The Mandolin

by Eugene Lee-Hamilton

Eugene Lee-Hamilton

Sit nearer to my bed.
Have I been rambling? I can ill command
The sequence of my thoughts, though words come fast.
A fire is in my head
And in my veins, like hell's own flame fast fanned.
No sleep for eighty nights. It cannot last.
The Pope ere long, perhaps ere close of day,
Will have a scarlet hat to give away.

Good priest, dost hear a sound,
A faint far sound as of a mandolin?
Thou hearest naught? Well, well; it matters not.
I, who was to be crowned
At the next Conclave! I was safe to win;
And 'twill be soon: Caraffa's step has got
So tottering. O God, that I should miss
The prize within my grasp, and end like this!

Three little months ago
What cardinal was so robust as I?
And now the rings drop off my fingers lean!
I have a deadly foe,
Who steals away my life till I shall die;
A foe whom well I know, though all unseen,
Unseizable, unstrikable; he lurks
Ever at hand, and my destruction works.

Thou thinkest I am mad?
Not mad; no, no; but kept awake to death,
And sent by daily inches into hell.
Slow starving were less bad,
Or measured poison, or the hard-drawn breath
And shrivelling muscles of a wasting spell.
I tell thee, Father, I've been months awake,
Spent with the thirst that sleep alone can slake.

O holy, holy Sleep,
Thou sweet but over-frightenable power!
Thou whom a tinkle scares or whispered word!
Return, return and creep
Over my sense, and in this final hour
Lay on my lids the kiss so long deferred.
But, ah! it cannot be; and I shall die
Awake, I know; the foe is hovering nigh.

Attend: I'll tell thee all—
I tried to steal his life; and, in return,
Night after night he steals my sleep away.
Oh, I would slowly maul
His body with the pincers, or would burn
His limbs upon red embers, or would flay
The skin from off him slowly, if he fell
Into my hands, though I should sicken hell!

The mischief all began
With Claudia, whom thou knewest; my own niece,
My dowered ward, brought up in my own home.
I had an old pet plan
That she should wed Duke Philip, and increase
The number of my partisans in Rome.
Oh, they were matched; for he had rank and power,
And she rare beauty and a princely dower.

With infinite delight
I saw her beauty come, and watched its growth
With greater rapture than a miser knows,
Who in the silent night
Counts up his growing treasure, and is loath
To close the lid, and seek his lone repose.
And, long before her beauty was full-blown,
Men called her worthy of a ducal crown.

But as her beauty grew,
Her lip would often curl, her brow contract,
With ominous impatience of control;
The least compulsion drew
Rebellious answers; all respect she lacked;
The spirit of resistance filled her soul:
She took not to Duke Philip, as the year
For marriage neared; and I began to fear.

Give me again to drink:
There is a fierce excitement in my brain,
And speech relieves me; but my strength sinks fast,
The end is near, I think.
And I would tell thee all, that not in vain
May be thy absolution at the last.
Where was it I had got? I lose the thread
Of thought at times, and know not what I've said.

Ay, now I recollect.
There was a man who hung about me ever,
One Hannibal Petroni, bastard born,
Whom I did half suspect
Of making love to Claudia. He was clever,
And had the arts and ways that should adorn
A better birth; but from the first I hated
His very sight; and hatred ne'er abated.

He played with rare, rare skill
Upon the mandolin; his wrist was stronger
Than that of any player I have known;
And with his quivering quill
He could sustain the thrilling high notes longer
Than others could, and drew a voice-like tone
Of unexampled clearness from the wire,
Which often made me, while I loathed, admire.

For 'tis a wondrous thing,
The mandolin, when played with cunning hand,
And charms the nerves till pleasure grows too sharp;
Now mimicking the string
Of a guitar, now aping at command
The viol or the weird Aeolian harp.
The sound now tinkles, now vibrates, now comes
Faint, thin, and thread-like; 'tis a gnat that hums.

And he would often come
On breezeless moonlit nights of May and June,
And play beneath these windows, or quite near,
When every sound in Rome
Had died away, and I abhorred his tune;
For well I knew it was for Claudia's ear;
And I would pace my chamber while he played,
And, in my heart, curse moon and serenade.

How came this thing about?
My mind grows hazy and my temples swell.
Give me more drink! Oh, I remember now.
One morning I found out
That they were corresponding—letters fell
Into my hands. It was a crushing blow;
My plans were crumbling. In my fear and wrath
I said, "Why wait? Remove him from thy path".

It's easy here in Rome,
Provided you are liberal with the price;
The willing Tiber sweeps all trace away.
Yet, ere I sent him home
To heaven or hell, I think I warned him twice
To go his ways; but he preferred to stay.
He braved me in his rashness, and I said,
"Let his destruction be on his own head."

When Claudia learned his death,
What a young tigress! I can see her now
With eyes illumined by a haggard flame,
And feel her withering breath,
As in a hissing, never-ending flow
She poured her awful curses on my name.
'Twas well I kept her close; for she had proofs,
And would have howled them from the very roofs.

It is an ugly tale,
And must be told; but what was I to do?
I wanted peace, not war; but one by one
I saw my efforts fail.
She was unmanageable; and she drew
Her fate upon herself—ay, she alone.
I placed her in a convent, where they tried
All means in vain. She spurned her food, and died.

But he, the cause of all,
I know not how, has risen from the dead,
And takes my life by stealing sleep away.
No sooner do I fall
Asleep each night, than, creeping light of tread
Beneath my window, he begins to play.
How well I know his touch! It takes my life
Less quickly, but more surely, than a knife.

Now 'tis a rapid burst
Of high and brilliant melody, which ceases
As soon as it has waked me with a leap;
And now a sound, at first
As faint as a gnat's humming, which increases
And creeps between the folded thoughts of sleep,
Tickling the brain, and keeping in suspense,
Through night's long hours, the o'er-excited sense.

Oh, I have placed my spies
All round the house, and offered huge rewards
To any that may see him; but in vain.
The cunning rogue defies
The best-laid plan, and fears nor traps nor swords;
But, scarce my eyes are closed, begins again
His artful serenade. Oh, he is sly,
And loves to fool the watchman and the spy!

But I should find a way
To catch him yet, if my retainers had
A little faith, and helped me as they ought.
I overheard one say,
"Mark me: the Cardinal is going mad;
He hears a mandolin where there is naught."
Ay, that's Petroni's skill. He sends the sound
Straight to my ear, unheard by those around!

Once, on a moonlit night,
I caught a glimpse of him; the villain sat
Beneath my window, on the garden wall;
And in the silvery light
I saw his mandolin. Then, like a cat,
I crept downstairs, with fierce intent to fall
Upon and throttle him. I made a rush;
I seized him by the throat. It was a bush.

But I have talked o'ermuch;
And something like a drowsiness descends
Upon my eyelids with a languid weight.
Oh, would it were the touch
Of sweet returning sleep, to make amends
For long desertion, ere it be too late!
My fevered pulse grows calm; my heated brow
Aches less and less, and throbs no longer now.

O Sleep, O gentle Sleep,
I feel thee near; thou hast returned at last.
It was that draught of soothing hellebore.
I feel sweet slumber creep
Across each aching sense, as in the past,
And consciousness is fading more and more.
I care not to awake again; let Death,
Whenever Sleep shall leave me, take my breath.

Give ear! give ear! give ear!
I hear him; he is coming; it is he!
He plays triumphant strains, faint, far away.
Ye fools, do ye not hear?
Oh, we shall catch him yet, and you shall see
A year of hell compressed into a day.
Bring me my clothes, and help me out of bed.
Oh, I can stand; I'm weak, but not yet dead.

Bring me my scarlet cloak
And scarlet stockings.—No, they're dyed with blood.
Oh, you may laugh! but it's beyond a doubt:
The dyers let them soak,
In every street, in murder-reddened mud.
It is the only dye that won't wash out.
The Pope is dead; Caraffa's dead at last.
I'm wanted at the Conclave. Dress me fast.

Who dares to hold me down?
I'm papable. By noon we must convene;
Bring me my clothes, and help me quick to rise.
When I've the triple crown
Safe on my head, I'll sweep the cesspool clean
What's all that muttering? Speak out loud, ye spies!
There's a conspiracy at work, I know,
To keep me from the Conclave—but I'll go.

The Papacy is lost.
Lost, wholly lost. The Papal keys, all black
With rust and dirt, won't turn the lock of heaven.
What's that? What's that? The Host?
There's poison in the Wafer—take it back!
I'll spit it out! I'll rather die unshriven!
Help, Claudia, help! Where's Claudia? Where's she fled?
They're smothering me with pillows in my bed!

Last updated January 07, 2018