy
For that which it became themselves to do.        265
  Beatrice.                Be cautious as ye may, but prompt. Orsino.
What are the means?
  Orsino.                I know two dull, fierce outlaws,
Who think man’s spirit as a worm’s, and they
Would trample out, for any slight caprice,        270
The meanest or the noblest life. This mood
Is marketable here in Rome. They sell
What we now want.
  Lucretia.                To-morrow before dawn,
Cenci will take us to that lonely rock,        275
Petrella, in the Apulian Apennines.
If he arrive there…
  Beatrice.                He must not arrive.
  Orsino.  Will it be dark before you reach the tower?
  Lucretia.  The sun will scarce be set.        280
  Beatrice.                But I remember
Two miles on this side of the fort, the road
Crosses a deep ravine; ’tis rough and narrow,
And winds with short turns down the precipice;
And in its depth there is a mighty rock,        285
Which has, from unimaginable years,
Sustained itself with terror and with toil
Over a gulph, and with the agony
With which it clings seems slowly coming down;
Even as a wretched soul hour after hour,        290
Clings to the mass of life; yet clinging, leans;
And leaning, makes more dark the dread abyss
In which it fears to fall: beneath this crag
Huge as despair, as if in weariness,
The melancholy mountain yawns … below,        295
You hear but see not an impetuous torrent
Raging among the caverns, and a bridge
Crosses the chasm; and high above there grow,
With intersecting trunks, from crag to crag,
Cedars, and yews, and pines; whose tangled hair        300
Is matted in one solid roof of shade
By the dark ivy’s twine. At noonday here
’Tis twilight, and at sunset blackest night.
  Orsino.  Before you reach that bridge make some excuse
For spurring on your mules, or loitering        305
  Beatrice.                What sound is that?
  Lucretia.  Hark! No, it cannot be a servant’s step;
It must be Cenci, unexpectedly
Returned … Make some excuse for being here.        310
  Beatrice.  (To ORSINO, as she goes out.) That step we hear approach must never pass
The bridge of which we spoke.  [Exeunt LUCRETIA and BEATRICE.
  Orsino.                What shall I do?
Cenci must find me here, and I must bear
The imperious inquisition of his looks        315
As to what brought me hither: let me mask
Mine own in some inane and vacant smile.
Enter GIACOMO, in a hurried manner
  How! Have you ventured hither? Know you then
That Cenci is from home?        320
  Giacomo.                I sought him here;
And now must wait till he returns.
  Orsino.                Great God!
Weigh you the danger of this rashness?
  Giacomo.                Ay!        325
Does my destroyer know his danger? We
Are now no more, as once, parent and child,
But man to man; the oppressor to the oppressed;
The slanderer to the slandered; foe to foe:
He has cast Nature off, which was his shield,        330
And Nature casts him off, who is her shame;
And I spurn both. Is it a father’s throat
Which I will shake, and say, I ask not gold;
I ask not happy years; nor memories
Of tranquil childhood; nor home-sheltered love;        335
Though all these hast thou torn from me, and more;
But only my fair fame; only one hoard
Of peace, which I thought hidden from thy hate,
Under the penury heaped on me by thee,
Or I will … God can understand and pardon,        340
Why should I speak with man?
  Orsino.                Be calm, dear friend.
  Giacomo.  Well, I will calmly tell you what he did.
This old Francesco Cenci, as you know,
Borrowed the dowry of my wife from me,        345
And then denied the loan; and left me so
In poverty, the which I sought to mend
By holding a poor office in the state.
It had been promised to me, and already
I bought new clothing for my ragged babes,        350
And my wife smiled; and my heart knew repose.
When Cenci’s intercession, as I found,
Conferred this office on a wretch, whom thus
He paid for vilest service. I returned
With this ill news, and we sate sad together        355
Solacing our despondency with tears
Of such affection and unbroken faith
As temper life’s worst bitterness; when he,
As he is wont, came to upbraid and curse,
Mocking our poverty, and telling us        360
Such was God’s scourge for disobedient sons.
And then, that I might strike him dumb with shame
I spoke of my wife’s dowry; but he coined
A brief yet specious tale, how I had wasted
The sum in secret riot and he saw        365
My wife was touched, and he went smiling forth.
And when I knew the impression he had made,
And felt my wife insult with silent scorn
My ardent truth, and look averse and cold,
I went forth too: but soon returned again;        370
Yet not so soon but that my wife had taught
My children her harsh thoughts, and they all cried,
“Give us clothes, father” Give us better food!
What you in one night squander were enough
For months!” I looked, and saw that home was hell.        375
And to that hell will I return no more
Until mine enemy has rendered up
Atonement, or, as he gave life to me
I will, reversing nature’s law…
  Orsino.                Trust me,        380
The compensation which thou seekest here
Will be denied.
  Giacomo.                Then … Are you not my friend?
Did you not hint at the alternative,
Upon the brink of which you see I stand,        385
The other day when we conversed together?
My wrongs were then less. That word parricide,
Although I am resolved, haunts me like fear.
  Orsino.  It must be fear itself, for the bare word
Is hollow mockery. Mark, how wisest God        390
Draws to one point the threads of a just doom,
So sanctifying it: what you devise
Is, as it were, accomplished.
  Giacomo.                Is he dead?
  Orsino.  His grave is ready. Know that since we met.        395
Cenci has done an outrage to his daughter.
  Giacomo.  What outrage?
  Orsino.  That she speaks not, but you may
Conceive such half conjectures as I do,
From her fixed paleness, and the lofty grief        400
Of her stern brow bent on the idle air,
And her severe unmodulated voice,
Drowning both tenderness and dread; and last
From this; that whilst her step-mother and I,
Bewildered in our horror, talked together        405
With obscure hints; both self-misunderstood
And darkly guessing, stumbling, in our talk,
Over the truth, and yet to its revenge,
She interrupted us, and with a look
Which told before she spoke it, he must die:…        410
  Giacomo.  It is enough. My doubts are well appeased;
There is a higher reason for the act
Than mine; there is a holier judge than me,
A more unblamed avenger. Beatrice,
Who in the gentleness of thy sweet youth        415
Hast never trodden on a worm, or bruised
A living flower, but thou hast pitied it
With needless tears! Fair sister, thou in whom
Men wondered how such loveliness and wisdom
Did not destroy each other! Is there made        420
Ravage of thee? O, heart, I ask no more
Justification! Shall I wait, Orsino,
Till he return, and stab him at the door?
  Orsino.  Not so; some accident might interpose
To rescue him from what is now most sure;        425
And you are unprovided where to fly,
How to excuse or to conceal. Nay, listen:
All is contrived; success is so assured
  Beatrice.  ’Tis my brother’s voice! You know me not?
  Giacomo.  My sister, my lost sister!
  Beatrice.                Lost indeed!
I see Orsino has talked with you, and
That you conjecture things too horrible        435
To speak, yet far less than the truth.
      Now, stay not,
He might return: yet kiss me; I shall know
That then thou hast consented to his death.
Farewell, farewell! Let piety to God,        440
Brotherly love, justice and clemency,
And all things that make tender hardest hearts
Make thine hard, brother. Answer not … farewell.  [Exeunt severally.


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