(France -- Ancient Regime.)
by Stephen Vincent Benet
Go away; I will not confess to you!
His black biretta clings like a hangman's cap; under his twitching fingers the beads shiver and click,
As he mumbles in his corner, the shadow deepens upon him;
I will not confess! . . .
Is he there or is it intenser shadow?
Dark huddled coilings from the obscene depths,
Black, formless shadow,
Doors creak; from secret parts of the chateau come the scuffle and worry of rats.
Orange light drips from the guttering candles,
Eddying over the vast embroideries of the bed
Stirring the monstrous tapestries,
Retreating before the sable impending gloom of the canopy
With a swift thrust and sparkle of gold,
Lipping my hands,
Rippling back abashed before the ominous silences
Like the swift turns and starts of an overpowered fencer
Who sees before him Horror
Behind him darkness,
The clock jars and strikes, a thin, sudden note like the sob of a child.
Clock, buhl clock that ticked out the tortuous hours of my birth,
Clock, evil, wizened dwarf of a clock, how many years of agony have you relentlessly measured,
Yardstick of my stifling shroud?
I am Aumaury de Montreuil; once quick, soon to be eaten of worms.
You hear, Father? Hsh, he is asleep in the night's cloak.
Over me too steals sleep.
Sleep like a white mist on the rotting paintings of cupids and gods on the ceiling;
Sleep on the carven shields and knots at the foot of the bed,
Oozing, blurring outlines, obliterating colors,
Father, Father, I must not sleep!
It does not hear -- that shadow crouched in the corner . . .
Is it a shadow?
One might think so indeed, save for the calm face, yellow as wax, that lifts like the face of a drowned man from the choking darkness.
Out of the drowsy fog my body creeps back to me.
It is the white time before dawn.
Moonlight, watery, pellucid, lifeless, ripples over the world.
The grass beneath it is gray; the stars pale in the sky.
The night dew has fallen;
An infinity of little drops, crystals from which all light has been taken,
Glint on the sighing branches.
All is purity, without color, without stir, without passion.
Suddenly a peacock screams.
My heart shocks and stops;
Sweat, cold corpse-sweat
Covers my rigid body.
My hair stands on end. I cannot stir. I cannot speak.
It is terror, terror that is walking the pale sick gardens
And the eyeless face no man may see and live!
Father, Father, wake! wake and save me!
In his corner all is shadow.
Dead things creep from the ground.
It is so long ago that she died, so long ago!
Dust crushes her, earth holds her, mold grips her.
Fiends, do you not know that she is dead? . . .
"Let us dance the pavon!" she said; the waxlights glittered like swords on the polished floor.
Twinkling on jewelled snuffboxes, beaming savagely from the crass gold of candelabra,
From the white shoulders of girls and the white powdered wigs of men . . .
All life was that dance.
The mocking, resistless current,
The beauty, the passion, the perilous madness --
As she took my hand, released it and spread her dresses like petals,
Turning, swaying in beauty,
A lily, bowed by the rain, --
Moonlight she was, and her body of moonlight and foam,
And her eyes stars.
Oh the dance has a pattern!
But the clear grace of her thrilled through the notes of the viols,
Tremulous, pleading, escaping, immortal, untamed,
And, as we ended,
She blew me a kiss from her hand like a drifting white blossom --
And the starshine was gone; and she fled like a bird up the stair.
Underneath the window a peacock screams,
And claws click, scrape
Like little lacquered boots on the rough stone.
Oh the long fantasy of the kiss; the ceaseless hunger, ceaselessly, divinely appeased!
The aching presence of the beloved's beauty!
The wisdom, the incense, the brightness!
Once more on the ice-bright floor they danced the pavon
But I turned to the garden and her from the lighted candles.
Softly I trod the lush grass between the black hedges of box.
Softly, for I should take her unawares and catch her arms,
And embrace her, dear and startled.
By the arbor all the moonlight flowed in silver
And her head was on his breast.
She did not scream or shudder
When my sword was where her head had lain
In the quiet moonlight;
But turned to me with one pale hand uplifted,
All her satins fiery with the starshine,
Nacreous, shimmering, weeping, iridescent,
Like the quivering plumage of a peacock . . .
Then her head drooped and I gripped her hair,
Oh soft, scented cloud across my fingers! --
Bending her white neck back. . . .
Blood writhed on my hands; I trod in blood. . . .
At that crumpled heap of silk and moonlight,
Where like twitching pinions, an arm twisted,
Palely, and was still
As the face of chalk.
The buhl clock strikes.
Thirty years. Christ, thirty years!
Something stirs in the window,
Shattering the moonlight.
White wings fan.
All its plumage fiery with the starshine,
Nacreous, shimmering, weeping, iridescent,
It drifts across the floor and mounts the bed,
To the tap of little satin shoes.
Gazing with infernal eyes.
Its quick beak thrusting, rending, devil's crimson . . .
Screams, great tortured screams shake the dark canopy.
The light flickers, the shadow in the corner stirs;
The wax face lifts; the eyes open.
A thin trickle of blood worms darkly against the vast red coverlet and spreads to a pool on the floor.