Fiction > Harvard Classics > Robert Browning > A Blot in the ’Scutcheon
Robert Browning (1812–1889).  A Blot in the ’Scutcheon.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Act II
The Library.
Enter Lord Tresham, hastily
  Tresham.  This way! In, Gerard, quick!  [As GERARD enters, TRESHAM secures the door.
                Now speak! or, wait—
I’ll bid you speak directly.  [Seats himself.                Now repeat        5
Firmly and circumstantially the tale
You just now told me; it eludes me; either
I did not listen, or the half is gone
Away from me. How long have you lived here?
Here in my house, your father kept our woods        10
Before you?
  Gerard.            —As his father did, my lord.
I have been eating, sixty years almost,
Your bread.
  Tresham.  Yes, yes. You ever were of all        15
The servants in my father’s house, I know,
The trusted one. You’ll speak the truth.
  Gerard.                I’ll speak
God’s truth. Night after night…
  Tresham.                Since when?        20
  Gerard.                At least
A month—each midnight has some man access
To Lady Mildred’s chamber.
  Tresham.                Tush, “access”—
No wide words like “access” to me!        25
  Gerard.                He runs
Along the woodside, crosses to the South,
Takes the left tree that ends the avenue…
  Tresham.  The last great yew-tree?
  Gerard.                You might stand upon        30
The main boughs like a platform. Then he…
  Tresham.                Quick!
  Gerard.  Climbs up, and, where they lessen at the top,
—I cannot see distinctly, but he throws,
I think—for this I do not vouch—a line        35
That reaches to the lady’s casement—
  Tresham.                —Which
He enters not! Gerard, some wretched fool
Dares pry into my sister’s privacy!
When such are young, it seems a precious thing        40
To have approached,—to merely have approached,
Got sight of the abode of her they set
Their frantic thoughts upon. He does not enter?
  Gerard.  There is a lamp that’s full i’ the midst,        45
Under a red square in the painted glass
Of Lady Mildred’s…
  Tresham.                Leave that name out! Well?
That lamp?
  Gerard.  Is moved at midnight higher up        50
To one pane—a small dark—blue pane; he waits
For that among the boughs: at sight of that,
I see him, plain as I see you, my lord,
Open the lady’s casement, enter there…
  Tresham.  —And stay?        55
  Gerard.            An hour, two hours.
  Tresham.                And this you saw
  Gerard.                Twenty times.
  Tresham.                And what brings you        60
Under the yew-trees?
  Gerard.                The first night I left
My range so far, to track the stranger stag
That broke the pale, I saw the man.
  Tresham.                Yet sent        65
No cross-bow shaft through the marauder?
  Gerard.                But
He came, my lord, the first time he was seen,
In a great moonlight, light as any day,
From Lady Mildred’s chamber.        70
  Tresham  [after a pause].                You have no cause
—Who could have cause to do my sister wrong?
  Gerard.  Oh, my lord, only once—let me this once
Speak what is on my mind! Since first I noted
All this, I’ve groaned as if a fiery net        75
Plucked me this way and that—fire if I turned
To her, fire if I turned to you, and fire
If down I flung myself and strove to die.
The lady could not have been seven years old
When I was trusted to conduct her safe        80
Through the deer-herd to stroke the snow-white fawn
I brought to eat bread from her tiny hand
Within a month. She ever had a smile
To greet me with—she … if it could undo
What’s done, to lop each limb from off this trunk…        85
All that is foolish talk, not fit for you—
I mean, I could not speak and bring her hurt
For Heaven’s compelling. But when I was fixed
To hold my peace, each morsel of your food
Eaten beneath your roof, my birth-place too,        90
Choked me. I wish I had grown mad in doubts
What it behoved me do. This morn it seemed
Either I must confess to you or die:
Now it is done, I seem the vilest worm
That crawls, to have betrayed my lady.        95
  Tresham.                No—
No, Gerard!
  Gerard.            Let me go!
  Tresham.                A man, you say:
What man? Young? Not a vulgar hind? What dress?        100
  Gerard.  A slouched hat and a large dark foreign cloak
Warps his whole form; even his face is hid;
But I should judge him young: no hind, be sure!
  Tresham.  Why?
  Gerard.      He is ever armed: his sword projects        105
Beneath the cloak.
  Tresham.                Gerard,—I will not say
No word, no breath of this!
  Gerard.                Thanks, thanks, my lord!  [Goes.
  Tresham  [paces the room. After a pause]. Oh, thoughts absurd!—as with some monstrous fact        110
Which, when ill thoughts beset us, seems to give
Merciful God that made the sun and stars,
The waters and the green delights of earth,
The lie! I apprehend the monstrous fact—
Yet know the maker of all worlds is good,        115
And yield my reason up, inadequate
To reconcile what yet I do behold—
Blasting my sense! There’s cheerful day outside:
This is my library, and this the chair
My father used to sit in carelessly        120
After his soldier-fashion, while I stood
Between his knees to question him: and here
Gerard our grey retainer,—as he says,
Fed with our food, from sire to son, an age,—
Has told a story—I am to believe!        125
That Mildred … oh, no, no! both tales are true,
Her pure cheek’s story and the forester’s!
Would she, or could she, err—much less, confound
All guilts of treachery, of craft, of … Heaven
Keep me within its hand!—I will sit here        130
Until thought settle and I see my course.
Avert, oh God, only this woe from me!  [As he sinks his head between his arms on the table, GUENDOLEN’S voice is heard at the door.
Lord Tresham!  [She knocks.]  Is Lord Tresham there?  [TRESHAM, hastily turning, pulls down the first book above him and opens it.
  Tresham.                Come in!  [She enters.
Ha, Guendolen!—good morning.        135
  Guendolen.                Nothing more?
  Tresham.  What should I say more?
  Guendolen.  Pleasant question! more?
This more. Did I besiege poor Mildred’s brain
Last night till close on morning with “the Earl,”        140
“The Earl”—whose worth did I asseverate
Till I am very fain to hope that … Thorold,
What is all this? You are not well!
  Tresham.                Who, I?
You laugh at me.        145
  Guendolen.                Has what I’m fain to hope,
Arrived then? Does that huge tome show some blot
In the Earl’s ’scutcheon come no longer back
Than Arthur’s time?
  Tresham.                When left you Mildred’s chamber?        150
  Guendolen.  Oh, late enough, I told you! The main thing
To ask is, how I left her chamber,—sure,
Content yourself, she’ll grant this paragon
Of Earls no such ungracious…
  Tresham.                Send her here!        155
  Guendolen.  Thorold?
  Tresham.          I mean—acquaint her, Guendolen,
—But mildly!
  Guendolen.              Mildly?
  Tresham.                Ah, you guessed aright!        160
I am not well: there is no hiding it.
But tell her I would see her at her leisure—
That is, at once! here in the library!
The passage in that old Italian book
We hunted for so long is found, say, found—        165
And if I let it slip again … you see,
That she must come—and instantly!
  Guendolen.                I’ll die
Piecemeal, record that, if there have not gloomed
Some blot i’ the ’scutcheon!        170
  Tresham.                Go! or, Guendolen,
Be you at call,—with Austin, if you choose,—
In the adjoining gallery! There, go!  [GUENDOLEN goes.
Another lesson to me! You might bid
A child disguise his heart’s sore, and conduct        175
Some sly investigation point by point
With a smooth brow, as well as bid me catch
The inquisitorial cleverness some praise.
If you had told me yesterday, “There’s one
You needs must circumvent and practise with,        180
Entrap by policies, if you would worm
The truth out: and that one is—Mildred!” There,
There—reasoning is thrown away on it!
Prove she’s unchaste … why, you may after prove
That she’s a poisoner, traitress, what you will!        185
Where I can comprehend nought, nought’s to say,
Or do, or think. Force on me but the first
Abomination,—then outpour all plagues,
And I shall ne’er make count of them.
  Mildred.                What book
Is it I wanted, Thorold? Guendolen
Thought you were pale; you are not pale. That book?
That’s Latin surely.
  Tresham.                Mildred, here’s a line,        195
(Don’t lean on me: I’ll English it for you)
“Love conquers all things.” What love conquers them?
What love should you esteem—best love?
  Mildred.                True love.
  Tresham.  I mean, and should have said, whose love is best        200
Of all that love or that profess to love?
  Mildred.  The list’s so long: there’s father’s, mother’s, husband’s…
  Tresham.  Mildred, I do believe a brother’s love
For a sole sister must exceed them all.
For see now, only see! there’s no alloy        205
Of earth that creeps into the perfect’st gold
Of other loves—no gratitude to claim;
You never gave her life, not even aught
That keeps life—never tended her, instructed,
Enriched her—so, your love can claim no right        210
O’er her save pure love’s claim: that’s what I call
Freedom from earthliness. You’ll never hope
To be such friends, for instance, she and you,
As when you hunted cowslips in the woods,
Or played together in the meadow hay.        215
Oh yes—with age, respect comes, and your worth
Is felt, there’s growing sympathy of tastes,
There’s ripened friendship, there’s confirmed esteem:
—Much head these make against the newcomer!
The startling apparition, the strange youth—        220
Whom one half-hour’s conversing with, or, say,
Mere gazing at, shall change (beyond all change
This Ovid ever sang about) your soul
… Her soul, that is,—the sister’s soul! With her
’Twas winter yesterday; now, all is warmth,        225
The green leaf’s springing and the turtle’s voice,
“Arise and come away!” Come whither?—far
Enough from the esteem, respect, and all
The brother’s somewhat insignificant
Array of rights! All which he knows before,        230
Has calculated on so long ago!
I think such love, (apart from yours and mine,)
Contented with its little term of life,
Intending to retire betimes, aware
How soon the background must be placed for it,        235
—I think, am sure, a brother’s love exceeds
All the world’s love in its unworldliness.
  Mildred.  What is this for?
  Tresham.                This, Mildred, is it for!
Or, no, I cannot go to it so soon!        240
That’s one of many points my haste left out—
Each day, each hour throws forth its silk-slight film
Between the being tied to you by birth,
And you, until those slender threads compose
A web that shrouds her daily life of hopes        245
And fears and fancies, all her life, from yours:
So close you live and yet so far apart!
And must I rend this web, tear up, break down
The sweet and palpitating mystery
That makes her sacred? You—for you I mean,        250
Shall I speak, shall I not speak?
  Mildred.                Speak!
  Tresham.                I will!
Is there a story men could—any man
Could tell of you, you would conceal from me?        255
I’ll never think there’s falsehood on that lip.
Say “There is no such story men could tell,”
And I’ll believe you, though I disbelieve
The world—the world of better men than I,
And women such as I suppose you. Speak!        260
[After a pause.] Not speak? Explain then! Clear it up then! Move
Some of the miserable weight away
That presses lower than the grave. Not speak?
Some of the dead weight, Mildred! Ah, if I
Could bring myself to plainly make their charge        265
Against you! Must I, Mildred! Silent still?
[After a pause.] Is there a gallant that has night by night
Admittance to your chamber?
    [After a pause.] Then, his name!
Till now, I only had a thought for you:        270
But now,—his name!
  Mildred.  Thorold, do you devise
Fit expiation for my guilt, if fit
There be! ’Tis nought to say that I’ll endure
And bless you,—that my spirit yearns to purge        275
Her stains off in the fierce renewing fire:
But do not plunge me into other guilt!
Oh, guilt enough! I cannot tell his name.
  Tresham.  Then judge yourself! How should I act? Pronounce!
  Mildred.  Oh, Thorold, you must never tempt me thus!        280
To die here in this chamber by that sword
Would seem like punishment: so should I glide,
Like an arch-cheat, into extremest bliss!
’Twere easily arranged for me: but you—
What would become of you?        285
  Tresham.                And what will now
Become of me? I’ll hide your shame and mine
From every eye; the dead must heave their hearts
Under the marble of our chapel-floor;
They cannot rise and blast you. You may wed        290
Your paramour above our mother’s tomb;
Our mother cannot move from ’neath your foot.
We too will somehow wear this one day out:
But with to-morrow hastens here—the Earl!
The youth without suspicion. Face can come        295
From Heaven and heart from … whence proceed such hearts?
I have dispatched last night at your command
A missive bidding him present himself
To-morrow—here—thus much is said; the rest
Is understood as if ’twere written down—        300
“His suit finds favor in your eyes.” Now dictate
This morning’s letter that shall countermand
Last night’s—do dictate that!
  Mildred.                But, Thorold—if
I will receive him as I said?        305
  Tresham.                The Earl?
  Mildred.  I will receive him.
  Tresham  [starting up].                Ho there! Guendolen!
And, Austin, you are welcome, too! Look there!        310
The woman there!
  Austin and Guendolen.                How? Mildred?
  Tresham.                Mildred once!
Now the receiver night by night, when sleep
Blesses the inmates of her father’s house,        315
—I say, the soft sly wanton that receives
Her guilt’s accomplice ’neath this roof which holds
You, Guendolen, you, Austin, and has held
A thousand Treshams—never one like her!
No lighter of the signal-lamp her quick        320
Foul breath near quenches in hot eagerness
To mix with breath as foul! no loosener
O’ the lattice, practised in the stealthy tread,
The low voice and the noiseless come-and-go!
Not one composer of the bacchant’s mien        325
Into—what you thought Mildred’s, in a word!
Know her!
  Guendolen.  Oh, Mildred, look to me, at least!
Thorold—she’s dead, I’d say, but that she stands
Rigid as stone and whiter!        330
  Tresham.                You have heard…
  Guendolen.  Too much! You must proceed no further.
  Mildred.  Yes—
Proceed! All’s truth. Go from me!
  Tresham.                All is truth,        335
She tells you! Well, you know, or ought to know,
All this I would forgive in her. I’d con
Each precept the harsh world enjoins, I’d take
Our ancestors’ stern verdicts one by one,
I’d bind myself before them to exact        340
The prescribed vengeance—and one word of hers,
The sight of her, the bare least memory
Of Mildred, my one sister, my heart’s pride
Above all prides, my all in all so long,
Would scatter every trace of my resolve.        345
What were it silently to waste away
And see her waste away from this day forth,
Two scathed things with leisure to repent,
And grow acquainted with the grave, and die
Tired out if not at peace, and be forgotten?        350
It were not so impossible to bear.
But this—that, fresh from last night’s pledge renewed
Of love with the successful gallant there,
She calmly bids me help her to entice,
Inveigle an unconscious trusting youth        355
Who thinks her all that’s chaste and good and pure,
—Invites me to betray him … who so fit
As honour’s self to cover shame’s arch-deed?
—That she’ll receive Lord Mertoun—(her own phrase)—
This, who could bear? Why, you have heard of thieves,        360
Stabbers, the earth’s disgrace, who yet have laughed,
“Talk not to me of torture—I’ll betray
No comrade I’ve pledged faith to!”—you have heard
Of wretched women—all but Mildreds—tied
By wild illicit ties to losels vile        365
You’d tempt them to forsake; and they’ll reply
“Gold, friends, repute, I left for him, I find
In him, why should I leave him then, for gold,
Repute or friends?”—and you have felt your heart
Respond to such poor outcasts of the world        370
As to so many friends; bad as you please,
You’ve felt they were God’s men and women still,
So, not to be disowned by you. But she
That stands there, calmly gives her lover up
As means to wed the Earl that she may hide        375
Their intercourse the surelier: and, for this,
I curse her to her face before you all.
Shame hunt her from the earth! Then Heaven do right
To both! It hears me now—shall judge her then!  [As MILDRED faints and falls, TRESHAM, rushes out.
  Austin.  Stay, Tresham, we’ll accompany you!        380
  Guendolen.                We?
What, and leave Mildred? We? Why, where’s my place
But by her side, and where yours but by mine?
Mildred—one word! Only look at me, then!
  Austin.  No, Guendolen! I echo Thorold’s voice.        385
She is unworthy to behold…
  Guendolen.                Us two?
If you spoke on reflection, and if I
Approved your speech—if you (to put the thing
At lowest) you the soldier, bound to make        390
The king’s cause yours and fight for it, and throw
Regard to others of its right or wrong,
—If with a death—white woman you can help,
Let alone sister, let alone a Mildred,
You left her—or if I, her cousin, friend        395
This morning, playfellow but yesterday,
Who said, or thought at least a thousand times,
“I’d serve you if I could,” should now face round
And say, “Ah, that’s to only signify
I’d serve you while you’re fit to serve yourself:        400
So long as fifty eyes await the turn
Of yours to forestall its yet half-formed wish,
I’ll proffer my assistance you’ll not need—
When every tongue is praising you, I’ll join
The praisers’ chorus—when you’re hemmed about        405
With lives between you and detraction—lives
To be laid down if a rude voice, rash eye,
Rough hand should violate the sacred ring
Their worship throws about you,—then indeed,
Who’ll stand up for you stout as I?” If so        410
We said, and so we did,—not Mildred there
Would be unworthy to behold us both,
But we should be unworthy, both of us.
To be beheld by—by—your meanest dog,
Which, if that sword were broken in your face        415
Before a crowd, that badge torn off your breast,
And you cast out with hooting and contempt,
—Would push his way thro’ all the hooters, gain
Your side, go off with you and all your shame
To the next ditch you choose to die in! Austin,        420
Do you love me? Here’s Austin, Mildred,—here’s
Your brother says he does not believe half—
No, nor half that—of all he heard! He says,
Look up and take his hand!
  Austin.                Look up and take        425
My hand, dear Mildred!
  Mildred.                I—I was so young!
Beside, I loved him, Thorold—and I had
No mother; God forgot me: so, I fell.
  Guendolen.  Mildred!        430
  Mildred.          Require no further! Did I dream
That I could palliate what is done? All’s true.
Now, punish me! A woman takes my hand?
Let go my hand! You do not know, I see.
I thought that Thorold told you.        435
  Guendolen.                What is this?
Where start you to?
  Mildred.                Oh, Austin, loosen me!
You heard the whole of it—your eyes were worse,
In their surprise, than Thorold’s! Oh, unless        440
You stay to execute his sentence, loose
My hand! Has Thorold gone, and are you here?
  Guendolen.  Here, Mildred, we two friends of yours will wait.
Your bidding; be you silent, sleep or muse!
Only, when you shall want your bidding done,        445
How can we do it if we are not by?
Here’s Austin waiting patiently your will!
One spirit to command, and one to love
And to believe in it and do its best,
Poor as that is, to help it—why, the world        450
Has been won many a time, its length and breadth,
By just such a beginning!
  Mildred.                I believe
If once I threw my arms about your neck
And sunk my head upon your breast, that I        455
Should weep again.
  Guendolen.                Let go her hand now, Austin!
Wait for me. Pace the gallery and think
On the world’s seemings and realities,
Until I call you.  [AUSTIN goes.        460
  Mildred.                No—I cannot weep.
No more tears from this brain—sleep—no tears!
O Guendolen, I love you!
  Guendolen.                Yes: and “love”
Is a short word that says so very much!        465
It says that you confide in me.
  Mildred.                Confide!
  Guendolen.  Your lover’s name, then! I’ve so much to learn,
Ere I can work in your behalf!
  Mildred.                My friend,        470
You know I cannot tell his name.
  Guendolen.                At least
He is your lover? and you love him too?
  Mildred.  Ah, do you ask me that,—but I am fallen
So low!        475
  Guendolen.  You love him still, then?
  Mildred.                My sole prop
Against the guilt that crushes me! I say,
Each night ere I lie down, “I was so young—
I had no mother, and I loved him so!”        480
And then God seems indulgent, and I dare
Trust him my soul in sleep.
  Guendolen.                How could you let us
E’en talk to you about Lord Mertoun then?
  Mildred.  There is a cloud around me.        485
  Guendolen.                But you said
You would receive his suit in spite of this?
  Mildred.  I say there is a cloud…
  Guendolen.                No cloud to me!
Lord Mertoun and your lover are the same!        490
  Mildred.  What maddest fancy…
  Guendolen  [calling aloud]. Austin! (spare your pains—
When I have got a truth, that truth I keep)—
  Mildred.  By all you love, sweet Guendolen, forbear!
Have I confided in you…        495
  Guendolen.                Just for this!
Austin!—Oh, not to guess it at the first!
But I did guess it—that is, I divined,
Felt by an instinct how it was: why else
Should I pronounce you free from all that heap        500
Of sins which had been irredeemable?
I felt they were not yours—what other way
Than this, not yours? The secret’s wholly mine!
  Mildred.  If you would see me die before his face…
  Guendolen.  I’d hold my peace! And if the Earl returns        505
  Mildred.          Ah Heaven, he’s lost!
  Guendolen.                I thought so. Austin!
Oh, where have you been hiding?        510
  Austin.                Thorold’s gone,
I know not how, across the meadow-land.
I watched him till I lost him in the skirts
O’ the beech-wood.
  Guendolen.                Gone? All thwarts us.        515
  Mildred.                Thorold too?
  Guendolen.  I have thought. First lead this Mildred to her room.
Go on the other side; and then we’ll seek
Your brother: and I’ll tell you, by the way,
The greatest comfort in the world. You said        520
There was a clue to all. Remember, Sweet,
He said there was a clue! I hold it. Come!


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