Fragmentary Scenes From The Road To Avernus - An Unpublished Dramatic Lyric

A poem by Adam Lindsay Gordon

Scene I
“Discontent”

LAURENCE RABY.

Laurence:
I said to young Allan M’Ilveray,
Beside the swift swirls of the North,
When, in lilac shot through with a silver ray,
We haul’d the strong salmon fish forth,
Said only, “He gave us some trouble
To land him, and what does he weigh?
Our friend has caught one that weighs double,
The game for the candle won’t pay
Us to-day,
We may tie up our rods and away.”

I said to old Norman M’Gregor,
Three leagues to the west of Glen Dhu,
I had drawn, with a touch of the trigger,
The best bead that ever I drew,
Said merely, “For birds in the stubble
I once had an eye, I could swear
He’s down, but he’s not worth the trouble
Of seeking. You once shot a bear
In his lair,
’Tis only a buck that lies there.”

I said to Lord Charles only last year,
The time that we topp’d the oak rail
Between Wharton’s plough and Whynne’s pasture,
And clear’d the big brook in Blakesvale,
We only, at Warburton’s double
He fell, then I finish’d the run
And kill’d clean, said, “So bursts a bubble
That shone half an hour in the sun,
What is won?
Your sire clear’d and captured a gun.”

I said to myself, in true sorrow,
I said yestere’en, “A fair prize
Is won, and it may be to-morrow
’Twill not seem so fair in thine eyes,
Real life is a race through sore trouble,
That gains not an inch on the goal,
And bliss an intangible bubble
That cheats an unsatisfied soul,
And the whole
Of the rest an illegible scroll.”



Scene VII
“Two Exhortations”

A Shooting-box in the West of Ireland. A Bedchamber.
LAURENCE RABY and MELCHIOR. Night.

Melchior:
Surely in the great beginning God made all things good, and still
That soul-sickness men call sinning entered not without His will.
Nay, our wisest have asserted that, as shade enhances light,
Evil is but good perverted, wrong is but the foil of right.
Banish sickness, then you banish joy for health to all that live;
Slay all sin, all good must vanish, good being but comparative.
Sophistry, you say, yet listen: look you skyward, there ’tis known
Worlds on worlds in myriads glisten, larger, lovelier than our own,
This has been, and this still shall be, here as there, in sun or star;
These things are to be and will be, those things were to be and are.
Man in man’s imperfect nature is by imperfection taught:
Add one cubit to your stature if you can by taking thought.

Laurence:
Thus you would not teach that peasant, though he calls you “father”.

Melchior:
True, I should magnify this present, mystify that future, too,
We adapt our conversation always to our hearer’s light.

Laurence:
I am not of your persuasion.

Melchior:
Yet the difference is but slight.

Laurence:
I, even I, say, “He who barters worldly weal for heavenly worth
He does well”, your saints and martyrs were examples here on earth.

Melchior:
Aye, in earlier Christian ages, while the heathen empire stood,
When the war ’twixt saints and sages cried aloud for saintly blood,
Christ was then their model truly. Now, if all were meek and pure,
Save the ungodly and the unruly, would the Christian Church endure?
Shall the toiler or the fighter dream by day and watch by night,
Turn the left cheek to the smiter, smitten rudely on the right?
Strong men must encounter bad men, so-called saints of latter days
Have been mostly pious madmen, lusting after righteous praise,
Or the thralls of superstition, doubtless worthy some reward,
Since they came by their condition hardly of their free accord.
’Tis but madness, sad and solemn, that these fakir-Christians feel,
Saint Stylites on his column gratified a morbid zeal.

Laurence:
By your showing, good is really on a par (of worth) with ill.

Melchior:
Nay, I said not so; I merely tell you both some ends fulfil,
Priestly vows were my vocation, fast and vigil wait for me.
You must work and face temptation. Never should the strong man flee,
Though God wills the inclination with the soul at war to be. (Pauses.)
In the strife ’twixt flesh and spirit, while you can the spirit aid.
Should you fall not less your merit, be not for a fall afraid.
Whatsoe’er most right, most fit is you shall do. When all is done
Chaunt the noble Nunc Dimittis, Benedicimur, my son.
[Exit MELCHIOR.]

Laurence (alone):
Why do I provoke these wrangles? Melchior talks (as well he may)
With the tongues of men and angels.
(Takes up a pamphlet.) What has this man got to say?
(Reads.) Sic sacerdos fatur (ejus nomen quondam erat Burgo.)
Mala mens est, caro pejus, anima infirma, ergo
I nunc, ora, sine mora, orat etiam Sancta Virgo.
(Thinks.)
(Speaks.) So it seems they mean to make her wed the usurer, Nathan Lee.
Poor Estelle! her friends forsake her; what has this to do with me?
Glad I am, at least, that Helen still refuses to discard
Her, through tales false gossips tell in spite or heedlessness., ’Tis hard!,
Lee, the Levite!, some few years back Herbert horsewhipp’d him, the cur
Show’d his teeth and laid his ears back. Now his wealth has purchased her.
Must his baseness mar her brightness? Shall the callous, cunning churl
Revel in the rosy whiteness of that golden-headed girl?
(Thinks and smokes.)
(Reads.) Cito certe venit vitae finis (sic sacerdos fatur),
Nunc audite omnes, ite, vobis fabula narratur
Nunc orate et laudate, laudat etiam Alma Mater.
(Muses.) Such has been, and such shall still be, here as there, in sun or star;
These things are to be and will be, those things were to be and are.
If I thought that speech worth heeding I should, Nay, it seems to me
More like Satan’s special pleading than like Gloria Domine.
(Lies down on his couch.)
(Reads.) Et tuquoque frater meus facta mala quod fecisti
Denique confundit Deus omnes res quas tetegisti.
Nunc si unquam, nunc aut nunquam, sanguine adjuro Christi.



Scene IX
“In the Garden”

Aylmer’s Garden, near the Lake. LAURENCE RABY and ESTELLE.

He:
Come to the bank where the boat is moor’d to the willow-tree low;
Bertha, the baby, won’t notice, Brian, the blockhead, won’t know.

She:
Bertha is not such a baby, sir, as you seem to suppose;
Brian, a blockhead he may be, more than you think for he knows.

He:
This much, at least, of your brother, from the beginning he knew
Somewhat concerning that other made such a fool of by you.

She:
Firmer those bonds were and faster, Frank was my spaniel, my slave.
You! you would fain be my master; mark you! the difference is grave.

He:
Call me your spaniel, your starling, take me and treat me as these,
I would be anything, darling! aye, whatsoever you please.
Brian and Basil are “punting”, leave them their dice and their wine,
Bertha is butterfly hunting, surely one hour shall be mine.
See, I have done with all duty; see, I can dare all disgrace,
Only to look at your beauty, feasting my eyes on your face.

She:
Look at me, aye, till your eyes ache! How, let me ask, will it end?
Neither for your sake, nor my sake, but for the sake of my friend?

He:
Is she your friend then? I own it, this is all wrong, and the rest,
Frustra sed anima monet, caro quod fortius est.

She:
Not quite so close, Laurence Raby, not with your arm round my waist;
Something to look at I may be, nothing to touch or to taste.

He:
Wilful as ever and wayward; why did you tempt me, Estelle?

She:
You misinterpret each stray word, you for each inch take an ell.
Lightly all laws and ties trammel me, I am warn’d for all that.

He (aside):
Perhaps she will swallow her camel when she has strained at her gnat.

She:
Therefore take thought and consider, weigh well, as I do, the whole,
You for mere beauty a bidder, say, would you barter a soul?

He:
Girl! That may happen, but this is; after this welcome the worst;
Blest for one hour by your kisses, let me be evermore curs’d.
Talk not of ties to me reckless, here every tie I discard,
Make me your girdle, your necklace,

She:
Laurence, you kiss me too hard.


He:
Aye, ’Tis the road to Avernus, n’est ce pas vrai donc, ma belle?
There let them bind us or burn us, mais le jeu vaut la chandelle.
Am I your lord or your vassal? Are you my sun or my torch?
You, when I look at you, dazzle, yet when I touch you, you scorch.

She:
Yonder are Brian and Basil watching us fools from the porch.



Scene X
“After the Quarrel”

Laurence Raby’s Chamber. LAURENCE enters, a little the worse for liquor.

Laurence:
He never gave me a chance to speak,
And he call’d her, worse than a dog,
The girl stood up with a crimson cheek,
And I fell’d him there like a log.

I can feel the blow on my knuckles yet,
He feels it more on his brow.
In a thousand years we shall all forget
The things that trouble us now.



Scene XI
“Ten Paces Off”

An open country.
LAURENCE RABY and FORREST, BRIAN AYLMER and PRESCOT.

Forrest:
I’ve won the two tosses from Prescot;
Now hear me, and hearken and heed,
And pull that vile flower from your waistcoat,
And throw down that beast of a weed;
I’m going to give you the signal
I gave Harry Hunt at Boulogne,
The morning he met Major Bignell,
And shot him as dead as a stone;
For he must look round on his right hand
To watch the white flutter, that stops
His aim, for it takes off his sight, and
I cough while the handkerchief drops.
And you keep both eyes on his figure,
Old fellow, and don’t take them off.
You’ve got the sawhandled hair trigger,
You sight him and shoot when I cough.

Laurence (aside):
Though God will never forgive me,
Though men make light of my name,
Though my sin and my shame outlive me,
I shall not outlast my shame.
The coward, does he mean to miss me?
His right hand shakes like a leaf;
Shall I live for my friends to hiss me,
Of fools and of knaves the chief?
Shall I live for my foes to twit me?
He has master’d his nerve again,
He is firm, he will surely hit me,
Will he reach the heart or the brain?
One long look eastward and northward,
One prayer, “Our Father which art”,
And the cough chimes in with the fourth word,
And I shoot skyward, the heart.



Last Scene
“Exeunt”

HELEN RABY.

Where the grave-deeps rot, where the grave-dews rust,
They dug, crying, “Earth to earth”,
Crying, “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust”,
And what are my poor prayers worth?
Upon whom shall I call, or in whom shall I trust,
Though death were indeed new birth.

And they bid me be glad for my baby’s sake
That she suffered sinless and young,
Would they have me be glad when my breasts still ache
Where that small, soft, sweet mouth clung?
I am glad that the heart will so surely break
That has been so bitterly wrung.

He was false, they tell me, and what if he were?
I can only shudder and pray,
Pouring out my soul in a passionate prayer
For the soul that he cast away;
Was there nothing that once was created fair
In the potter’s perishing clay?

Is it well for the sinner that souls endure?
For the sinless soul is it well?
Does the pure child lisp to the angels pure?
And where does the strong man dwell,
If the sad assurance of priests be sure,
Or the tale that our preachers tell?

The unclean has follow’d the undefiled,
And the ill may regain the good,
And the man may be even as the little child!
We are children lost in the wood,
Lord! lead us out of this tangled wild,
Where the wise and the prudent have been beguil’d,
And only the babes have stood.

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