Two Mothers by Neihardt, John G.
BY JOHN G. NEIHARDT
THE SPLENDID WAYFARING THE SONG OF THREE FRIENDS THE SONG OF HUGH GLASS THE QUEST
BY JOHN G. NEIHARDT
New York THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1921
_All rights reserved_
COPYRIGHT, 1913 BY POETRY: A MAGAZINE OF VERSE
COPYRIGHT, 1915 BY THE FORUM
COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
Set up and electrotyped. Published, January, 1921
ALICE AND MONA
EIGHT HUNDRED RUBLES 3
EIGHT HUNDRED RUBLES
The heart’s an open inn, And from the four winds fare.... Vagrants blind with care, Waifs that limp with sin; Ghosts of what has been,... Wraiths of what may be:... But One shall bring the sacred gift And which ... is He?
And with their wounds of care And with their scars of sin.... All these shall en-ter in To find a welcome there; And he who gives with prayer Shall be the richer host:... For surely unto him shall come The Holy Ghost.
The last stanza same as second except in second “‘Tis he” at close of stanza take “he” on C for end.
EIGHT HUNDRED RUBLES
_The combined living room and kitchen of a peasant house. Before an open fire, where supper is in preparation, stoops a girl of about sixteen. It is evening and dusk is growing. Vines hang outside and the light of a rising moon comes through the window._
The heart’s an open inn, And from the four winds fare Vagrants blind with care, Waifs that limp with sin; Ghosts of what has been, Wraiths of what may be: But one shall bring the sacred gift— And which is he?
And with their wounds of care And with their scars of sin, All these shall enter in To find a welcome there; And he who gives with prayer Shall be the richer host; For surely unto him shall come The Holy Ghost.
(_Ceases singing and stares into the fire._)
What if he’d vanish like a dream one keeps No more than starshine when the morning breaks! I’ll look again.
(_Arises, goes softly to the open window and looks out into the garden._)
How peacefully he sleeps! The red rose shields him from the moon that makes The garden like a witch-tale whispered low. He came a stranger, yet he is not strange; For O, how often I have dreamed it so, Until a sudden, shivering gust of change Went over things, making the cow-sheds flare On fire with splendor while one might count three, And riding swiftly down the populous air, Prince-like he came for me. There were no banners when he really came, No clatter of brave steel chafing in the sheath, No trumpets blown to hoarseness with his fame. Silently trudging over the dusky heath, Clad in a weave of twilight, shod with dew, Weary he came and hungry to the door. The lifting latch made music, and I knew My prince was dream no more.
O weary heart and sore, O yearning eyes that blur, A hand that drips with myrrh Is knocking at the door! The waiting time is o’er, Be glad, look up and see How splendid is a dream come true— ‘Tis he! ‘Tis he!
(_During the latter part of the song, the back door opens and the father and mother enter, stooped beneath heavy packs._)
What’s this, eh? Howling like a dog in heat, Snout to the moon! And not a bite to eat, And the pot scorching like the devil’s pit! Bestir yourself there, will you! Here you sit Tra-la-ing while the supper goes to rack, And your old father like to break his back, Tramping from market!
Tut, tut! Girls must sing, And one burned supper is a little thing In seventy creeping years.
Ah, there it goes! My hunger makes no difference, I suppose! Tra-la, tut tut, and I can slave and slave Until my nose seems sniffing for a grave, I’m bent so—and it’s little that you care!
(_Who has arisen from window and regards her mother as in a dream._)
Hush, Mother dear, you’ll wake him!
Wake him? Where? Who sleeps that should not wake? Are you bewitched? Hush me again, and you’ll be soundly switched! As though I were a work brute to be dumb! I’ll talk my fill!
O Mother, he has come——
(_Her body straightening slightly from its habitual stoop_)
Eh? Who might come that I would care to know Since Ivan left?—He’s dead.
Aye, years ago, And stubborn grieving is a foolish sin.
(_With the old weary voice._)
One’s head runs empty and the ghosts get in When one is old and stooped.
(_Peevishly to the girl._)
Bestir yourself! Lay plates and light the candles on the shelf. No corpse lies here that it should be so dark.
_(Girl, moving as in a trance, lights candles with a brand from the fireplace. Often she glances expectantly at the window. The place is fully illumined._)
What ails the hussy?
‘Tis a crazy lark Sings in her head all day. Don’t be too rough. Come twenty winters, ‘twill be still enough, God knows!
(_At the fireplace._)
I heard no larks sing at her age. They put me in the field to earn a wage And be some use in the world.
What! Dawdling yet? I’ll lark you in a way you won’t forget, Come forty winters! Speak! What do you mean?
(_Still staring at the window and speaking dreamily as to herself._)
Up from the valley creeps the loving green Until the loneliest hill-top is a bride.
The girl’s gone daft!
‘Tis vapors. Let her bide. She’s weaving bride-veils with a woof of the moon, And every wind’s a husband. All too soon She’ll stitch at grave-clothes in a stuff more stern.
I’m sorry that I let the supper burn— ‘Tis all so sweet, I scarce know what I do— He came——
A stranger that I knew; And he was weary, so I took him in And gave him supper, thinking ‘twere a sin That anyone should want and be denied. And while he ate, the place seemed glorified, As though it were the Saviour sitting there! It could not be the sunset bound his hair Briefly with golden haloes—made his eyes Such depths to gaze in with a dumb surprise While one blinked thrice!—Then suddenly it passed, And he was some old friend returned at last After long years.
A pretty tale, indeed! And so it was our supper went to feed A sneaking ne’er-do-well, a shiftless scamp!
O Mother, wasn’t Jesus Christ a tramp?
Hush, will you! hush! ‘Tis plain the Devil’s here! To think my only child should live to jeer At holy things!
Come, don’t abuse the maid. They say He was a carpenter by trade, Yet no one ever saw the house He built.
So! Shield the minx! Make nothing of her guilt, And let the Devil get her—as he will! I’ll hold my tongue and work, and eat my fill From what the beggars leave, for all you care! Quick! Where’s this scoundrel?
‘Sh! He’s sleeping there Out in the garden.
(_Shows a gold piece._)
Mother, see, he paid So much more than he owed us, I’m afraid. We lose in taking, profit what we give.
(_Taking the coin._)
What! Gold? A clever bargain, as I live! It’s five times what the fowls brought!—Not so bad! And yet—I’ll wager ‘tis not all he had— Eh?
No—eight hundred rubles in a sack!
Eight—hundred—rubles! Yet the times are slack, And coins don’t spawn like fishes, Goodness knows! I’ll warrant he’s some thief that comes and goes About the country with a ready smile And that soft speech that is the Devil’s guile, Nosing out hoards that reek with honest sweat! Ha, ha—there’s little here that he can get.
(_Goes to window softly, peers out, then closes the casement._)
Mother, had you heard How loving kindness spoke in every word, You could not doubt him. O, his eyes were mild, And there were heavens in them when he smiled!
Satan can outsmile God.
No, no, I’m sure He brought some gift of good that shall endure And be a blessing to us!
So indeed! Eight—hundred—rubles—with the power to breed Litters of copecks till one need not work! Eight hundred hundred backaches somehow lurk In that snug wallet.
(_To the father._)
What’s the thing to do?
It would be pleasant with a pot of brew To talk until the windows glimmer pale. ‘Tis good to harken to a traveller’s tale Of things far off where almost no one goes.
As well to parley with a wind that blows Across fat fields, yet has no grain to share. Rubles are rubles, and a tale is air. I’ll have the rubles!
Mother! Mother dear! What if ‘twere Ivan sleeping far from here, And some one else should do this sinful deed!
Had they not taken my son, I should not need Eight hundred rubles now! The world’s made wrong, And I’ll not live to vex it very long. Who work should take their wages where they can. It should have been my boy come back a man, With this same goodly hoard to bring us cheer. Now let some other mother peer and peer At her own window through a blurring pane, And see the world go out in salty rain, And start at every gust that shakes the door! What does a green girl know? You never bore A son that you should prate of wrong and right! I tell you, I have wakened in the night, Feeling his milk-teeth sharp upon my breast, And for one aching moment I was blest, Until I minded that ‘twas years ago These flattened paps went milkless—and I know!
O Mother! ‘twould be sin!
Sin! What is that— When all the world prowls like a hungry cat, Mousing the little that could make us glad?
Don’t be forever grieving for the lad. ‘Twas hard, but there are troubles worse than death. Let’s eat and think it over.
Save your breath, Or share your empty prate with one another! One moment makes a father, but a mother Is made by endless moments, load on load.
(_Pause: then to girl._)
I left a bundle three bends down the road. Go fetch it.
Mother, promise not to do This awful thing you think.
(_Seizing a stick from the fireplace._)
I’ll promise you, And pay in welts—you simpering hussy!
(_The girl flees through back door. After a pause the woman turns to the man._)
—Well? Eight hundred rubles, and no tale to tell— The fresh earth strewn with leaves—is that the plan?
Eh?—That?—You mean—You would not kill a man? Not that!
It is much. Old folk might hobble far with less for crutch— But murder!—Rubles spent are rubles still—Blood squandered—‘tis a fearsome thing to kill! I know what rubles cost—they all come hard, But life’s the dearer.
Kill a hog for lard, A thief for gold—one reason and one knife! I tell you, gold is costlier than life! What price shall we have brought when we are gone? When Ivan died, the heartless world went on Breeding more sons that men might still be cheap. And who but I had any tears to weep? I mind ‘twas April when the tale was brought That he’d been lost at sea. I thought and thought About the way all things were mad to breed— One big hot itch to suckle or bear seed— And my boy dead! Life costly?—Cheap as mud! You want the rubles, sicken at the blood, You grey old limping coward!
Come now, Mother! I’d kill to live as lief as any other. You women don’t weigh matters like a man. I like the gold—‘tis true—but not the plan. Why not put pebbles where the rubles were, Then send him forth?
And set the place a-whir With a wind of tongues! I tell you, we must kill! No tale dies harder than a tale of ill. Once buried, he will tell none.
Let me think— I’ll go down to the tavern for a drink To whet my wits—belike the dread will pass.
(_He goes out through the back door, shaking his head in perplexity_)
He’ll find a coward’s courage in his glass— Enough to dig a hole when he comes back.
(_She goes to shelf and snuffs the candles. The moon shines brightly through the window and the firelight glows. She takes a knife from a table drawer, feels the edge; goes to the window and peers out; turns about, uneasily scanning the room, then moves toward the side door, muttering._)
Eight hundred shining rubles in a sack!
(_She goes out softly and closes the door. A cry is heard as of one in a nightmare. After a considerable interval the mother reënters with a small bag which she is opening with nervous fingers. The moonlight falls upon her. Now and then she endeavors to shake something from her hands, which she finally wipes on her apron, muttering the while._)
When folks get rich they find their fingers dirty.
(_She counts the coins in silence for awhile, then aloud._)
Eight and twenty—nine and twenty—thirty—
(_Clutching a handful of gold, she suddenly stops counting and stares at the back door. There is the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps. The door flies open and the old man enters excitedly._)
Mother! Mother! Wake him! Wake him—quick! ‘Tis Ivan with an old-time, merry trick— They told me at the tavern—‘tis our son!
(_Rushes toward the side door._)
(_Stops abruptly, aghast at the look of the woman. The coins jangle on the floor_)
God! What have you done!
(_As the curtain falls, the singing voice of the returning girl is heard nearer and nearer._)
O weary heart and sore, O yearning eyes that blur, A hand that drips with myrrh Is knocking at the door! The waiting time is o’er, Be glad, look up and see How splendid is a dream come true— ‘Tis he! ‘tis he!
(_The courtyard of the Imperial villa at Baiae. A moonlit night in late March. Occupying the left half of background is seen a portion of the villa. A short, broad flight of steps leads through the arched doorway to a pillared hall beyond, vague, but seeming vast in the uncertain lights that flicker in the draught. To the right of the doorway is a broad open window at the height of a mans head from the courtyard. An urn stands near window in the shadow to the right. From within harp music is heard threading the buzzing merriment of a banquet that is being given to celebrate Nero’s reconciliation with his mother. To the right of stage a glimpse of the moonlit sea is caught through trees._)
(_Enter from left walking toward the sea, Anicetus and the Captain of a galley._)
(_Pointing toward sea._)
Yon lies the galley weltering in the moon. A fair ship!—like a lady in a swoon Of languid passion. Never fairer craft Flung the green rustle of her skirts abaft And wooed the dwindling leagues!
A boat’s a boat! And were she thrice the fairest keel afloat Tonight she founders, sinks—make sure of that!
And all to drown one lean imperial cat With claws and teeth too sharp despite the purr! Ah, scan the graceful woman lines of her! Fit for the male Wind’s love is she—alas! Scuttled and buried in a sea of glass By her own master! It will cost me pain. Better a night of lightning-riven rain With hell-hounds baying in the driven gloom!
The will of Nero is her wind of doom— Woe to the seaman who defies that gale! Go now—make ready that we may not fail To crown the wish of Caesar with the deed.
(_Exit Captain toward sea._)
And no brazen wound shall bleed Red scandal over Rome; the nosing mob Shall sniff no poison. Just a gulping sob And some few bubbles breaking on the swell— Then, good night, Agrippina, rest you well! And may the gods revamp the silly fish With guts of brass for coping with that dish!
(_A muffled outburst of laughter in banquet hall. Anicetus turns toward window. Uproar dies out._)
They’re drinking deep—the banquet’s at its height And all therein are kings and queens tonight.
(_Goes to urn, mounts it and peers in at window._)
A merry crew! Quite drunk, quite drunk I fear, My noble Romans!—Burrus’ eyes are blear! One goblet hence, good Burrus, you will howl! E’en Seneca sits staring like an owl And strives to pilot in some heavy sea That wisdom-laden boat, his head. Ah me, Creperius Gallus, you are floundering deep In red Falernian bogs, so you shall sleep Quite soundly while your mistress takes the dip! Fair Acerronia thinks the place a ship And greenly sickens in the dizzy roll! There broods Poppaea, certain of her goal, Her veil a sea-fog clutching at the moon, A portent to wise sailors! Very soon The sea shall wake in hunger and be fed! She smiles!—the glimmer on a thunderhead That vomits ruin!—What has made her smile? Ah, Nero’s wine is sugared well with guile! So—kiss your mother—gently fondle her— Pet the old she-cat till she mew and purr Unto the tender hand that strokes her back: So shall there be no sniffing at the sack! Would that her eyes, like his, with wine were dim! Gods! What a tragic actor died in him To make a comic Caesar! I surmise By the too rheumy nature of your eyes, Divine imperial Nero, and their sunk Lugubrious aspect—pardon!—but you’re drunk, Drunk as a lackey when the master’s out! O kingly tears that down that regal snout Pour salty love upon a mother’s breast! So shall her timid doubts be lulled to rest!
(_Bustle within as of many rising to their feet._)
They rise! The prologue’s ended—now the play!
(_He gets down from urn and goes off toward sea._)
Make way for Caesar! Ho! Make way! Make way!
(_The musicians within strike up a martial strain. After a few moments, within the hall appear Nero and Agrippina, arm in arm, approaching the flight of steps. Nero is robed in a tunic of the color of amethyst, with a winged harp embroidered on the front. He is crowned with a laurel wreath, now askew in his disordered hair. Agrippina wears a robe of maroon without decoration. Nero endeavors to preserve the semblance of supporting his mother, but in fact is supported by her, while he caresses her with considerable extravagance. They pause half way down the steps, and the music within changes to a low melancholy air._)
(_Lifting her face to the moon seaward._)
How fair a moon to crown our happy revel!
(_Gazing blankly at the moon._)
Eh? Veil the hussy!
She’s a devil!
(_Placing a loving arm closer about Nero._)
Just such a night ‘twas, Lucius—you remember?— When Claudius’ spirit like a smouldering ember Struggled ‘twixt flame and ash—do you forget?
Ha ha—‘twas snuffed—ho ho!
(_Stroking his hair._)
‘Twas then I set The imperial circlet here; ‘twas then I cloaked My boy with world-robes!
(_Still staring at moon and pointing unsteadily._)
Have that vixen choked! Her staring makes me stagger—where’s her veil?
It all comes back like an enchanted tale— The moon set and the sun rose—
Dead and gone— The sun set and the moon rose—
Nay, at dawn The blear flame died, the new flame blossomed up.
Did someone drop a poison in my cup? The windless sea crawls moaning—
(_They move slowly down stairs, Nero clinging to his mother._)
Son of mine, Cast off the evil humors of the wine! I am so happy and was so forlorn! Ah, not another night since you were born Has flung such purple through me! Son—at last The haggard hours that parted us are past; I’ve wept my tears and have no more to shed! I live—I live—I live! And I was dead.
Dead—dead—what ails the sea—‘tis going red—
(_Laughter in banquet hall._)
Who’s laughing?—Mother—scourge them from the place! Who gave the moon Poppaea’s dizzy face To scare the sea?
Your message gave me life! Ah, Lucius, not for us to mar with strife A world so made for loving! Lucius dear, I was too harsh, perhaps; the fault is here.
(_Places hand on heart._)
(_Staring into his mother’s eyes._)
Too harsh perhaps—
Yea, so we mothers err: Too long we see our babies as they were, And last of all the world confess them tall. They stride so far—we shudder lest they fall— They toddle yet. And she who bears a son Shall be two women ever after; one The fountain of a seaward cooing stream, And one the shrouded virgin of a dream Whom no man wooes, whose heart, a muted lyre, Pines with a wild but unconfessed desire For him who—never understands, my son! I’ll be all fountain—kill that other one!
That other one—
Oh, like a wind of Spring Wooing the sere grave of a buried thing, Your summons came! Such happy tendrils creep Out of me, in that old ache rooted deep, To blossom sunward greener for the sorrow. And, O my Emperor, if on the morrow Your heart could soften toward that gentle one, That frail white lily pining for the sun, Octavia, your patient little wife, Smile, smile upon that flower and give it life! Make of my Lucius emperor in truth, Not Passion’s bondman! ‘Tis the way of youth To drive wild stallions with too slack a rein Toward fleeing goals no fleetness can attain! Oh splendid speed that fails for lack of fear! The grip of iron makes the charioteer! The lyric fury heeds the master beat And is the freer for its shackled feet! You who are Law shall be more free than others By seeming less so, Lucius.
Best of mothers, Tomorrow—yes, tomorrow—Mother, stay! You must not go so far, so far away!
Only to Bauli.
(_They have reached the extreme right of stage. The guests now begin to come out of banquet hall, scattering a rippling laughter. Nero is aroused by the merry sound, looks back, gathers himself together with a start._)
Ah! The moon is bright! The sea is still! We’ll banquet every night, Shall we not, Mother? Certain cares of state Weigh heavily—‘tis awful to be great— Nay, terrible at times! Can I be ill? It seemed the sea moaned—yet ‘tis very still! Mother, my Mother—kiss me! Let us go Down to the galley—so.
(_They pass out toward the sea, Nero caressing his mother. The guests now throng down the steps into the courtyard. They are in various states of intoxication. Many are dressed to represent mythological figures: Fauns and Satyrs; Bacchus crowned with grape leaves, wearing a leopard skin on his shoulders; six Bacchantes; Psyche with wings; Luna in a spangled tunic with silver horns in her hair; Mercury with winged sandals and the caduceus; Neptune in an emerald robe, crowned and bearing the trident; Iris, rainbow-clad; Silenus. Some are dressed in brilliant oriental garments. There are Senators in broad bordered togas with half moons embroidered on their sandals; Pages dressed as Cupids and infant Bacchi; Officers of the Praetorian Guard in military uniform. Turbaned, half nude Numidian slaves, with bronze rings in their ears, come trotting in with litters, attended by torchbearers. Some of the guests depart in the litters. The music continues in banquet hall._)
(_Staggering against Luna._)
Who’d be a sailor when great Neptune staggers Dashed in the Moon’s face!—Calm me, gentle Luna, And silver me with kisses!
(_Fleeing from his outstretched arms, but regarding him invitingly over her shoulder._)
Fie, you wine-skin! A hiccough’s not a tempest! Lo, I glide, Treading a myriad stars!
(_Neptune follows with a rolling gait._)
(_Looking after them as they disappear._)
Roll, eager Tide! Methinks ere long the wooing moon shall fall!
(_Those near laugh._)
(_To Second Senator._)
Was Nero acting, think you?
Not at all. ‘Twas staged, no doubt, but—
Softly, lest they hear!
The mimic is in mimicry sincere— The rôle absorbed the actor. So he wept.
(_They pass on, talking low._)
A PRAETORIAN OFFICER
(_To Psyche leaning on his arm._)
Was it a vision, Psyche? Have I slept? By the pink-nippled Cyprian, I swear Our Caesar knows a woman! Gods! That hair! Spun from the bowels of Ophir!
Who’s so fair?
She?—A Circe, queen of hogs! A cross-road Hecate, bayed at by the dogs! A morbid Itch—
—strutting in a cloak Of what she has not, virtue!
Ha! You joke! All cloaks are ruses, fashioned to reveal What all possess, pretending to conceal— Who’d love a Psyche else?
(_They pass on._)
(_To a Satyr who supports her._)
A clever wile Her veil is! Ah, we women must beguile The stupid male by seeming to withhold What’s dross, displayed, but, guarded well, is gold! Faugh! Hunger sells it and the carter buys!
Consume me with the lightning of her eyes! She’s Aphrodite!
Helen, then! A peep behind that veil, and once again The sword-flung music of the fighting men, Voluptuous ruin and wild battle joy, The swooning ache and rapture that was Troy! Delirious doom!
O Sorcery of Night! We’re all one woman in the morning light!
No, I rend the veil in twain!
(They mingle with the throng.)
(_To a Naval Officer._)
The wind veers and the moon seems on the wane! What bodes it—reinstatement for the Queen?
No seaman knows the wind and moon you mean; Yet land were safer when those signs concur!
(_They pass on._)
(_To a Bacchante._)
‘Twould rouse compassion in a toad, and stir A wild boar’s heart with pity!
(_Placing a warning hand on his mouth._)
Could you not feel the hidden gorgon stare The venom of her laughter dripping slow?
(_The musicians from within, having followed the departing throng from the banquet hall, and having stationed themselves on the steps, now strike up a wild Bacchic air._)
(_Swinging into the dance._)
Bacchantes, wreathe the dance!
(_From various parts of the throng._)
Io, Bacche! Io!
(_Pirouetting to the music, they assemble, circling about Bacchus, joining hands and singing. When the song is finished, the circle breaks, the dancers wheel, facing outward. Bacchus endeavors to kiss a Bacchante who regards him with head thrown back. The dance music becomes more abandoned, and the Bacchante flees, pursued by Bacchus, who reels as he dances. All the other Bacchantes follow, weaving in and out between pursuer and pursued. The throng laughingly makes way for them. At length the pursued Bacchante flings off in a mad whirl toward the grove in the background, followed by Bacchus and the Bacchantes. Fauns and Satyrs now take up the dance and join in the pursuit. The throng follows eagerly, enjoying the spectacle. All disappear among the trees. Laughter in the distance, growing dimmer. The musicians withdraw into the villa and disappear, their music dying out. The lights go out in the banquet hall. The stage is now lit by the moon alone, save for the draughty lamps within the pillared hall._
_After a period of silence, re-enter Nero, walking backward from the direction of the sea toward which he gazes._)
Dimmer—dimmer—dimmer— A shadow melting in a moony shimmer Down the bleak seaways dwindling to that shore Where no heaved anchor drips forevermore Nor winds breathe music in the homing sail: But over sunless hill and fruitless vale, Gaunt spectres drag the age-long discontent And ponder what this brief, bright moment meant— The loving—and the dreaming—and the laughter. Ah, ships that vanish take what never after Returning ships may carry. Dawn shall flare, Make bloom the terraced gardens of the air For all the world but Lucius. He shall see The haunted hollow of Infinity Gray in the twilight of a heart’s eclipse. With our own wishes woven into whips The jealous gods chastise us!—I’m alone! About the transient brilliance of my throne The giddy moths flit briefly in the glow; But when at last that light shall flicker low, A taper guttering in a gust of doom, What hand shall grope for Nero’s in the gloom, What fond eyes shed the fellows of his tears? She bore her heart these many troublous years Before me, like a shield. And she is dead. Her hand ‘twas set the crown upon my head; Her heart’s blood dyed the kingly robe for me. Dank seaweed crowns her, and the bitter sea Enshrouds with realmless purple! Round and round, Swirled in the endless nightmare of the drowned, Her fond soul gropes for something vaguely dear That lures, eludes forever. Shapes that leer, Distorted Neros of a tortured sleep, Cry “_Mother, come to Baiae_.” Deep on deep The green death folds her and she can not come. Vague, gaping mouths that hunger and are dumb Mumble the tired heart so ripe with woe, Where night is but a black wind breathing low And daylight filters like a ghostly rain! _O Mother! Mother! Mother!_—
(_With arms extended, he stares seaward a moment, then covers his face, turns, and walks slowly toward entrance of villa._)
Vain, ‘tis vain! How shall one move an ocean with regret?
(_He has reached the steps and pauses._)
Ah, one hope lives in all this bleakness yet. Song!—Mighty Song the hurt of life assuages! This fateful night shall fill the vaulted ages With starry grief, and men unborn shall sing The mournful measure of the Ancient King! I’ll write an ode!
(_He stands for a moment, glorified with the thought._)
Great heart of Nero, strung Harplike, endure till this last song be sung, Then break—then break—
(_Turns and mounts the steps._)
Oh Fate, to be a bard! The way is hard, the way is very hard!
(_A dim outburst of laughter from the revellers in the distance._)
(_The same night. Nero’s private chamber in his villa at Baiae. Nero is discovered asleep in his state robes on a couch, where he has evidently thrown himself down, overcome by the stupor incident to the feast of the night. Beside the couch is a writing stand, bearing writing materials. A few lights burn dimly. Nero groans, cries out, and, as though terrified by a nightmare, sits up, trembling and staring upon some projected vision of his sleep. He is yet only half awake._)
Oh—oh—begone, blear thing!—She is not dead! You are not she—my mother!—Ghastly head— Trunkless—and oozing green gore like the sea, Wind-stabbed! Begone! Go—do not look at me— I will not be so tortured!—Eyes burned out With scorious hell-spew!—Locks that grope about To clutch and strangle!
(_He has got up from the couch and now struggles with something at his throat, still staring at the thing._)
(_In an outburst of terrified tenderness extends his arms as toward a woman._)
Mother—mother—come Into these arms—speak to me—be not dumb! Stare not so wildly—kiss me as of old! Be flesh again—warm flesh! Oh green and cold As the deep grave they gave you! ‘Twas not I! Mother, ‘twas not my will that you should die— ‘Twas hers!—I hate her! Mother, pity me! Oh, is it you?—Sole goddess of the sea I shall proclaim you! Pity! I shall pour The hot blood of your foes on every shore, A huge libation! Hers shall be the first! I swear it! May my waking be accursed, My sleep a-swarm with furies if I err!
(_He has advanced a short distance toward what he sees, but now shrinks back burying his face in his robe._)
Go!—Spare me!—Guards! Guards!
(_Three soldiers, who have been standing guard without the chamber, rush in and stand at attention._)
Seize and shackle her! There ‘tis!—eh?
(_He stares blankly, rubs his eyes._)
It is gone!
(_Blinks at soldiers, and cries petulantly._)
What do you here?
Great Caesar summoned us.
(_Glancing nervously about._)
The night is blear— Make lights! I will not have these shadow things Crawling about me! Poisoners of kings Fatten on shadows! Quick there, dog-eyed scamp, Lean offal-sniffer! Kindle every lamp!
(_Soldier tremblingly takes a lamp and lights a number of others with its flame. Stage is flooded with light._)
By the bronze beard I swear there shall be lights Enough hereafter, though I purge the nights With conflagrating cities, till the crash Of Rome’s last tower beat up the smouldering ash Of Rome’s last city! So—I breathe again! Some cunning, faceless god who hated men Devised this curse of darkness! What’s the hour?
The third watch wanes.
Too late! Too late! The power Of Nero Caesar can not stay the sun! The stars have marched against me—it is done! And all Rome’s legions could not rout this swarm Of venom-footed moments! —She was warm One little lost eternity ago.
(_With awakening resolution._)
‘Twas not my deed! I did not wish it so! Some demon, aping Caesar, gave the word While Lucius Aenobarbus’ eyes were blurred With too much beauty! Oh, it shall be done! Ere these unmothered eyes behold the sun, She shall have vengeance, and that gift is mine!
(_To First Soldier._)
Rouse the Praetorians! Bid a triple line Be flung about the palace!
(_To Second Soldier._)
Send me wine— Strong wine to nerve a resolution!
(_To Third Soldier._)
You— Summon Poppaea!
(_The Soldiers go out._)
This deed I mean to do Unties the snarl, but broken is the thread. Would that the haughty blood these hands will shed Might warm my mother! that the breath I crush— So—(_clutching air_) from that throat of sorceries, might rush Into the breast that loved and nurtured me! The heart of Nero shivers in the sea, And Rome is lorn of pity! Could the world And all her crawling spawn this night be hurled Into one woman’s form, with eyes to shed Rivers of scalding woe, her towering head Jeweled with realms aflare, with locks of smoke, Huge nerves to suffer, and a neck to choke— That woman were Poppaea! I would rear About the timeless sea, my mother’s bier, A sky-roofed desolation groined with awe, Where, nightly drifting in the stream of law, The vestal stars should tend their fires, and weep To hear upon the melancholy deep That shipless wind, her ghost, amid the hush! Alas! I have but one white throat to crush With these world-hungry fingers!
(_From behind Nero, enter Page—a little boy—bearing a goblet of wine on a salver. Nero turns, startled._)
I bring wine, mighty Caesar.
(_Nero passes his hand across his face, and the expression of fright leaves._)
So you do— I saw—the boy Brittanicus!—One sees— _Things_—does one not?—such eerie nights as these?
(_With eager boyish earnestness._)
With woozy heads?
(_The Page, startled, presents the salver, from which Nero takes the goblet with unsteady hand. Page is in the act of fleeing._)
(_Page stops and turns tremblingly._)
Never dare Again to look like—anyone! Beware!
(_Page’s head shakes a timid negative. Nero stares into goblet and muses._)
Blood’s red too. Ah, a woman is the grape Ripe for the vintage, from whose flesh agape Glad feet tonight shall stamp the hated ooze! It boils!—See!—like some witch’s pot that brews Venomous ichor!—Nay—some angry ghost Hurls bloody breakers on a bleeding coast!— _’Tis poisoned!—Out, Locusta’s brat!_
(_Hurls goblet at Page, who flees precipitately._)
‘Twas she! The hand that flung my mother to the sea Now pours me death! Alas, great Hercules Too long has plied the distaff at the knees Of Omphale, spinning a thread of woe! Was ever king of story driven so By unrelenting Fate? Lo, round on round The slow coils grip and choke—a mother drowned, Her wrathful spirit rising from the dead— A gentle wife outcast, discredited, With sighs to wake the dread Eumenides! Some thunder-hearted, vaster Sophocles, His aeon-beating blood the stellar stream, Has flung on me the mantle of his dream, And Nero grapples Fate! O wondrous play! With smoking brand aloft, the haggard Day Gropes for the world! Pursued by subtle foes, Superbly tragic ‘mid a storm of woes, The fury-hunted Caesar takes the cue! One time-outstaring deed remains to do, Then let the pit howl—Caesar sings no more! Go ask the battered wreckage on the shore Who sought his mother in a sudden sleep, To be with her forever on the deep A twin ship-hating tempest!
(_Enter Anicetus excitedly._)
Lost! We’re lost! The Roman ship yaws rock-ward tempest-tossed And Nero is but Lucius in the wreck!
Croak on! Each croak’s a dagger in that neck, You vulture with the hideous dripping beak, The clutching tearing talons that now reek With what dear sacred veins!
O Caesar, hear! So keen the news I bear you, that I fear To loose it like the arrow it must be. I know not why such wrath you heap on me; I know what peril deepens ‘round my lord; How, riven by the lightning of the sword, The doom-voiced blackness labors round his head!
Say what I know, that my poor mother’s dead— So shall your life be briefer!
Would ‘t were so!
(_A light coming into his face._)
Yea, lives—and lives to overthrow!
—And her living is our death!
She moves and breathes?
—And potent is her breath To blow rebellion up!
(_Rubbing his eyes._)
Still do I sleep? Is this a taunting dream that I may weep More bitterly? Or some new foul intrigue?
‘Tis bitter fact to her who swam a league, And bitter fact to Nero shall it be! At Bauli now, still dripping from the sea, She crouches snarling!
(_In an outburst of joy._)
Oh, you shall not die, My best-loved Anicetus! Though you lie, Sweeter these words are than profoundest truth! They breathe the fresh, white morning of my youth Upon the lampless night that smothered me! O more than human Sea That spared my mother that her son might live! What bounty can I give? I—Caesar—falter beggared at this gift Of living words that lift My mother from the regions of the dead! Ah—I shall set a crown upon your head, Snip you a kingdom from Rome’s flowing robe! I’ll temple you in splendors! Yea, I’ll probe Your secret heart to know what wishes pant In wingless yearning there, that I may grant!
(_Pause, while Anicetus regards Nero with gloomy face._)
What sight thus makes your face a pool of gloom?
The ghost of Nero crying from his tomb!
Even so I said. The doomed to perish are already dead Who woo not Fate with swift unerring deeds! That breathless moment when the tigress bleeds Is ours to strike in, ere the tigress spring! What could it boot your servant to be king While any moment may the trumpets cry, Hailing the certain hour when we shall die— Caesar, the deaf, and his untrusted slave? Peer deep, peer deep into this yawning grave And tell me who shall fill it!—Wind and fire, Harnessed with thrice the ghost of her dead sire, Your mother is tonight! She knows, she knows How galleys founder when no tempest blows And moonlight slumbers on a glassy deep! The beast our wound has wakened shall not sleep Till it be gorged with slaughter, or be slain! Lull not your heart, O Caesar! It is vain To dream this cub-lorn tigress will not turn. Lo, flaring through the dawn I see her burn, A torch of revolution! Hear her raise The legions with a voice of other days, Worded with pangs to fret their ancient scars! And every sword-wound of her father’s wars Will shriek aloud with pity!
(_During Anicetus’ speech he has shown growing fear._)
Listen!—There! You heard it?—Did you hear a trumpet blare?
‘Tis but the shadow of a sound to be One rushing hour away!
Where shall I flee?— I, the sad poet whom she made a king! At last we flesh the ghost of what we sing— We bards!—I sang Orestes.
(_His face softens with a gentler thought._)
Ah—I’ll go To my poor heartsick mother. Tears shall flow, The tears of Lucius, not imperial tears. I’ll heap on her the vast, too vast arrears Of filial love. The Senate shall proclaim My mother regnant with me—write her name Beside Augustus with the demigods! Yea, lictors shall attend her with the rods, And massed Praetorians tramp the rabble down Whene’er her chariot flashes through the town! One should be kind to mothers.
Yea, and be Kind to the senseless fury of the sea, Fondle the tempest in a rotten boat!
What would you, Anicetus?
Cut her throat!
(_Nero gasps and shrinks from Anicetus._)
No, no!—her ghost!—one can not stab so deep— One can not kill these tortures spawned of sleep! No, no—one can not kill them with a sword!
Faugh! One good thrust—the rest is air, my lord!
(_Enter Page timorously. Nero turns upon him._)
Spare me, good Caesar!—Agerinus—
Go! Bid Agerinus enter!
(_Page flees. Nero to Anicetus menacingly._)
We shall know What breath from what damned throat tonight shall hiss!
(_Enter Agerinus, bowing low._)
My mistress sends fond greetings and a kiss To her most noble son, and bids me say, She rests and would not see him until day. The royal galley, through unhappy chance, Struck rock and foundered; but no circumstance So meagre might deprive a son so dear Of his beloved mother! Have no fear, The long swim leaves her weary, but quite well. She knows what tender love her son would tell And yearns for dawn to bring him to her side.
So! Spell your doom from that! You lied! You lied! I’ll lance that hateful fester in your throat! Yea, we shall prove who rides the rotten boat And supplicates the tempest!
(_With a rapid motion, Nero draws Agerinus’ sword from its sheath. Anicetus shrinks back. Nero cries to Agerinus._)
Wait to see The loving message you bear back from me!
(_Nero brandishing the sword, makes at Anicetus. As he is about to deliver the stroke, enter Poppaea from behind. She has evidently been quite leisurely about her toilet, being dressed gorgeously; and wearing her accustomed half-veil. Her manner is stately and composed. She approaches slowly. Nero stops suddenly in the act to strike Anicetus, and stares upon the beautiful apparition. Anger leaves his face, which changes as though he had seen a great light._)
My Nero longed for me?
(_Nero with his free hand brushes his eyes in perplexity._)
I—can not—tell— What—‘twas—I wished—I wished—
Ah, very well.
(_She walks slowly on across the stage. Nero stares blankly after her. The sword drops from his hand. As Poppaea disappears, he rouses suddenly as from a stupor._)
(_Three soldiers enter. Nero points to Agerinus._)
There—seize that wretch who came to kill Imperial Caesar!
(_Agerinus is seized. Nero turns to Anicetus._)
Hasten! Do your will!
(_Nero turns, and with an eager expression on his face, goes doddering after Poppaea._)
(_The same night. Agrippina’s private chamber in her villa at Bauli near Baiae. There is one lamp in the room. At the center back is a broad door closed with heavy hangings. At the right is an open window through which the moonlight falls. Agrippina is discovered lying on a couch. One maid, Nina, is in attendance and is arranging Agrippina’s hair._)
He was so tender—what should kindness mean?
(_The maid seems not to hear._)
I spoke!—you heard me speak?
I heard, my Queen.
And deemed my voice some ghostly summer wind Fit for autumnal hushes? He was kind! Was ever breath in utterance better spent?
Your slave could scarcely fancy whom you meant, There are so many tender to the great.
When all the world is one sky-circled state, Pray, who shall fill it as the sun the sky? The mother of that mighty one am I— And he caressed me! I shall feel no pain Forever now. So, drenched with winter rain, The friendless marshland knows the boyish South And shivers into color! On the mouth He kissed me, as before that other came— That Helen of the stews, that corpse aflame With lust for life, that— Ah, he maidened me! What dying wind could sway so tall a tree With such proud music? I shall be again That darkling whirlwind down the fields of men, That dart unloosed, barbed keenly for his sake, That living sword for him to wield or break, But never sheathe!
(_Lifts herself on elbow._)
O Nina, let me be Robed as the Queen I am in verity! Robed as a victrix home from splendid wars, Whom, ‘mid the rumble of spoil-laden cars Trundled by harnessed kings, the trumpets hail! Let quiet garments be for those who fail, Mourning a world ill-lost with meek surrenders! I would flare bright ‘mid Death’s unhuman splendors, Dazzle the moony hollows of the dead! Ah no—
(_Arising and going to window._)
I shall not die yet.
(_Parts the curtains and gazes out._)
‘Tis the dread Still clinging from the clutches of the sea, That living, writhing horror! Ugh! O’er me Almost I feel the liquid terror crawl! Through glassy worlds of tortured sleep to fall, Where winds blow not, nor mornings ever blush, But green, cold, ghastly light-wraiths wander—
(_Turning from window with nervous anger._)
(_Turns again to window; after pause, continues musingly._)
She battles in a surf of spectral fire. No—like some queen upon a funeral pyre, Gasping, she withers in a fever swoon. Had she a son too?
(_Approaching the window._)
Who, O Queen?
The moon! See, she is strangled in a noose of pearl! What tell-tale scars she has! —Look yonder, girl— Your eyes are younger—by the winding sea Where Baiae glooms and blanches; it may be Old eyes betray not, but some horsemen take The white road winding hither by the lake.
The way lies plain—I see no moving thing.
Why thus is Agerinus loitering? For he was ever true.
Ah foolish head! My heart knows how my son shall come instead, My little Lucius! Even now he leaps Into the saddle and the dull way creeps Beneath the spurred impatience of his horse, He longs so for me!
(_Pause—She scans the moonlit country._)
Shrouded like a corse, Hoarding a mother’s secret, lies the sea; And Capri, like a giant Niobe, Outgazes Fate! O sweet, too gentle lies And kisses sword-like! Would the sun might rise No more on Baiae! Would that earth might burst Spewing blear doom upon this world accursed With truth too big for hiding! See! He sleeps Beside her, and the shame-dimmed lamp-light creeps Across her wine-stained mouth—so red—so red— Like mother blood!—See! hissing round her head Foul hate-fanged vipers that he calls her hair! Ah no—beyond all speaking is she fair! Sweet as a sword-wound in a gasping foe Her mouth is; and too well, too well I know Her face is dazzling as a funeral flame Battened on queen’s flesh!
(_Turning angrily from window._)
Oh the blatant shame! The bungling drunkard’s plot!—Tonight, tonight I shall swoop down upon them by the light Of naked steel! Faugh! Had it come to that? Had Rome no sword, that like a drowning rat The mother of a king should meet her end? What Gallic legion would not call me friend? Did they not love Germanicus, my sire? Oh, I will rouse the cohorts, scattering fire Till all Rome blaze rebellion!
(_She has advanced to a place beside the couch, stands in a defiant attitude for a moment, then covers her face with her hands and sinks to the couch._)
No, no, no— It could not be, I would not have it so! Not mine to burn the tower my hands have built! And somewhere ‘mid the shadows of his guilt My son is good.
(_Lifts herself on elbow._)
Look, Nina, toward the roofs Of sleeping Baiae. Say that eager hoofs Beat a white dust-cloud moonward.
(_Nina goes to window and peers out._)
Landward crawls A sea fog; Capri’s league-long shadow sprawls Lengthening toward us—soon the moon will set.
None, my Queen.
—And yet—and yet— He called me baby names. Ah, ghosts that wept Big tears down smiling faces, twined and crept About my heart, and still I feel their tears. They make me joyous.—After all these years, The little boy my heart so often dirged Shivered the man-husk, beardless, and emerged! He kissed my breasts and hung upon my going! Once more I felt the happy nurture flowing, The silvery, tingling shivers of delight! What though my end had come indeed tonight— I was a mother! —Have you children?
No, My Queen.
Yet you are winsome.
Lovers go Like wind, as lovers come; I am unwed.
How lonely shall you be among the dead Where hearts remember, but are lorn of hope! Poor girl! No dream of tiny hands that grope, And coaxing, hunting little mouths shall throw Brief glories ‘round you! Nina, I would go Like any brazen bawd along the street, Hailing the first stout carter I should meet, Ere I would perish childless! Though we nurse The cooing thing that some day hurls the curse, Forge from our hearts the matricidal sword, The act of loving is its own reward. We mothers need no pity! ‘Twill be said, When this brief war is done, and I am dead, That I was wanton, shameless—be it so! Unto the swarm of insect scribes I throw The puffed-up purple carcass of my name For them to feast on! Pointed keen with shame, How shall each busy little stylus bite A thing that feels not! I have fought my fight! That mine were but the weapons of the foe, Too well the ragged scars I bear can show. Oh, I have triumphed, and am ripe to die! About my going shall the trumpets cry Forever and forever! I can thread The twilit under-regions of the dead A radiant shadow with a heart that sings! Before the myriad mothers of great kings I shall lift up each livid spirit hand Spotted with blood—and they shall understand How small the price was!
(_The tramp of soldiery and the clatter of arms are heard from without. Nina, panic-stricken, runs to window, peers out, shrinks back, and, turning, flees by a side door._)
Why do you flee? Did I not say my son would come to me? ‘Tis Nero—Nero Caesar, Lord of Rome! My little boy grown tall is coming home!
(_She goes to window, peers out, shrinks back, then turns toward the door and sees three armed men standing there—Anicetus, the Captain of a Galley and a Centurion of the Navy. The men stare at her without moving._)
Why come you here?
To know my health?—Go tell My son, your master, I am very well— And happy—
(_The men make no reply. Agrippina straightens her body haughtily._)
—If like cowards in the night You come to stab a woman—
(_Drawing his sword and speaking to Captain._)
Snuff the light!
(_The men spring forward with drawn swords. Agrippina does not move. The light is stricken out._)
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
1. Added missing period to many stage directions to conform with majority practice in book. 2. Changed 'faneless' to 'faceless' on p. 54. 3. Silently corrected typographical errors. 4. Retained anachronistic and non-standard spellings as printed. 5. Enclosed italics font in _underscores_.