Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, A GEORGIAN ROMANCE; A.D. 1900, by LEWIS MORRIS (1833-1907)

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A GEORGIAN ROMANCE; A.D. 1900, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Think you that after nineteen centuries
Last Line: "of wrong and death and hell!"
Subject(s): Georgia (Republic)

"THINK you that after nineteen centuries
Since shone our Hope on earth, there come to-day
No tragedies, no dread abysmal deeps
Of sin, like those of old, the accursed house
Of Atreus, or the fratricides of Thebes,
Or those the shame of mediaeval Rome,
The Borgias, or the Cenci, or the rest?
Nay, nay, the same infernal forces still
Assault men's shuddering souls; amid the glare
Of all our vaunted gains dark growths obscene
Tower high as then -- hot passion quenched in blood --
Lust, incest, fratricide, -- these vex us still,
As erst in Thebes or Rome, no fabled tales
Are ours, but, dreadful fact, murders as fierce
And deadly as of old; the Church may preach
Her sacred message; the philosopher,
All brain, but little heart, may boast in vain
Mind's victories; for still Tartarean fires
Rage close beneath the surface scarce concealed,
And whoso stumbles, burns. Deliver us,
O Power of Good, for 'tis a hopeless world!"

These dark thoughts held me, as I mused perplext,
This very spring, reading the dreadful tale,
The morning's broadsheet brought, and seemed to gaze,
On the blue waters of the Euxine sea,
By bright Odessa, while a fettered crew
Of convicts whom the inexorable Law
Banished to far Saghalien, shambled by
Dragging their chains; vile faces, seared and marred,
Doomed for long painful years to fruitless toil
Deep in the sunless mine, till youth and hope
Lay dead, and only some poor wreck remained
Of what long since was man -- all, young and old,
Chained each to each, in convict garb, all sign
Of rank and gentle breeding sunk and lost
In fellowship of crime. The wretches filed
To where the black side of the impatient ship
Swallowed them one by one. But as they passed
In pitiful procession to their fate
One my eye noted, tall, who walked alone
In bloom of manhood, proud with steadfast eyes,
Whom not the shameful garb, nor clanking chain
Nor manacled hands, nor vile companionship
Could quite disguise or mar. Seeing him pass
I seemed to ask the warder of his name,
But that he knew not, nor his rank, but only
That he was called "Prince Ivan." Then I seemed
To question the lost wretch, and hear him tell
In gentle tones this dreadful tale of wrong.

"What, would you know what brings me here? Good friend,
For in your eyes I see a pitying gleam,
'Twere better not to hear it, for, God wot,
Sometimes I wonder if 'twas I indeed
Who sinned, or if some dread necessity
Worked through me, as the sculptor's hand which moulds
White marble, or the painter's who draws forth
Dark fancies from the canvas, till behold!
A fiend, not man. I do not seek to hide
My wickedness, but sometimes am perplexed
To know by what gradations swift or slow
What I was once was changed to what I am.
I well remember how I read in youth
The tales of ancient crime, nor ever dreamt
That e'er they might be mine; but now I go
To pay its penalty, a felon, lost,
Degraded from my rank, doomed for long years
To slave without reward or hope; to miss
All things that make life sweet -- though nought indeed
Could sweeten mine -- yet to live hopeless on
Without the power to end it.
I was born
Amid the Georgian snows, of an old race,
And puissant, ere the wily Russian stole
Our land and freedom from us; a chaste youth
I spent among our mountains. My good sire
Died first, and then my mother. My dear brother,
Filling my father's place and rank, remained
Unwedded, keeping sole the ancestral state
Of our old home; but me a boy as yet
He tended like a father, till the time
When to our Northern City of the Snows
I went to gain such knowledge as became
My rank and birth. Dear brother, who didst lavish
Thy love and care on me; in that blest sphere
Where now thou art, freed from this load of life,
Forgive me if thou canst my dreadful wrong,
Or if thou fail, forget it!
The swift years
Fled by and left me man, and brought with them
Such gains of knowledge as my studious youth
Untouched, or but a little, by grosser sense
Or careless pleasures of the idle great,
Prized above all. 'Mid those gay crowds I kept
Dear memories of the old ancestral halls,
The high Caucasian peaks, the snow-fed streams,
Long left but unforgotten, the brisk air
Breathed 'mid the trackless pinewoods of my home.
All these preserved my youth and kept it pure,
Till last, treading the paths of sober love,
I wooed the daughter of a noble house
And won her, and I thought I loved her well.
Ah me! that I had known what 'twas to love!
Now with blind passion, but with tempered glow
Of moderate fervour, such as lights and warms
Thousands of happier souls who live calm lives
In uneventful wedlock till the end,
Nor dream that they are loveless. Ere we reached
The goal of marriage, since the unfailing use
Of noble houses when their scions wed
Divides the ancestral lands, I, with what joy!
Forsook the noisy city for a while
For my dear native hills. My brother wrote
To bid me welcome. He, too, now was wed
'To a wife the pearl of women, beautiful
As Venus' self, as soon my eyes should see.'
'Come,' he said, 'brother, all I wish for you
Is that your wife be true and fair as mine.'

And then I left the murky city and sped
Swiftly across the interminable plains
To the dear hills. Ah me! 'tis three brief years,
No more, but since that day what things have been --
All dead! and by whose fault? All dead! but I,
Who come once more to meet the summer sun,
Banished, degraded, chained, whom all men shun,
Doomed to a death in life, far worse than death,
A monster and accurst.
But when I gained the well-remembered hills,
No warning voice proclaimed what things should be,
The weird old towers, the old familiar fields
Showed nought of new, since I a budding youth
Left, who returned a man. There seemed no change
In any save in me, if there indeed,
Seeing that the old loved scenes, the eager air,
Stripped from me all the dusty past, and clothed
My life with a new boyhood. At the gate
My brother waited with a warm embrace
Of welcome. The brief winters which had passed
Since last we met had left scant trace on him;
Only a broader brow, a form which showed
More stalwart than before; the past was dead,
The past was gone, and I a boy again,
O'erjoyed with all I saw.
And then I raised
My eyes, and of a sudden knew my doom!

For there within the entrance stood revealed
The woman of my dreams. Of stately mien
As 'twere a Goddess; the dark lustrous eyes
Of Georgia, the divine Caucasian charm
Which makes our women, fairer, comelier far
Than all the world can match. On the sweet lips
A smile of welcome for the stranger made
My heart throb high; something I seemed to gain,
I never knew before, as if my life
Had found its complement, the half the gods
Of fable kept when half was given. Deep awe
Chilled me as who at midnight calls his name
And lo! the answering spirit of himself;
Or as the hapless hunter when he spied
The Goddess disarrayed; while from her eyes
Shot a swift answering gleam, half joy, half pain,
Proving a mutual wound. I found no word
Of greeting, when my brother's kindly voice
Made known to me my sister. -- 'Sister,' said he? --
Ah, nearer, dearer far than any tie
Of common blood. Yet fenced by equal bars
From honourable love.
What need to tell
The dreadful tale? The hidden fatal fire
Repressed in vain, tho' by no word declared,
Nor guilty save in thought, grew every day
Stronger and dreadfuller.
Day after day
I dallied with my fetters, knowing well
That safety lay in flight; until at last
I lost the wish to fly. Then one sad night,
Despite our wills, despite our shrinking hearts,
The fire long smouldering leapt in sudden flame,
Scorning restraint, and mounting terribly,
Consumed the bars of honour, duty, faith,
And left our lives in ashes.
When 'twas done
And the long struggle ceased, we knew some ghost
Of happiness, though haunted by the dread
Of imminent ill. Ah me! when I recall
Those guilty days, compared with what should come,
They show like heavenly glimpses; yet were they
The cause of all.
Day after day the thought
Of what discovery brought with it, mixed sweet
With bitter, hardly as I think the sense
Of wickedness oppressed us, we had found
Some poisonous anodyne to blunt the qualm
Of conscience, and despite our constant fear
Not less 'twas sweet to sin. This is the bribe
The Tempter offers, this the fatal net
He spreads for souls, and damns them, and I durst not
Break it, nor would, though now the fleeting weeks
Flew onward to my marriage; and my bride
Who should be soon, wrote lovingly, and fain
Would hasten my return; but still I found
False pretexts. 'It was difficult to divide
Our patrimony, though I longed to end it
And call her mine,' but went not. At the last,
My brother, too possest by noble trust
For base suspicion, thinking I was loth
To leave our ancient home, sent messengers
Unknown to us, bidding them welcome her
To her brother's home, and she, deluded soul,
Came willingly, Love calling, to her doom.

But when we knew that she would come, such dread
Of what should be possessed us, that we knew,
As by some sudden lightning flash revealed,
The black abysses round. Bid her not come,
We durst not, that were damning proof indeed
Of guilt, yet if she came, she brought with her
Discovery of our wrong; the woman's wit
Swifter than man's slow brain, reads at a glance
The secrets of the heart, and there remained
Vengeance, disgrace, the severance of the bonds
Which now grew more than life -- ay, ay, indeed,
These things should be but dreadfuller by far
Than any we had dreamt of. Yet some gleam
Of hopeless hope sustained. As we deceived
My brother, so perhaps should Fortune aid,
We might deceive her too; and so with dread
Vexing us day and night, we did await
Our doom and hers.
Ah me! the fatal day
When at the last she came, I hurried forth
To greet her, but the deep o'ermastering sense
Of some calamity she could not name
Oppressed her, and the lying welcome died
Upon my lips as in my eyes she read
A love estranged, and shrank from my embrace,
Shuddering she knew not why. We strove in vain,
I and the partner of my sin, to feign
The welcome which we felt not, and I saw,
Half pitying, how pale she seemed, grown sick
With hope deferred, and how the unbidden tears
Sprang to her eyes, as to my noble brother
She turned, while he with half paternal words
Would comfort her, thinking the deep fatigue
Of her long weary journey from the North
Had sapped her strength. Poor souls, I pitied them
Whose fate drew now so near, though scarce as yet
I knew what must be. At the little feast
Of welcome that we made, a little while
She seemed to shake from her the load of care
That first oppressed. We thought our secret yet
Lay hidden, and grew hopeful to escape
The eyes of jealous love, and so the days
Slipped by, and we grew careless, and I feigned
To love her still, as still I think she loved.
Ah! fools to hope to escape the searching gaze
Of love's clear eyes. 'For tho' we strove to hide
Our wrong, one hapless day a furtive glance
Surprised, in one brief instant with a flash
Discovered all. That night a letter came:
'I know your secret, I will go. I pray you
Ere 'tis too late repent you of your wrong.
Make what excuse you will to your good brother:
To-morrow I will go, nor see you more.'

Then in one moment the impassable net
Our sin had spread around us stood revealed,
And the deep pit of hell which yawned before us,
Inevitable. When I strove to feign
Excuses to my brother, his great wrath
Spurned them, and suddenly he seemed to know
The dreadful truth, and love deceived, and faith
Abused, worked such a tempest in his soul
As broke in frenzy. His false wife he drove
Instantly from his side, myself he stung
With fierce reproach, but since I was his brother
He spared my life. Our poor unhappy dupe,
Who yet betrayed us not, with pitying words
He comforted, but bade us from his sight,
Till he should fix our sentence; but his pride
Of noble birth and blameless life unstained
Constrained him to keep silence.
That same night
I stole to where she was. Without a word
We knew our doom, and the one only way
Of safety, though it led through blood and death,
And how the first transgression from the right
Leads on by crooked paths, till when the day
Is fading, lo! the inevitable pit,
Fronting the desperate feet; no turning back,
Nor outlet, but through black depths worse than death!
Hardly a word we spoke; our purpose showed
Too clear for speech. I carried in my belt
A dagger, as our Georgian use enjoins,
And she, my bane, and yet my love, my joy,
Pointed to it, and with her little hand
Tried its keen edge, and motioned toward the doors
Here, where my brother slept, there, where our guest,
With such a dreadful smile as leaves a man
A devil. But I dared not do the thing,
And whispered, 'Not my brother.' But she signed
'Both; it were useless else.' And as I shrank
With tottering limbs, 'Quick; I will come with you.'
And seized the light, and noiseless gained the door
Where lay the Prince asleep.
One stab, one groan,
And all was done. Then silently we went
To where our poor dupe lay. One stab again
And all was done, and we were free to reap
The fruit of crime; free, said I? -- nay, but bound
With heavier chains than these.
But when 'twas done
One peril still remained. 'Twas all in vain
Should we not hide the deed! She bade me wake
An ancient serving-man, who from a boy
Had served my house: him, with what lie I know not
Of sudden passion and revenged offence,
I did persuade, so that he should conceal
That which was done, and with me bear the dead
To burial, and, since 'twas their fitting end,
Should lay them side by side. At dead of night,
None seeing us, we laid them in the mould
Beneath the trees, and with the morning feigned
A story of their flight. In our wild hills
Such things are frequent, overwhelming gusts
Of furious passion, chilled and quenched in blood,
And none would doubt the story. So we dwelt,
I and the partner of my guilt, secure
In the old house; and all men pitied us,
Who by one stroke of pitiless fortune lost
She the dear husband of her love, and I
My destined bride. Fain had we ended there
The tale of black offence, but still remained
One damning witness. The poor serving-man
Who knew our innocent victims had not fled
And where they lay, held o'er our heads a sword
Suspended by a hair. How could we rest
While this man lived? Sure 'twas a little thing
If we who sinned so deeply sinned once more?
What was a poor serf's life that we should spare it
Who had shed noble blood? And so it came
That ere a little month had staled our wrong
The poor soul died. So sudden was his end
Men talked of poison, but since none could trace
What enemy was his, they asked no more.
'Twas but a nine days' wonder, but perchance
He knew some perilous secret of the Great.

Then seemed we safe indeed, and lived awhile
In decent seeming grief within the walls
Which now were mine; but (as 'twas noised abroad),
The losses we deplored, the empty halls
Filled with the haunting Past, the corridors
Echoing at night the sounds of ghostly feet,
Troubled our peace. No more the ancient home
She loved, nor I, but loathed it. Most of all
We loathed to pass those dreadful doors which hid
A double murder. Therefore, as the heir
Of the Prince, if dead he were, or as his steward
Till his return, if still he walked the earth,
To a rich neighbour I demised his lands
And old ancestral towers. Then we sped forth,
I and my widowed sister, in feigned grief
But secret joy, seeking to hide ourselves
From prying eyes, as natural law ordains
The afflicted should, and separate awhile,
By different roads, our name and rank concealed,
At length we came together and were wed
By some poor priest, and lived a peaceful life
For three brief years, tranquil, sometimes, and calm
As from a blameless Past, but ofttimes stirred
By sudden storms. Ah! dark unpitying Fate,
Which kept our lives asunder, lives that sought
Each other, but in vain, till Love was sin,
And sin bred crime.

Far in the frozen North,
In a grey castle 'mid wolf-haunted pines,
We made our home. Three little years we spent
Together, -- 'twas not long, for us who bought
Our gain so dear, -- nor was it peace indeed
We knew, but rather conscience drugged asleep,
Starting with sudden fears -- a nightmare dream,
From which we woke with staring eyes and lips
That syllabled murder -- for between our souls,
Clinging together, rose the ghostly slain,
The strong man, the weak woman, the poor serf,
All dead and by our hands. And yet I think
We were not all unhappy. Time can wither.
Not Hope alone but holds an anodyne
To blunt the tooth of conscience. Not remorse,
But dread and coward fears, o'ershadowing all,
Blighted our lives, till long security
Brought scarce disturbed content; -- 'twas little gain
For two souls damned for ever.
Till at last,
When the sad Past grew dim, a horrible dread
Rose with a flaming sword and drave us forth
From that poor guilty Eden. For we read
'How the new Lord of our lost home commanded
That they should delve hard by, some little dyke,
And when 'twas done, behold two skeletons
Lay side by side. And tho' 'twas no strange matter
In our wild Caucasus of passionate feuds,
Where blood flows fast as water, here was proof
Of dreadfuller than wont. For when they raised
The poor remains; upon the finger-bone
Of the taller shone an emerald signet-ring,
Which all men knew, and 'twas the Prince my brother's,
Who never left his home, but lay beneath
His old ancestral trees, and by his side
A woman's slenderer form. What mind could doubt
It was the missing girl, whose flight they mourned
For three long years? Nay, nay, she had not fled.
No secret tale of shame was buried with them
Who lay there thus at rest. The dead girl's honour
Showed stainless now, and her great kinsfolk's pride
Saved from reproach. They mingling grief with joy, --
Grief she was dead, joy she was pure, -- made oath
To avenge her, and the sleuth-hounds of the law,
Already loosed upon her murderers' track,
Quested, as yet in vain. Where had they gone,
The false wife and her blood-stained paramour?
They should be trapped, since still on Russian soil
Doubtless they lurked in hiding.' When I read
These damning words, fain had we turned to fly.
But whither? since the guarded frontier rose
A wall of brass before us. So we stayed,
In hopeless hope that haply the great peril
Might pass us by, as, trembling in each limb,
The hapless quarry, waiting, hears the cry
Of the hot chase grow louder, nearer still,
And scarcely dares to breathe. And for long months
Our silent trackless forests and deep snows
Baffled the hunters, till, though pale and worn
By long suspense, my guilty love and I
Thought once more we were safe.

Then one grim day
Last autumn, when the southward-flying sun
Had gone, and taken life and hope with it,
There as we sat within the ruddy glow
Of the piled hearth, cheering the solitude,
Two guilty loving hearts, while all around
The tokens of our ill-got wealth relieved
The gloom without, sweet flowers and gems of price,
Rich hangings, and the golden light which keeps
Perpetual June amid the sunless gloom
Of Yule, our summons came. Sudden the door
Swung open, and upon the warmth and light
Of luxury a dank and deadly chill
As from an opened tomb. A rattle of arms,
And quick the stern-eyed officers of law
Stood round us, and we knew the end was come, --
The end of guilty dalliance, -- the end
Of long anxieties. For it was Death
That knocked, and Vengeance, and the Powers of Hell.

And then they severed us, without a word,
Only one long last kiss, and locked her fast
A prisoner in our chamber in the tower.
She had no power to speak, nor chance to doff
Her gems of price, but like a Queen she went
To her doom, for such it was. Great God! how fair
She showed, as, flushed with some strange counterfeit
Of innocence, and eyes that blazed like fire,
With proud contempt she put from her the hands
That would have hindered. As she reached the stair
She turned and looked on me, and in her gaze
I read a mute farewell, while at my belt
Her eyes seemed seeking something, and I knew
Once more what 'twas they sought. But neither blade
Nor arm was there. Then I saw fade and die
The fury from her eyes, and in its stead,
Writ legibly for love's keen gaze to see,
A dreadful purpose, offspring of despair.

Then with their pitiless skill, till night was near,
In that luxurious room, where late we sat
Alone, with none to mark us, deep content
Soothing each sense, they plied their torturing art
Of question; an inextricable net
They wound around us mesh by mesh, while I,
Like a poor bird caught in the fowler's toils,
Was powerless to escape. Fain had I bade them
Forbear and I would tell them all, such horror
Of that sad tale, retold in icy words,
Possessed me; but remembering who it was
Who shared my guilt, hopeless I wandered on,
Tightening the noose around our lives, but still
Denying all.
Then, when some mocking gleam
Of hope relieved despair, what shriek assailed
My agonised ears? what body flashed and fell
Past the tall windows from the height above
With a dull crash on the new-fallen snows,
Staining them red? Ah me! I knew too well.
I saw death in her eyes when up the stair
Silent she swept. Then, not with grief, but joy
That she was safe from men, her fate fulfilled,
And I need lie no longer, 'See,' I cried,
'She is dead. You shall know all. We two together
Did those dark deeds. 'Twas Love that urged us on,
Not that of spouse or bride or brother, but Love
That burns our lives with fire. Now she has gone
Beyond the reach of vengeance on the earth
Let me go too. We did it, we together,
None else; we stabbed them in their dreamless sleep;
They did not cry, nor suffer much, I think;
'Twas a swift blow! And one there was beside
Who bare them forth to burial. Listen to me!
I poisoned him, because I dared not trust
Our dreadful secret with him. That is all.
I do not wish to live. Respect, I pray you,
That mangled corpse, for she was innocent
In the law's eye and noble. Ye who live
In bonds of happy love for wife and child,
Pity us if you can. I do give thanks
To all the Powers that rule and mar our lives,
No child of ours shall know its parents' shame.
Deal with me as you will.'

But my wrecked life
They spared, since I was noble. Ah! the farce
Of rank and false nobility which gilds
So oft the ignoble brow; but in this place
All men are equal, as they are in Hell,
And I shall spend my manhood in the depths
Of the dark mine, nor put aside the load
Of misery till manhood wanes, and age
Blunts the desire to live. Say, was it she --
My love, who was a wife tender and true
Till the sad day we met; who had no thought
For other than her lord, but lived white years
Of faithful wedlock -- she, who bade me slay
Her love and mine together? Was it I,
The blameless student, whose clam eye disdained
The spell of venal beauty -- I, whose thought
Dwelt ever on the heights, and daily walked
In converse with the mighty dead of Time,
With Plato and with Socrates, and him
Who took all knowledge for his own, and him
The Saint of the old East, and Him whose Voice
The round world hears, but heeds not, and the choir
Of Saints and Sages blest; I, whose soft heart
Sickened at blood and pain; who did this wrong?
Or do men bear twin natures, one of Heaven
And one of Hell? Or is it that to-day,
Despite the gains of Time, the Word Divine,
The counsels of Perfection, with their law
Of Mercy to all things, and Purity
And Justice, still a vengeful Ate drives
Our lives to ruin, and a cruel Fate,
Unpitying and resistless as of old,
Turns men to devils? Let me meet my fate;
I care not what shall come. If I should die,
'Twere well; or should I live, perchance long years
May dim the dreadful Past, and leave my age
Cleansed by retributive pain. At least I lose
The haunting fear, the cold voice threatening doom,
Nor yet am wholly damned!
Ah! could we meet,
My love and I, after long punishment
Thro' secular years! For we have suffered much,
We have suffered much indeed!"
These things I heard,
And, musing as I went, I knew again
The old voice heard before, "There is an end
Of Wrong and Death and Hell!"

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