The Last Caesar
Now there was one who came in later days
To play at Emperor: in the dead of night
Stole crown and sceptre, and stood forth to light
In sudden purple. The dawn's straggling rays
Showed Paris fettered, murmuring in amaze,
With red hands at her throat--a piteous sight.
Then the new Cæsar, stricken with affright
At his own daring, shrunk from public gaze
In the Elysée, and had lost the day
But that around him flocked his birds of prey,
Sharp-beaked, voracious, hungry for the deed.
'Twixt hope and fear beheld great Cæsar hang!
Meanwhile, methinks, a ghostly laughter rang
Through the rotunda of the Invalides.
What if the boulevards, at set of sun,
Reddened, but not with the sunset's kindly glow?
What if from quai and square the murmured woe
Swept heavenward, pleadingly? The prize was won,
A kingling made and Liberty undone.
No Emperor, this, like him awhile ago,
But his Name's shadow; that one struck the blow
Himself, the street-sweeping gun!
This was a man of tortuous heart and brain,
So warped he knew not his own point of view--
The master of a dark, mysterious smile.
And there he plotted, by the storied Seine
And in the fairy gardens of St. Cloud,
The Sphinx that puzzled Europe, for awhile.
I see him as men saw him once--a face
Of true Napoleon pallor; round the eyes
The wrinkled care; mustache spread pinion-wise,
Pointing his smile with odd sardonic grace
As wearily he turns him in his place,
And bends before the hoarse Parisian cries--
Then vanishes, with glitter of gold-lace
And trumpets blaring to the patient skies.
Not thus he vanished later! On his path
The Furies waited for the hour and man,
Foreknowing that they waited not in vain.
Then fell the day, o day of dreadful wrath!
Bow-down in shame, O crimson-girt Sedan!
Weep fair Alsace! weep, loveliest Lorainne!
So mused I, sitting underneath the trees
In that old garden of the Tuileries,
Watching the dust of twilight sifting down
Through chestnut boughs just touched with autumn's brown--
Not twilight yet, but that illusive bloom
Which holds before the deep-edged shadows come;
For still the garden stood in golden mist,
Still, like a river of golden amethyst,
The Seine slipt through its pans of fretted stone,
And, near the grille that once fenced in a throne,
The fountains still unbraided to the day
The unsubstantial silver of their spray.
A spot to dream in, love in, waste one's hours!
Temples and palaces, and gilded towers,
And fairy terraces!--and yet, and yet
Here in her woe came Marie Antoinette,
Came sweet Corday, Du Barry with shrill cry,
Not learning from her betters how to die!
Here, while the nations watched with bated breath,
Was held the saturnalia of Red Death!
For where that slim Egyptian shaft uplifts
Its point to catch the dawn's and sunset's drifts
Of various gold, the busy Headsman stood. . . .
Place de la Concorde--no, the Place of Blood!
And all so peaceful now, one cannot bring
Imagination to accept the thing.
Lies, all of it! some dreamer's wild romance--
High-hearted, witty, laughter-loving France!
In whose brain was it that the legend grew
Of Mænads shrieking in this avenue,
Of watch-fires burning, Famine standing guard,
Of long-speared Uhlans in that palace-yard!
What ruder sound this soft air ever smote
Than a bird's twitter, or a bugle's note?
What darker crimson ever splashed these walks
Than that of rose-leaves dropping from the stalks?
And yet--what means that charred and broken wall,
That sculptured marble, splintered, like to fall,
Looming among the trees there? . . . And you say
This happened, as it were, but yesterday?
And here the commune stretched a barricade,
And there the final desperate stand was made?
Such things have been? How all things change and fade!
How little lasts in this brave world below!
Love dies; hate cools; the Cæsars come and go;
Gaunt Hunger fattens, and the weak grow strong.
Even Republics are not here for long!
Ah, who can tell what hour may bring the doom,
The lighted torch, the tocsin's heavy boom!
SCENE: St. Petersburg. Period: the present time. A ballroom in the winter palace of the prince---. The ladies in character costumes and masks. The gentlement in official dress and unmasked, with the exception of six tall figures in scarlet kaftans, who are treated with marked distinction as they move here and there among the promenaders. Quadrille music throughout the dialogue.
Count SERGIUS PAVLOVICH PANSHINE, who has just arrived, is standing anxiously in the doorway of an antechamber with his eyes fixed upon the lady in the costume of a maid of honor in the time of Catharine II. The lady presently disengages herself from the crowd, and passes near count PANSHINE, who impulsively takes her by the hand and leads her across the threshold of the inner apartment, which is unoccupied.
You knew me?
How could I have failed?
A mask may hide your features, not your soul.
There is an air about you like the air
That folds a star. A blind man knows the night,
And feels the constellations. No coarse sense
Of eye or ear had made you plain to me.
Through these I had not found you; for your eyes,
As blue as the violets of our Novgorod,
Look black behind your mask there, and your voice--
I had not known that either. My heart said,
Ah! your heart said that?
You trust your heart, then! 'T is a serious risk!--
How is it you and others wear no mask?
The Emperor's orders.
Is the Emperor here?
I have not seen him.
He is one of the six
In scarlet kaftans and all masked alike.
Watch--you will note how every one bows down
Before these figures, thinking each by chance
May be the Tsar; yet none knows which he is.
Even his counterparts are left in doubt.
Unhappy Russia! No serf ever wore
Such chains as gall our emperor these sad days.
He dare trust no man.
All men are so false.
Spare one, Pauline Pavlovna.
No; all, all!
I think there is no truth left in the world,
In man or woman. Once were noble souls.--
Count Sergius, is Nastasia here to-night?
Ah! then you know! I thought to tell you first.
Not here, beneath these hundred curious eyes,
In all this glare of light; but in some place
Where I could throw me at your feet and weep.
In what shape came the story to your ear?
Decked in the teller's colors, I'll be sworn;
The truth, but in the livery of a lie,
And so must wrong me. Only this is true:
The Tsar, because I risked my wretched life
To shield a life as wretched as my own,
Bestows upon me, as supreme reward--
O irony--the hand of this poor girl.
Says, "Here, I have the pearl of pearls for you,
Such as was never plucked from out of the deep
By Indian diver, for a Sultan's crown.
Your joy's decreed, and stabs me with a smile.
And she--she loves you?
I know not, indeed.
Likes me, Perhaps. What matters it?--her love!
The guardian, Sidor Yurievich consents,
And she consents. No love in it at all,
A mere caprice, a young girl's spring-tide dream.
Sick of ear-rings, weary of her mare,
She'll have a lover--something ready-made,
Or improvised between two cups of tea--
A lover by imperial ukase!
Fate said her word--I chanced to be the man!
If that grenade the crazy student threw
Had not spared me, as well as spared the Tsar,
All this would not have happened. I'd have been
A hero, but quite safe from her romance.
She takes me for a hero--think of that!
Now, by our holy Lady of Kazan,
When I have finished pitying myself,
I'll pity her.
Oh no; begin with her;
She needs it most.
At her door lies the blame.
Whatever falls. She, with a single word
With half a tear, had stopt it at the first,
This cruel juggling with poor human hearts.
The Tsar commanded it--you said the Tsar
The Tsar does what she wills--God fathoms why.
Were she his mistress, now! but there's no snow
Whiter within the bosom of a cloud,
Nor colder wither. She is very haughty,
For all her fragile air of gentleness;
With something vital in her, like those flowers
That on our desolate steppes outlast the year.
Resembles you in some things. It was that
First made us friends. I do her justice, see!
For we were friends in that smooth surface way
We Russians have imported out of France.
Alas! from what a blue and tranquil heaven
This bolt fell on me! After these two years,
My suit with Ossip Leminoff at an end,
The old wrong righted, the estates restored,
And my promotion, with the ink not dry!
Those fairies which neglected me at birth
Seemed now to lavish all good gifts on me--
Gold roubles, office, sudden dearest friends.
The whole world smiled. Then, as I stooped to taste
The sweetest cup, freak dashed it from my lip.
This very night--just think, this very night--
I planned to come and beg of you the alms
I dared not ask for in my poverty.
I thought me poor then. How stript am I now!
There's not a ragged medicant one meets
Along the Nevski Prospeky but has leave
To tell his love, and I have not that right!
Pauline Pavlovna, why do you stand there
Stark as a statue, with no word to say?
Because this thing has frozen up my heart.
I think that there is something killed in me,
A dream that would have mocked all other bliss.
What shall I say? What would you have me say?
If it be possible, the word of words!
SHE, very slowly.
Well, then--I love you. I may tell you so
This once, . . . . and then forever hold my peace.
We cannot stay here longer unobserved.
No--do not touch me! but stand further off,
And seem to laugh, as if we jested--eyes,
Eyes everywhere! Now turn your face away . . . .
I love you.
With such music in my ears
I would death found me. It were sweet to die
Listening! You love me--prove it.
I prove saying it. How else?
I have three things to choose from; you shall choose:
This marriage, or Siberia, or France.
The first means hell; the second purgatory;
The third--with you--were nothing less than heaven!
How dared you even dream it!
I was mad.
This business has touched me in the brain.
Have parience! the calamity's so new.
There is a fourth way; but that gate is shut
To brave men who hold life a thing of God.
Yourself spoke there; the rest was not of you.
Oh, lift me to your level! So I'm safe.
What's to be done?
There must be some path out.
Perhaps the Emperor--
Not a ray of hope!
His mind is set on this with that insistence
Which seems to seize on all match-making folk.
The fancy bites them, and they straight go mad.
Your father's friend, the Metropolitan--
A word from him . . . .
Alas, he too is bitten!
Gray-haired, gray-hearted, worldly wise, he sees
This marriage makes me the Tsar's protégé,
And opens every door to preference.
Think while I think. There surely is some key
Unlocks the labyrinth, could we but find it.
What! beg life of her? not I.
Beg love. She is a woman, young, perhaps
Untouched as yet of this too poisonous air.
Were she told all, would she not pity us?
For if she love you, as I think she must,
Would not some generous impulse stir in her,
Some latent, unsuspected spark illume?
How love thrills even commonest girl-clay,
Ennobling it an instant, if no more!
You said that she is proud; then touch her pride,
And turn her into marble at the touch.
But yet the gentler passion is the stronger.
Go to her, tell her, in some tenderest phrase
That will not hurt too much--ah, but 't will hurt!--
Just how your happiness lies in her hand
To make or mar for all time; hint, not say,
Your heart is gone from you, and you may find--
A casemate in St. Peter and St. Paul
For, say, a month; then some Siberian town.
Not this way lies escape. At my first word
That sluggish Tartar blood would turn to fire
In every vein.
How blindly you read her,
Or any woman! Yes, I know, I grant
How small we often seem in our small world
Of trivial cares and narrow precedents--
Lacking that wide horizon stretched for men--
Capricious, spiteful, frightened at a mouse;
But when it comes to suffering mortal pangs,
The weakest of us measures pulse with you.
Yes, you, not she. If she were at your height!
But there's no martyr wrapt in her rose flesh.
There should have been; for Nature gave you both
The self-same purple for your eyes and hair,
The self-same music to your southern lips,
Fashioned you both, as 't were, in the same mould,
Yet failed to put the soul in one of you!
I know her wilful--her light head quite turned
In this court atmosphere of flatteries;
A Moscow beauty, petted and soiled there,
And since spoiled here; as soft as swan's down now,
With words like honey melting from the comb,
But being crossed, vindictive, cruel, cold.
I fancy her, between two rosy smiles,
Saying, "Poor fellow, in the Nertchinsk mines!"
That is the sum of her.
You know her not.
Count Sergius Pavlovich, you said no mask
Could hide the soul, yet how you have mistaken
The soul these two months--and the face to-night!
[Removes her mask.]
You!--It was you!
Count Sergius Pavlovich,
Go find Pauline Pavlovna--she is here--
And tell her the Tsar has set you free.
[She goes out hurriedly, replacing her mask.]