Postscripts to Pushkin:

Four Versions and an Ending


Brian Spalding



This preface is written for those who have opened the book because Pushkin's name appears on the title-page. I presume that they are already conversant with his work and are concerned mainly with determining whether the present one could conceivably interest them.

To provoke them to read further, I assert: Pushkin left his "Egyptian Nights" unfinished; so I, after some "warming-up" translation exercises, and a re-writing of Pushkin's beginning, have presumed to complete it.

To those who find such a notion sacrilegious, absurd, or beneath contempt, I say: Thank you for visiting; and farewell.

The attention of others I shall hope to engage for a little longer.

The "Four Versions" with which my book begins are what I would like to call "translations" of poems by Pushkin; but I am conscious that the liberties which I have taken make the less pretentious word, "versions", preferable.

[Pretension there is in plenty, later, in the "Ending"].

"Version" 1, Rusalka, is a small-scale fantasy which focusses, I believe, on the ambiguous meanings of the words "temptation" and "salvation".

The monk prays earnestly for delivery from the one; and for the granting of the other. What transpires is not what he had expected; but was it perhaps still the best outcome for him?

Possibly I have inclined more strongly to the answer "yes" than Pushkin did; but not much, I think.

Tsar Dadon, in "Version" 2, the Golden Cockerel, desires only peace; in desperation he buys it, or so he thinks, from a sorcerer.

What transpires is puzzling, even disquieting. It is true that, in the end, Dadon does something reprehensible, denying the magician his justified, but still excessive, demand; and indeed striking him dead. Yet misfortunes have afflicted Dadon well before that, namely:

Is that what he deserved?

Pushkin says there is a moral to the story; but, the more I have pondered, the less clear I have become about what it is.

At the time, I thought I was translating both "Rusalka" and "The Golden Cockerel" rather faithfully; on re-reading them now however, I can see that Pushkin's mischievous spirit was beginning to have an effect on me.

When I came to create "Version 3", Tsar Nikita and his Forty Princesses, more serious liberties made their appearance.

There was a girl of Coventry Who hadn't got a Loventry,
for example, is far from being word-for-word.

However, Pushkin had set himself the task of explaining a physical deficiency suffered by the Tsar's daughters, which could not be directly described without indelicacy. He solved the problem for his readers in one way; my imagined readers being different, I chose another.

I took encouragement from my model's final verse of that poem, namely:

Some people ask me why I write Such nonsense. Well, the answer's quite Straightforward: it is how I choose Myself (and others) to amuse.

The "amusement test" was one that I began increasingly to employ. Tempted to digress from the strict path of translation, because no rhyme-fitting words could easily be found, I would ask: "Does this thought amuse me?" and, if so: "Might it amuse others?"

If I obtained (from myself, of course) a double "yes", I succumbed. Temptations are not, as the monk in "Rusalka" discovered, always to be resisted.

With "Version" 4, Mozart and Salieri, to which poem I turned as support for the darker ideas which were surfacing in my "Ending", my self-issued poetic licence became even more liberal: I decided for the first time not to follow the metrical scheme of the original.

Pushkin had used un-rhymed iambic pentameters, which I found, when I started to translate, "too easy"; by which I mean that I had come to enjoy the difficult challenge of finding English rhymes while still adhering to the sense and rhythm of the Russian.

["Difficult!" I can hear some Johnsonian critic exclaim; "Would that it had proved impossible!"]

Moreover, the struggle provided an excuse for occasionally interspersing some ideas of my own.

Not solely my own, I must admit. That the first word spoken by Mozart in my version is "Shit!" seemed right to me primarily because I had seen Peter Schaffer's film "Amadeus", in which the Mozart is not totally unlike Pushkin's, but more extreme.

The poem and the film did agree in portraying the scarcely comprehensible incongruity between the sublimity and the banality of the miraculous personality who was their common subject; and I sought to do the same.

So much for the "Versions"; what about that extension of licence into licentiousness: "The Ending" of Egyptian Nights?

My intention, when embarking upon it, was simply "myself" (and others, of course) "to amuse"; for Pushkin had set the scene quite clearly; all that was necessary was to imagine and portray how the three volunteers whom he had described ... the Roman, Flavus; the Greek, Kriton; and the un-named youth ... would fare with Egypt's Queen.

The Flavus night was fairly easily contrived. Of course, some motivation beyond sexual desire had to be introduced; and graphic portrayal of the action was out of the question.

Moreover, although the lover's death was inevitable, its nature was best not dwelt upon. Fortunately, after giving some proof of his prowess, and its limitations, he did the decent (Roman) thing: he fell on his sword.

Kriton, obviously, had to be different; although perhaps not as different as he/she finally turned out to be. Where the idea came from, I cannot say. Lesbos I have never visited, in any sense.

[Quite late in the poem, the idea of "the Rorschach blot" appears.

       As well to blame the blot of ink
       The random spread of which we choose
       To say (revealing much) we think
       Looks like a woman, or a vase,
       Or cudgel, or Aegean bays.
It occurs to me, as I write, that this whole document partakes of that nature; and indeed (so as to deflect attention away from myself in particular) that the same is true of most works of art (whether good or bad).

What, I ask myself (really wanting to know), have I revealed of myself?]

Pushkin's third volunteer, the fresh-faced youth, turned out to be even more different, as I shall explain below. I did my best to keep him in the story; but there were difficulties to contend with.

It was Pushkin, not I, who introduced the story of Cleopatra's banquet, and the invitation which she then issued; moreover it was he who created the Russian Charsky and the Neapolitan "Improvisatore". Perhaps he left some notes about how he intended to finish; or an explanation as to why he intended not to finish. But I know nothing of either.

If I remember correctly my own poetic wanderings, it was only after Kriton's disclosures that I determined to understand how the whole business had started; and, as a consequence, to provide my own version of its beginning.

Pushkin's story of the "Egyptian Nights" starts in prose; yet, once again, I decided not to follow precedent precisely; and for an additional reason: Pushkin's prose is widely praised by connoisseurs; but my knowledge of Russian is too rudimentary to enable me to appreciate its merits. Poetry was therefore the safer choice for me; or so I thought.

Once I had embarked on my own version, I conceived another idea, which I thought might have appealed to Pushkin himself, if ever he had picked up again this set-aside work:

In Pushkin's story, just as Charsky feels the "silly" poetic mood coming upon him, he is interrupted by the improvisatore's knock on the door. The latter's rather fantastic appearance led me to portray him as being fictitious at a second level; that is to say a product of Charsky's imagination.

This is how Charsky (real, at least at the basic-fiction level) came, in my story, to be distinguished from Tsarsky (Charsky's creation) who interacted directly with the (also a Charsky product) improvisatore.

It seemed a "good idea at the time"; but I sympathise with readers who become confused by it; for I have sometimes been so myself.

To return now to the "Egyptian Nights" themselves, the Improvisatore's essential calling made it impossible, whatever Pushkin may have at first intended, to follow a pre-determined plan.

He could not handle all three lovers in a single evening. Indeed, since his main interest was in earning money (Pushkin's idea, not mine), the longer the whole matter dragged out, the better for him.

This however gave the audience more opportunities to provide suggestions to which he was bound to respond; and I had to respect this component of the situation which Pushkin had created.

Therefore, when the Prince interposed "not seventeen but seventy" (his own age perhaps?), I had rapidly to re-think the continuation of the Egyptian Nights story.

The Neapolitan (who by now had a name, Lippo Lippi), did what he could. I remembered Samuel Johnson's Rasselas, whose sole connexion with Pushkin was that both had Abyssinian forebears; and I endeavoured to represent him as having become a sage to whom no human experience was foreign, but whose time domain was variable.

He was however unluckily constrained to exhibit aspects of that experience which Johnson himself, although it seems agonisingly aware of (biographers have hinted), alluded to only in the most private communications.

Once Rasselas had totally disrupted the simple Cleopatra-as-harlot story, I became conscious of that awesome question: how can I finish? So it was a comfort (though not a help) to be reminded by Johnson that even Shakespeare was burdened by that question; and not always able quite to resolve it.

I had, perhaps unwisely, introduced characters who made no appearance in Pushkin's story. There was Ira, whom I rather fancied (as did, in their own ways, Tsarsky, and Lippo Lippi). Then Charsky proved to have a rather complicated life of his own: on the one hand there was his delightfully level-headed and good-hearted friend Lara, in Moscow; and there were the "ladies of the town", of whom he liked to imagine himself the favourite; and finally he seemed to have done something which led to his being challenged to a duel.

All these aspects of my story would have to be somehow rounded off; however, central to Egyptian Nights was Cleopatra herself. Although Pushkin alluded only to her putative love-life, I did not feel that, once she had appeared on the stage, she could exit in any other guise than that of the Tragic Empress, the descendant of Ptolemy, whose fate it was to personify the South-Mediterranean power, in its conflict with that of the North.

So I re-read Plutarch; and I have included some episodes of his story for which Shakespeare found no place; how Anthony, for example, abandoned the not-yet-lost sea-battle; boarded Cleopatra's vessel; then stayed crouched three long days in its bow, ashamed and head in hands. Another was the ill-starred notion to "cut-and-run" across the Suez isthmus, so as to found a new empire "down south".

Rasselas, whose time dimension I conceived as being somehat oblique to that of those he moved among and who therefore possessed some prophetic powers, helped her, in my story, to foresee and prepare for her fate; to which, as it turned out, she had proved (without my assistance) to be sufficiently, indeed magnificently, equal.

And now some notes, for those who may be interested in such matters, about the versification:

Do these things matter? In my opinion, they do; for a prose version of my ending of Egyptian Nights would have little interest for me; nor would an unversified Golden Cockerel story, told plainly in a first-this-and-then-that manner.

Judging one's own work is hard, and judging dispassionately impossible. Therefore, although I would not attempt to publish it if did I not share Charsky's opinion ("Not bad! Not bad, at all!"), I cannot expect that my readers will be so indulgent.

Perhaps they will agree, though, that there is a good idea at the end, when Charsky decides to bundle the whole lot into a no-longer needed pistol case, and throw it into the Neva. Who knows whether the publisher's assistant whom Charsky envisages will indeed simply "file it with the office waste"?

Brian Spalding


"Version" 1. Rusalka ----------------------

Beside a lake, in gloomy woods, Abandoning all worldly goods, A model of self-abnegation, The monk sought, for himself, salvation. He fasted, toiled with hoe and spade, And, drenched in perspiration, prayed, Begging with every painful breath That God would grant him sin-free death. But He, instead, a vision sent: One summer eve, beside the tent Of rags and straw and rotting wood, A smiling naked woman stood. A storm had made the forest shake. Strong winds had lashed the foaming lake And stirred at last one mighty wave Which, on retreating left this grave Statuesque figure on the strand, Like Venus in another land. The lady combed her golden hair, Then beckoned. But, with eyes a-stare, The monk stayed immobile; and, when She strolled into the lake again, Watched night-long the all-hiding deep, Powerless either to pray or sleep. Day breaks. The monk contrives to pray. Yet, once again, it is God's way To answer indirectly: she Whose charms lie bare for monks to see Stands by the once-more foaming shore, And calls: "Come now. Resist no more" Resist no more? Is that temptation? Or - what he's prayed for: true salvation? Three days suffice in fairy tales For consummation. Here, what ails The monk is plain: on his third day The tent is empty. Far away On mid-lake water floats a beard, As though an expert hand had sheared A sheep-like monk and made a man (What wishing cannot, woman can). Remember, everyone who prays: God answers in mysterious ways!

"Version " 2. The Golden Cockerel

In country far, and days long gone, There lived a famous Tsar - Dadon. When young, his strength was held in awe By all his neighbours: he made war Whenever he declared it right. With age, he grew less keen to fight, Desiring then deserved peace: Struggle should stop; war's clamour cease. His down-trod neighbours saw their chance, And armed with dagger, sword and lance, Attacked his frontiers at will, Making the old Tsar maintain still An army of twelve thousand men, With horses, weaponry, and then Appoint highly-paid generals To guard the kingdom's threatened walls. But, when they watched the west, 'twas sure The eastern border, less secure Would be where hostile troops appeared, The danger greatest where least feared. Eastward the generals sally forth, Only to find that now the north Border is where the danger lies. Tormented thus, Tsar Dadon cries Hot tears of rage. He cannot sleep. O'er land foes stream; then from the deep! What is life worth, when so assailed? So, desperate, Dadon availed Himself of magic, turning to A sorcerer (and eunuch, too), Interpreter of omens, stars, Bird-flights, and such particulars. The courtier, sent to call the sage, Implied there'd be a handsome wage. Arrived at court, the wise old man Disclosed with confidence his plan: The golden cockerel he drew, From out his bag, by magic knew Who would attack, and when, and where, Enabling generals to prepare. "Just watch and listen", said the sage. Dadon responded: "I engage, "If this be so, to grant as fee "Whatever you request of me." "So: set the cock, as weather-vane "Upon the highest spire. Remain "Watchful, attentive; he will show "You when to arm, and where to go. "Superior intelligence "Will always be the best defence." And so it proves: whenever threats Appear, the faithful sentry sets His crimson crest in that direction Whence comes th'incipient insurrection. "Kiri-ku-ku", he cries, "Hear me, "And rule long years, from worry free." Discovered once, and caused to flee, Then twice more routed, th'enemy Lose heart, respect again the will Of Tsar Dadon, their master still. A year so passes, then one more. Dadon expects another score. One dawn however, servants wake The Tsar, pale-faced, with hearts a-quake: "The cockerel, Lord, calls you to arms. "Protect us, holy Tsar, from harms." Dadon, half-sleeping, asks: "What? What? "Have you your manners quite forgot?" "Forgive us, but the cock", they say, "Is adamant, brooks no delay. "The people panic. Only you "Can their else-mut'nous fears subdue." Rousing himself, old Tsar Dadon Declares he'll send his elder son Eastward, whose army shall repel The foe which that true cockerel Has there disclosed. "Now back to bed! "The enemy's as good as dead." The Tsar proclaims, "I too retire. "Fear not. My spy's still on his spire." Wars oft entail a news black-out: Was there a victory? Or rout? Who has prevailed? How stands the score Of dead? And were ours less or more Than theirs? No word for seven days The Court's disquietude allays. Then, on the eighth, the cockerel's Loud cry the peace again dispels. His crimson comb points once more east. Dadon, with wariness increased, His younger son sends with a force, So rich in armour, men and horse, That no known foe could fail to yield To troops which such fell weapons wield. They march; are gone. Silence profound Envelops them, as though the ground Had opened, as it did in truth, To swallow up all Hamlin's youth When its authorities displayed Indiff'rence to a promise made. Ill omen! For another week The golden cock's sharp close-clamped beak Swings slowly round, clock-wise; and then Swings just as slowly back again. But, when the eighth day dawns, the bird Crows the alarm. Grim-faced, a third Army the Tsar himself leads out. Ahead, a solitary scout, Confronts the blood-red rising sun: Dadon's last campaign has begun. Long nights and days the soldiers march: Frost cramps their feet; then hot winds parch Their throats. They seek, but find no trace Of battles, of the bloody chase Of fugitives, of funeral mounds. No rallying cries, no trumpet's sounds, Trouble the ears of Tsar Dadon, As puzzled, tired, he trudges on. Just when he's topped a mountain pass, Descending valley-ward, alas! What frightful vision lies before Him: scattered round a silken tent Lie those two armies Dadon sent In his defence. Now all are dead; And his two sons, unhelmeted, Hold swords plunged in each other's breast, Hatred in four glazed eyes expressed. Oh, my dear children! Who has snared My falcons? What magician dared Villainy in their hearts to stir, To make of each a murderer? His soldiers raise such grievous groan It seems the very mountains moan. Just then the curtains of the tent Were flung aside. The hands that rent Them, diamond-ringed and braceleted, (With diadem upon her head, She stood, a fairy-tale princess) Their owner's royalty express. On her the richest gems were piled. She beckoned to Dadon, and smiled. Princesses from far Shamakhan Know well what can beguile a man. Bewitched, his two sons now forgot, The Tsar accepts his new-found lot: Her rule, indeed her domination. He walks, surrendering his nation, Into the silken-wall'ed tent, Wherein his next eight nights are spent In (who can doubt?) those realms of passion To speak of which is out of fashion, Feasting 'tween-times on everything Cook-books declare "fit for a king". At last begins the homeward course. The maiden, mounted on his horse, Caresses the still-love-sick Tsar. The soldiers grumble; yet they are Eager to tell their waiting friends (With what imagination lends Their memories) fantastic stuff And nonsense. Sure, they've seen enough! Rumours have reached the capital Before them. At its draw-bridge, all The people wait in trepidation To see the ruler of the nation Approaching with his new consort, Of whom men variously report She is a witch, a whore, a queen. Never before have such things been. They greet their Tsar. His grave salute Befits his rank; but his acute Eye has detected in the crowd That eunuch-sage whose cockerel's loud Clamour had saved the threatened state. "Approach, old man," Dadon invites, "I grant whatever gift requites "You for your golden cockerel "Whose sentry-duty served so well." "My choice, long-made", the wizard says, "Of course, is only: the princess. "Come now, my lady, we must leave". Th'astonished Tsar cannot believe His ears. "What? what? Take my princess? "And you a eunuch! I confess "I never heard a better joke. "But seriously, when I spoke "Of paying you most handsomely "I did mean also reasonably. "I'll give you half my treasury; "A lordship; and, if lechery "Indeed attracts you, all the whores "Whom you can satisfy". With force The wizard answers: "Satisfied "I'll be only with her as bride. "Give me the Shamakhan princess. "I'll be content with nothing less." "Take nothing then." Tsar Dadon said. His sword-stroke smote the old man dead. The crowd was dumbstruck; but the maid, By this aggression undismayed, Burst out in laughter, peal on peal, As though by laughing to reveal Her full involvement in the plan To trick and then destroy a man. The Tsar, though startled, gives a smile. Then on, along the Royal Mile. The crowd begins a careful cheer, Until a whir of wings they hear, And see a bird with lance-like beak, A golden bird, with feathers sleek, Dive at the Tsar, piercing his head. Dadon groans once, falls, and is dead. Where's she who was to be his queen? Vanished, as though she'd never been. The story's false; but in it lies Some truth, discerned by seeing eyes.

"Version" 3:

Tsar Nikita and his Forty Princesses

        Bold Tsar Nikita, long ago,
        Lived mighty, rich, and free from woe.
        Not over-good, nor yet too bad;
        His subjects thought him "quite a lad".
        He worked a bit; he feasted, drank;
        Each Sunday morn his God would thank,
        Even though all his women bore
        Him girls only, indeed two score
        Of them.  
                Still, they were beautiful;
        Their eyes were bright, their lips were full,
        Their tresses glossy, bodies slender,
        And everything the female gender
        Should possess, they did... but one
                When all is said and done,
        It surely shouldn't matter much
        To lack that hidden final touch
        The admiring public does not see.
        What was that detail? Modesty
        Finds its direct description hard;
        [Not like one unknown ribald bard:
        "There was a girl in Coventry
        "Who hadn't got a Loventry"
        He wrote about his girl-friend who
        What he desired just wouldn't do.]
        Untrue of her perhaps, but not
        Of those princesses. They lacked what
        All common girls possess and treasure,
        A simple source of private pleasure;
        And pleasure not for them alone.
        I share the interest, I own,
        Of the preponderance of males
        In such out-of-the-way details.
        The young and frolicsome princesses
        Had no concept of the distresses
        Their freakish circumstances wrought
        In all adherents of the court.
        Their father took the matter ill.
        Their mothers' tears did pitchers fill; 
        And since mid-wives are talkative,
        And people more inquisitive
        Than wise, the story soon got out;
        So everyone had views about
        The strange affair, and would express
        Them loudly, were the danger less
        The Minister of the Interior
        Would banish them to far Siberia.
        The Tsar summoned the courtly set,
        The lords, the nurses, (dry and wet)
        And other hangers-on, to hear
        His words, which they should heed and fear:
        "If any one of you should lead
        "My girls to guess the fleshly deed
        "They cannot do; or should one give
        "A gesture coarse, or suggestive,
        "I swear (I'm not inclined to jokes)
        "I'll thrust that tongue so that it chokes
        "Right down its throat, if it's female;
        "But, if the miscreant is male,
        "Some other part I'll use instead.
        "Its owner were more happy dead."
        Knowing these threats sincerely meant.
        His hearers prudently all bent
        Their heads to show obedience,
        Humility, subservience,
        And any other feeling needed
        To prove their sovereign's words were heeded.
        Many a wretched woman feared
        Her man might mutter, in his beard,
        Uncouth remarks. Men, for their parts,
        Confessed that truly, in their hearts,
        They dearly wanted to... do what?
        What wisdom told him they should not,
        So making them more furious.
        The princesses grew curious.
        Just why? And how? The distraught Tsar
        Summoned a council, as of war;
        Told it the truth, from varnish free,
        But swore them all to secrecy.
        The boyars' brains were on the rack.
        Could anything make good the lack
        Which these princesses so afflicted?
        Then one, too much to speech addicted,
        Too old to know silence was better,
        Dared his so-long-tied tongue unfetter:
        "Your High Omnipotence! My Tsar!
        "Forgive me if my musings mar
        "Your quietude; or if my tongue
        "Seems insolent.  When I was young
        "I knew a lady.... Where she went
        "To, I know not; but she was sent
        "To be cured by a witch of what
        "She had, or rather hadn't, got.
        "Perhaps, O Tsar, should you consult
        "That witch, some profit might result."
        "Let her be sent for," cried the King,
        His visage strangely darkening.
        (One might have thought he would be pleased
        To hear his troubles could be eased.)
        "But should she play me false, as I
        "Have heard these wicked women try,
        "Or what's contracted not deliver,
        "I'd be no Tsar should I not give her
        "A pyre so big she'll burn from Monday
        "At least until the second Sunday."
        Heralds were summoned urgently
        And sent to seek out secretly,
        No matter where on earth she dwell,
        In Heaven or (more like) in Hell,
        That witch whose special magicking
        Could make those girls fit for a king.
        One year went by, and then a second.
        It proved much harder than they'd reckoned,
        Though searching without intermission
        To find that feminine magician.
        But, in the end, one lucky lad
        Stumbled upon a clue: he had
        (Led by Old Nick, if I guess right)
        Entered a forest, black as night;
        For there, in that fear-haunted wood,
        The sought-for witch's hovel stood.
        Boldly his sword-hilt strikes the door,
        For he's the King's Ambassador.
        He enters, sees the seated crone,
        Bows low as though before a throne,
        Explains the purpose of his mission,
        Portrays the princesses' condition,
        What they are blessed with, what they lack,
        Then begs a cure he may take back.
        The witch had known what he would say
        Beforehand; croaks now: "Go away;
        "Don't slam the door; and don't look back
        "If you'd escape the ague's rack
        "And many other kinds of pain;
        "But in three days we'll meet again.
        "At dawn precisely, I shall bring
        "A present for your precious king".
        She spoke no more, but swift began
        To follow out the proper plan
        To summon up Diabolo.
        Three cinders she procures; then blows
        Spell-laden breaths until each glows.
        The Devil can't resist; he's here 
        Himself, and on his shoulder brings
        A sack, chock-full of all those things
        We sinful men so much adore,
        In total more than fifty score,
        (Whence came they? Ask not. Hear no lies)
        Varied in shape and style and size,
        Some smooth, some with the crispest curls
        Adorned. Then for the royal girls
        The witch selects the forty best
        And locks them in a treasure chest,
        With golden lock and silver bands,
        Which, key and all, she grimly hands
        To the dumb herald, saying: "Bring
        "This back to your benighted king".
        He gallops till the next dawn glows
        On the horizon, dares not doze
        Lest ... what? He almost has forgot.
        In any case, his horse cannot
        Sustain this pace a moment more.
        They stop. The herald's soon a-snore.
        He wakes; experiences first
        A lust for food, and then a thirst
        For vodka. All his senses wake:
        Naught but an orgy could them slake!
        Fame he desires: will his great Tsar
        Acknowledge his achievements are
        Exceptional? Promote him Prince,
        Or Count at least? Surely so, since
        He's bringing home a treasure chest
        Filled with .. it was the Tsar's behest;
        And these exotic jewels he
        Alone has gathered in. "But see,"
        He'll humbly whisper to his Tsar,
        "I did your will. My wishes are
        "To be your unrewarded knave".
        Why unrewarded? The thought gave
        His mind a jolt; for there inside
        The casket were rewards enow
        At his disposal. Why not now
        Sample their benefits? The king
        Would not begrudge a little fling
        To settle certainly enough
        Whether the witch had done her stuff.
        The casket's lid he now inspects.
        It's tightly closed. He sniffs, detects
        An odour that at once excites
        Full forty-fold his appetites.
        Swift sought and found, the golden key,
        Turned three times, sets the contents free.
        As birds they fly aloft; then perch
        Like chattering choirboys outside church
        Waiting until the parson calls
        Them in to stand still in their stalls.
        Our herald calls them: no success.
        He offers sugar: even less.
        Crumbs he strews round him: that's not right;
        They have a different appetite.
        Delightfully they chirp and sing
        About .. another kind of thing.
        At his wit's end, hopeless, he sees
        A crone approach. Down on his knees
        He falls before the hideous hag,
        Whose double chins so wierdly wag,
        Whose spine is bent, whose teeth are three,
        And prays: "Fair princess, succour me".
        He points to the unruly flock
        Of birds, whose twitterings still mock
        His efforts: "See, they will not come,"
        He whines, "I've said Fi-Fee-Fo-Fum.
        "Abracadabra, Sesame, 
        "Spells I once learned at grandma's knee.
        "Exert your beauty and your skill;
        "Help me my mission to fulfill".
        The crone soon recognises it's 
        The usual problem; wheezes; spits;
        Then says: "You fool. Just show them that."
        He sees what she is pointing at;
        Grasps what she means; uncovers it;
        Then gasps as every lark and tit
        Flies swiftly down in his direction.
        Fearful of further insurrection,
        He grabs each flier as it lands,
        Captures the lot (he has big hands)
        And stuffs them back into their box,
        Which this time with four turns he locks.
        He thanked the crone, then took the road
        Back to the court. 
                          Three days he rode.
        Arriving there, without delay
        He lets the vizier bear away
        The casket with its forty prizes,
        Sees how the Tsar himself devises
        A covered cage for each, addresses
        A note to each of his princesses,
        Saying: "Look after them, my dears.
        "My hopes fulfilled, now start my fears."
        But first the feasting. Seven days
        They celebrate, till all's a haze
        Of alcoholic rich repast
        And fellowship. Long may it last.
        A month of rest is then decreed,
        An order all gratefully heed.
        The king makes his advisers rich; 
        Remembers, too, to thank the witch,
        Sending her, from his private store,
        A skeleton with vipers, and
        A recipe to make a grand
        Dessert; he calls it Princess Potion.
        The herald too receives promotion:
        He's guard-in-chief to the princesses;
        And, when no other business presses,
        Tells them, with illustrations, how
        His labours past bring them joy now.
        Some people ask me why I write
        Such nonsense. Well, the answer's quite
        Straightforward: it is how I choose
        Myself (and others) to amuse.

"Version" 4: Mozart and Salieri

        {Scene 1: Salieri's room. 
                  Salieri [S] soliloquises}
        [S] On earth no justice anyone expects;
        Above though... ? 
                          Heaven equally neglects
        This Earth-born notion; that's as clear to me
        As, to my youngest pupil: DO-RE-MI;
        Else I, from childhood wholly dedicated
        To music, would not now be relegated
        To hand-wringing, watching while devastation
        Plunders and wastes our pious art's plantation.
        Since boyhood, when in church the organ's grand
        Ear-overwhelming diapason and
        Reverberating ringing harmony
        Reduced me to a tearful ecstasy,
        All other pastimes, knowledge, occupation,
        I have rejected. (That my parents' station
        (In life, and care for me, this course allowed,
        (I now acknowledge. Then I was too proud.)
        Music alone became the single craft
        I'd learn; though friends and teachers only laughed,
        Though stumbling tyro's steps were arduous,
        Performance pitiful, e'n ludicrous,
        I kissed the rod of discipline: what errs ...
        An ear ill-tuned, or fumbling clumsy fingers ...
        Must be corrected: pains and penalties
        Can turn in time harms into harmonies.
        The sound-world I would chloroform, dissect
        As though it were a worm or an insect;
        And music's myriad phenomena
        I drily analysed ... by algebra.
        At length, in secret, I dared innovate;
        Cautiously, carefully. Whether my fate
        Was to enjoy slight, perhaps more, renown,
        Or stay obscure, I knew not; so with down-
        Cast visage, day-long, night-long, tireless, I,
        Forgetting sleep and food, not asking why,
        Would yield to rapture, passion, inspiration;
        Then, yielding to some other instigation
        (From guardian angel, or from devil's spite)
        Would set my labours, page by page, alight;
        And watch the edges curl, the smoke wisps rise
        And ashes whiten, with unfeeling eyes.
        When the magician-seeming Gluck, appeared,
        I did not hesitate: 'till-then-revered
        Precepts and principles I instantly
        Abandoned. What were principles to me
        Whom a new master had now re-directed?
        Worn ways I with alacrity rejected,
        Being of innovation not afraid,
        When it is on confirmed foundations laid. 
        At last fate smiled on me: the public seemed
        To like what I'd not burned; left-overs, deemed 
        By me unworthy, pleased the current taste.
        I almost wished I'd not been in such haste
        To gratify my life-destructive urge;
        For my, and public, tastes did now converge.
        This was my best time: music that I made
        Was liked, enjoyed, but best of all ... was played!
        Envy I did not know. How could I? When
        Piccini pleased Parisians, why then
        I told my circle he had some talent;
        They understood quite clearly what I meant.
        When first I heard sublime Iphigenia
        I was not envious; its sound gave me a
        Presentiment of something; but not strong.
        Unease like that does not stay with me long.
        The green-eyed monster did not then its fang
        Fasten in me. But now ... 
                                    but now what pangs,
        I feel! Distraught, dismayed, incredulous,
        I'm forced to say: "Salieri's envious."
        In grief, in pain, against my God I've raged:
        "Life-long to Music I have been engaged,
        "Which lavishes now its largesse upon
        "A ne'er-do-well, a wild rapscallion,
        "Who unaware, worse ... careless!, of his powers,
        "Wastes them wildly, spending else-fruitful hours
        "On chance acquaintances, children, his wife,
        "Thus paltering away his precious life."
        What will become now of the noble art
        Of music, mirror-splintered by Mozart?
                  {Mozart[M] enters, and speaks:}
        [M] Oh, shit! You heard me. I had wanted to
        Surprise you; and I've got something for you.
        [S] I heard you, yes. Did you hear, in your turn
        What I said? No? That's good. Else you would learn
        How I revere your talents; speak of you,
        More warmly than, my friend, you'd want me to. 
        [M] I've just arrived; and I have brought a friend ...
        Step forward, Sir ..., whose fiddling now shall lend
        Us fun and frolic... But you'll never guess
        How (Whoops! he's blind, excuse his clumsiness.)
        He grabbed me ...  played my own "voi che sapete"
        Outside a restaurant! Something more weighty
        Now, master fiddler though, please play for us;
        Some Mozart pieces are dead serious! 
          {The old man plays. Mozart laughs heartily}
        [S] How can you laugh!
        [M]                   But why not, Salieri?
        Laughter is innocent, and necessary.
        [S] Not when some madman daubs Raphael's Madonna;
        Or modish witling twists a wisecrack from a
        Divine saying of Dante Alighieri.
        Be off, old man; your scrapings, make me weary.
        [M] Take this, kind Sir; I have but little wealth;
        Use it to drink to both of us the health.
        But, Salieri, I must hit the sack.
        I'm tired; but you also a bisschen lack       
        Of joie de vivre, So, some other time ...
        [S] You brought me something?
        [M]                           Yes, I did; but I'm
        Sure it can wait. It's only a few scraps 
        From my last sleepless night. I thought perhaps
        You'd tell me what they mean; but anyhow,
        I see it's not the proper moment now.
        [S] Mozart! Mozart! For you, each moment's proper.
        Sit down and play. I'm listening.
        [M]                               I'll stop a
        Short while then. Well now, just imagine this:
        I am, or you are, in a state of bliss
        Like when you've got the hots..., and when the girl's
        Available, amenable, and curls
        Her little finger tight round yours .... just then
        You're struck by a strange vision: ... a foul fen;
        A graveyard ... darkness ... evil near at hand.....
        I'll play it; maybe you will understand.
                   {Mozart plays}  
        [S] You came to me with this, but were diverted
        By that old man! Mozart, what has perverted
        Your sense of good and bad. God! why on earth
        Do you so disregard you proper worth?
        [M] Is it OK, then?
        [S]                 OK!! It's sublime!
        So bold! Such harmonies. My friend, this time
        You've proved you are a god. How well I know
        That awesome truth. Why can not you also?
        [M] Whatever. If you say. A deity
        Must eat though; so I'll go back home for tea.
        [S] No, please. Just let me put a fresh neck-tie on;
        I've booked a table at the Golden Lion;
        Let's dine together.
        [M]                  Cool! I'll tell the wife
        Tonight to set out one less fork and knife.
        So long!
                       {Exit Mozart}
        [S]      So long! ... So long, yes, I have waited
        So long for this dire deed which I am fated
        To do tonight. The Fates have chosen me
        To strike the blow needed to guarantee
        Continuance of progress, slow but sure,
        Of Music's priesthood (may it long endure!),
        Now threatened by a god, a genius,
        Whose curse (and ours) is ... he's not one of us.
        He climbs to Heaven; but no ladder leaves
        We can ascend by. From on high receives
        Angelic messages which he transmits
        To us. We glory, gratified; but it's
        Impossible to perch our platforms on
        Magic beanstalks; we know that when they're gone,
        His light extinguished, and his scent grown cold,
        We shall be left, more wretched than of old.
        Let it be soon then, so our loss is less.
        Delayed demise but doubles the distress
        Of the bereaved, as I who boldly burned
        My early works, for mankind's good, have learned.
        Here is the poison, my Isora's last
        Bequest. For eighteen years I've held it fast,
        Waiting.... until life grow too hard to bear;
        Until a worthy enemy appear
        Whose wrongs, which first I deign to undergo,
        At last amount to such a deadly woe
        As even Salieri can't endure ...
        Till then, to drain this gift were premature.
        I've stared across a table at a foe
        Often, knowing, but not letting him know,
        My hurt, my hatred, and the strong temptation
        I feel to send him to his due damnation;
        Yet held my hand. Death, his or mine, could wait.
        Myself from boredom I might extricate
        And music's land of rapture once more reach;
        Or Haydn's hoped successor, born to teach
        True devotees how their art to advance
        With dignity, it might yet be my chance
        To meet, admire, enjoy. Before that time,
        Dying were self-indulgence. (I know I'm
        (Confused a little. Whose death? Mine? Or my
        (Fell adversary's.) No, it is not I
        Who should remove himself, as matters stand;
        For only I the threat can understand. 
        A new Haydn has come, but not a teacher;
        A magical, so beyond-human, creature;
        More than an enemy, much more than friend,
        Whose life, for sake of sanity, must end.
        To save till now dearest Isora's gift
        Was right; in homage here this flask I lift,
        And all to Music's future dedicate.
        Pray God I have not left the deed too late.
            [Scene 2. A private room in the hostelry.
             There is a piano. Mozart and Salieri are
             at table]
        [S] Now you seem out of sorts.
        [M]                            No, not at all.
        [S] I'm glad; though anyone but you I'd call
        Worried, whose face wore such a grim expression,
        When food and wine promise a happy session.
        [M] Alright, then. It's my bloody Requiem!
        [S] You never said that you planned one of them.
        When did you start?
        [M]                 Oh. I've been at it now
        Three weeks or more. But let me tell you how
        It started. One night I came home a bit
        Late, and maybe the worse for weather (it
        (Does happen), to be told that someone had 
        Called on me, left no message. I felt bad
        About it, with no reason; and the next
        Time also I was out (I'm over-sexed;
        (It's an affliction; but I bear my cross);
        So stayed at home, playing at 'pitch and toss'
        With my young kid. There came a man in black;
        Polite, but with a quite decided lack
        Of conversation. He said he would pay,
        A tidy sum (I thought so, anyway)
        If I'd a top-notch 'Requiem' create.
        No further definition; a clean slate.
        I said "you bet!"; and since that time, each night,
        I've been at it; but with me, as I write,
        I feel the man in black, an eerie being
        From God knows where, is coldly over-seeing
        My work. Yes, even now and in this room
        He's present; like a ghost before a tomb
        Is occupied, the not-yet-dead awaiting,
        The soon-to-be "poor stiff" anticipating.
        [S] Enough! No man-in-black is here. Dispel
        This quite-unlike-you gloom; and let me tell
        You what my friend, the noble Beaumarchais,
        In dark-thought times like these was wont to say:
        "Uncork the bottle; let the champagne flow;
        "Then read once more 'Marriage of Figaro'".
        [M] That's fine. I know Beaumarchais was your friend;
        And you composed a tune for him. The end
        I can't recall; but the first bars were good:
        You should develop them. Here's how: you could...
        Ta-ra, ta-ra .... I hum it when I'm sad.
        Ah, Salieri! What good times we've had!
        Forgive me. I too often muscle in
        (Meaning no harm; for helping is no sin)
        Unwanted. Tell me: Beaumarchais I've read
        Poisoned someone; why should a man who'd led
        A life of genius, the tops, sublime,
        Descend to such a ... well ... un-OK crime?
        [S] It's calumny. He was too humorous
        For such a ...
        [M]                   Yes; but was he envious?
        There's in my 'Flute' one who's thus motivated;
        That Monostathos, worse I've not created,
        Who, idiot, could simply not endure
        To lose a girl both beautiful and pure.
        But he was no artist. Here's my creed: Art
        Thrusts out all evil from the human heart.
        [S]Bravo! And that is what I also think
            {Salieri drops the poison, while saying so,
             into Mozart's glass}
        United then, to that thought let us drink. 
        [M] With pleasure, Salieri and Mozart!
        Two sons of Harmony; brothers in Art.
        [S] So let it be forever. Drain the cup.
        [M] I've had enough. It's yours. Drink it all up.
        I've done with with wine; indeed I'm sick of it.
        I'd rather play my 'Requiem' a bit.  
            {Mozart plays. When he stops, he sees that 
             Salieri is weeping}
        You're crying. Was it truly quite so bad?
        [S] Delight and dole combine to make me sad.
        These tears flow from a new-breached reservoir;
        As though I now first see you as you are
        At last; and thereby have some fateful deed
        Accomplished. Give these mawkish tears no heed;
        But just play on ... play to eternity
        In harmony ... in heavenly harmony.
        [M] It's just as well all men are not like you,
        Who have some proper daily work to do,
        To grow some grapes, to kill or cook some meat,
        Else how would we musicians drink and eat?
        We play piano, but the ivory
        Comes from an elephant. What use would we
        Be if it turned its uncarved tusks on us?
        Sure, music's tough; but real life's dangerous;
        Or so I think. My wife agrees with me
        And says she would prefer that I should be
        A butcher, baker, carpenter or such,
        With earning steady, if not over-much.
        But now I must (I said so long ago)
        Crash out. Oh God! I truly need to go.
        Forgive ... my words seem ... are ... somehow not right.
        I've got a fearful belly-ache tonight.
        [S] Good night.
                 {Salieri is alone}
                   Sleep well, Mozart; for you'll sleep long!
        Nor wake to recognise your creed as wrong:
        Art can dwell easily with evil in
        The heart of humans, sanctifying sin.
        As genius, I ... Well, Michelangelo
        Even, (the tattle of his time said so) 
        Became, though he'd in youth murdered a man,
        With age the glory of the Vatican.

.... and the "Ending": Egyptian nights


Part 1 of three; how it started ------------------------------- Chapter 1: Charsky, the poet ----------------------------

He was a poet; or at least so-called. From that his disadvantages derived. Young, rich, his blameless uncle's less-so heir (Uncles like his only book-heroes have!), A Peterburgian, untied to wife, He could have, should have, been at peace; but for His wretched habits (writing, publishing) Which totally negated it; for if He published poetry (by which we mean Words, ordered, and unusually selected, Printed uneconomically with More spaces than respect for trees' slow growth Could justify), unusual attention He must attract. But why should his advice Be so demanded: Was this sonnet good? Had that friend's younger son a true talent? Our question's answered only by recalling That story-tellers, since the time of Eve, Have influenced excessively the minds Of men, of angels, even (some) of God; Which is ridiculous; but so is life. The snake, we all well know, spread some half-truths; And Eve attempted to present a case Which was defensible. It's best admitted: Words are deceivers; and deceit is worse When served up with the sweetener of verse. A poet, once so labelled, is fair game For any knowing jokester: does he smile? Of course, he's in that Muse-directed mode Which the poetic public will imbibe The products of as soon as printers' ink Can do its duty (Who imagines all (The grimy details and the crude mistakes (Which intervene?). Does he look sad? In love! That's what the public's petty categories Allow a labelled poet; though in fact He's suffered just a business reverse; Or eaten over-much; even be grieving For a deceased or dying relative. Acknowledged poets suffer most from those Who ask: What's new? When can we see it? When...? When ...? When ...? Are holy men interrogated About the miracles they're working on? Must scientists announce well in advance When Nature's next secret will be unravelled? Only the poet is expected to Produce incessantly. Alas, some do! Charsky, our hero, was quite unlike those. He sought (in vain) his calling to disclaim; Played dandy, literary ignoramus; Banished paper and ink from his apartment; Affected boorishness. Coined epigrams Sometimes; but never those which scanned or rhymed. Until ... until the dreaded welcomed mood Returned, and sent him searching for his pen, The hidden paper, well-secreted ink, Exchanging for WHAT IS ... Imagination. So was it on that day in his apartment, His tools being ready and his mind on fire, Verses already flowing from his pen, All his self-doubt, self-blame and inhibitions Dispelled, critics' opinions non-existent, He heard the (to-be-) fateful double knock Upon his study door, and opened it ....

The stranger, tall, lean, pale, aged less than thirty, Black-locked, nose aquiline, in clothes not dirty But worn too often, foreign-cut in fashion, Who, were he begging, might inspire compassion, (Or, met in forest dark, rational fear), Did in that doorway dubious appear. "Where's the damned servant?" cursed the startled host, Who'd been more pleased by Hamlet's father's ghost Than this scarecrow, probable charlatan, Seller of salves, or sweets of marzipan; Who, though, did make a graceful compliment: He spoke Italian; that what he meant Was understood, he took simply for granted; For long ago this thought was in him planted: 'Mediterranean' and 'cultured' were Synonymous; and who would not prefer (Who knew them) words of Dante or Petrarch To French or Russian? Sure, in Noah's ark, Survivors, two-by-two, spoke German, Dutch, English, Bulgarian, Finnish, and such- Like tongues; but gentlemen felt most at home Speaking the language of (not-ancient) Rome. "Signor, I come from Naples; I am driven, "By need and talent both, to you. Forgiven "I hope to be; for always a confrere "Can count on aid. Reliably I hear "You are a poet; and society "Opens its doors to you. Were they for me "Slightly ajar, and you could help me in ..." But he'd committed that near-fatal sin - Familiarity. "And who are you?" Our hero asks, "And what is it you sell? "Besides, you are mistaken: those who tell "Of my poetic prowess tell but lies. "All such pretensions I quite despise. "In Peterburgian society, "Birth is what counts, not notoriety "As author of word-strings contrived to rhyme "So banal thoughts, disguised, appear sublime." The visitor, by this excoriation, Quite stunned, sought in a stumbling exculpation, To explain: "I thought... They said... I did not know... "Excuse... Forgive me please.... Now I will go..." With a result welcome, though unexpected: His host, who measured words had just rejected, To mere confusion showed more friendliness; Inquired; learned the intruder was no less Than what was called an "improvisatore", Meaning one who can improvise a story, Often to music, certainly in rhyme, Upon command. Tsarsky, when in his prime Had briefly owned this recondite ability, But lost it (sacrificed it?) to facility In social intercourse; but instantly Assessed this stranger as one who might be One still. "What can I do?" he asked, as though Just now he'd not been wishing him to go With all the speed politeness would allow. "Signor, my only talent's to amuse, "Through words not even enemies accuse "Me of inventing. I'm a channel merely; "Best when I'm least, and simply and sincerely "Expressing notions betters have devised "In language 'agreable'. I've been advised "French is the tongue the educated speak. "But were it English, Spanish, Russian, Greek, "I'd equally incompetence confess: "I speak Italian, no more no less. "If in this city there be one or two "Conversant with that tongue, as clearly you "Are, Signor Tsarsky, I would like to try "To please them; that's the only reason why "I dared disturb you. No, there is a second: "My creditors pursue me; and they've reckoned "Their only chance of ever being paid "Depends on my poor talents being displayed "For money; but I need an audience. "Help me, I beg; though, if you send me hence. "Somehow (though God knows why) I still have hope, "Through Russian generosity I'll cope." His host was touched, assured him people here Deceived themselves as well as anywhere; Still more, delighted to deceive each other. What? Learn Italian? No-one need bother? Just tell them that it is the latest mode; Some smattering they'll scrape up. Down the road They'll find a hairdesser or restaurant And learn enough to ridicule the wrong Accent or grammar of their enemies. The educated it's not hard to please! Glad thus his fellowmen to have derided, Tsarsky declared the matter was decided. "Give me," he said with hauteur, "Your address. "Tomorrow I can promise you success." The improvisatore bowed, and went To his poor lodging, equally content.

------------------------------------- Chapter 2: The arrangement -------------------------------------

Next day, knocking at number thirty-five (The inn-keeper exaggerated; I've (No quarrel with him; though he had but ten (Rooms in his hostelry, since when (Was it a crime to let a visitor, (Not-lied-to, think what's meagre rather more?), Tsarsky was welcomed; and he brought good news: Princess Three-Asterisks' (the Russians use (Such tricks to signal anonymity) Salon was where Genteel Society Would soon assemble; and with her permission He would be granted a sincere audition. "Tickets you'll need to print. Decide a price, "Not too indicative of avarice; "And, though by poetry no fortune's made, "You should recover more than you have paid". "What better?" The ecstatic Neapolitan Danced a small jig, and clapped: "I know you can, "And do, acknowledge we are kin", he cried, "(My first feelings are seldom falsified)" "Birds of the same and true poetic feather, "Bound, so our proverb claims, to stick together." "What can I offer in reciprocation? "It's all I have: a quick improvisation. "I need no other audience but you "Whose judgement I shall be subservient to. "You are for me the judge, the talisman," He said, (obscurely). "Well then, if you can," Said Tsarsky, doubting, and again put off By the man's manners, and inclined to scoff. "Your theme? 'The poet only should decide "'His subject; other claims must be denied.'" He did not notice (Did he? Maybe yes) That his suggested theme meant nothing less Than unemployment: improvisatores All needed, as the stimulus for stories, The impetus of someone-else's notion, Being incapable of loco-motion. Nor did the Neapolitan, who took A small guitar, strummed once or twice, then spoke: -------------------------------------------------- The poet strolls, oblivious Of his surroundings, down the street; Unknown to him, but obvious To others is his incomplete Perception of common desires, The need for fuel which them fires. To him all value lies in words, Not hunting foxes, shooting birds, Even (debatable is this) His loved-one's prayed-for approbation, Its still-more-questioned culmination In the sublime, physical, bliss Which follows kissing. I digress; What poets have is 'otherness'. The passer-by plucks at his sleeve. "Write something for us, for our time. "Death has just struck, so help us grieve. "So low we've fallen; help us climb. Or: "We have been victorious. "Compose a proper ode for us. "Without poetical oration, "Savour-less is our celebration." The poet's thoughts may have been of How Desdemona doted on A blackamore; how life was gone Before (and he took both) her love. He answers not at all, or late, Unless he's Poet Laureate. ------------------------------------------- But Tsarsky interrupted: "Stop! No more! "I am convinced; it's wasteful you should pour "Your talent on a single hearer. I'm "Astonished, overwhelmed, by the short time "It takes until, digested and transformed "Into well-metred verse, precisely formed. "Are others' thoughts, tossed as though to a zoo "Sea-lion at the published feed-time, who "Leaps, catches the not-always straight-thrown fish, "Devours, plunges, swims, climbs again. I wish "I had that talent, which I once had, still; "Failing which, I your agent's role shall fill." The improvisatore, who was puzzled too, And found his talent as difficult to Explain as Tsarsky, gave his explanation (He'd practised it of course; each demonstration (Brought questioners who would not be denied; (And "I don't know" left no-one satisfied). "It is a mystery. Within the stone "There stands the statue. The sculptor alone "Perhaps has seen it. Anyway his duty "Is just to get it out. Nor Art nor Beauty "Are his concern: he's got a job to do, "Like para-medics, firemen, life-boatmen, "Who rescue what is rescuable; then "Return to their quite unheroic lives "Welcomed to bed by undramatic wives." That said, his conversation turned to money. "How much?" He'd heard of somone with a funny Foreign surname, what was it? Strobels? Stroobles? Who'd charged as much as five-and-twenty roubles And made a killing. Did the Signor think It right? But we perhaps can see a chink In someone's armour. Money is not what For Tsarsky any interest has got. He does not even see, within this phrase A double meaning. Poets have their ways Of living, understanding, getting by. Changing them is a stupid thing to try. With scrapes and bows, the Italian saw him out. He had of Tsarsky's fellowship no doubt.

------------------------------------------------ Chapter 3: The salon ------------------------------------------------

Ten roubles only was the printed price; But the salon was packed, so maybe twice As much was paid by the latecomers. Chairs Were occupied by ladies only, theirs By right of gender, while the gentlemen Stood, eying them, bowing politely when A glance was answered with a nod or smile, Or else remarking to a lounging neighbour: "Now there's a handsome..."; but, to shorten labour Of versifying, it's enough to say Both sexes acted in the proper way. The improvisatore waited, dressed Dramatically. Tsarsky thought it best To hide his feeling of embarrassment At clothes more suited to a circus tent Than to a princess's genteel salon; The audience, Thank God! saw nothing wrong... Except ... when WOULD the show at last begin? Watches were watched; patience was wearing thin. A full hour late, the now-all-there musicians Struck up the Tancred overture; admissions Were over (there not being room for more). Advancing to the centre of the floor The improvisatore spoke; talk ceased; The music's volume less quickly decreased; But it appeared he had posed a request.

For what? He asks his hearers to suggest A theme, Confusion. This they'd not expected. Some looked to Tsarsky, who now recollected One he had used; and wrote it on the slip Of paper handed to him ... So the ship Was safely launched; some frowned; some smiled, then gave In their proposals. Thanking them with grave Demeanour, the Italian now read: "First is 'The Cenci Family', whose dread "Fate, if I truly must, I'll truly tell. "Second, 'The Last Days of', that luckless city, "Pompeii", unpreserved by Pluto's pity. "Third, 'Cleopatra and Her Lovers'. All "Of them? That were a task too tall! "Next, "Spring skies glimpsed through prison stone-work's chink"; "A theme demanding second-sight, I think. "The last is 'Tasso's Triumph'; which is sad "Because, although triumphing, he went mad." But which? Should your opinion now be polled? Else who will dip into this urn I hold And make for all of you random selection? He viewed the audience with circumspection; And saw a lady, young and elegant, Raise her long white-gloved arm. At once, with scant Concern for whether other arms were raised, He offered her the urn, and meanwhile gazed, Watching her lips, pronounce each lovely word; Which, so entranced, the poor man barely heard. It was the Cleopatra theme. His mind Was now professional again. "I find "The subject somewhat over-broad to cope "With in a single evening, so hope "Its champion will deign, so it will fit "Into attention's span, to narrow it." Tsarsky was the proposer. "You'll recall "Victor Aurelius's saying: all "Her lovers must immediately die. "Of course, most Romans loathed her: any lie "That blackened her pleased them. It's feeble stuff; "But maybe, for one evening, enough." These last dismissive words simply not hearing, The Italian swelled ... majestic now his bearing, His visage pale, hair waving, eyes afire, Very image of those Muses inspire To speak in tongues words never ere-now spoken As though at last from spell-bound slumber woken.

Part 2 of three; how it developed --------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------- Chapter 4: The performance; Flavus -----------------------------------------------

Of Alexandria I sing: A hundred favoured fawning guests In the Brucheion banqueting, Pursue their vital interests ... In food and drink. Falernian wine, Far-famed for flavour so divine, It suits a queen who advertises Herself as being Goddess Isis, Flows freely. Well did Ptolemy, Bold Alexander's general Choose Egypt; for him it was all The world worth conquering: its sea, Its fields, its yearly-flooding Nile Sustained the Ptolemaic style. And Cleopatra, worthy heir Of his heirs, Empress of Egypt, Who knew Rome, Athens ... anywhere Of consequence ... was well equipped To rule, to make the hard decisions That lesser lords, who lacked her vision's Clarity and coldness, would Fumble and fudge. 'Twas well she stood Firm, focussed on state policy. Which said, it must though be admitted Some indiscretions she'd committed; And close observers guessed that she (To them her mien disclosed her mind) Tonight was quite that way inclined. "I am a queen; but woman too," She cried, to those who doubted neither Affirmative but who now knew She was intent on mischief: either, To satisfy fast-felt desires She'd pick someone to quench those fires Rumoured to be prodigious; or ... But who could guess? she's famous for Her unpredictability; Also perhaps the alcohol Exacts its rank-ignoring toll. Her "infinite variety", Whims not by royal reason bounded, Her counsellors have oft confounded. No man she'll choose, it does appear, (A weakening of queenly will?); But offers any volunteer A night of passion: she'll fulfill, As humblest whore, his fantasies: What no mistress or wife agrees To entertain she'll do. Submission To all no-matter-what demands, To wishes treated as commands, Is granted, on one stern condition: The pleasures she provides all night Are paid by death at dawn's first light. It was not what they had expected (But then, it never was, with her!) The wiser men coolly reflected: Was it worthwhile? Not many were, If truth is told, inclined to take Her offer up; desire can make A man most interests forget, But not survival, which he'll set Surely as paramount; but she Knew there'd be crazies she'd attract, Who will possessed but wisdom lacked, And could be counted on to rise As fish to hooks a-gleam with flies. And their attachment she'd contrive To use; in majesty's and might's Continuance keeping alive Belief among her subjects. Nights Such as she'd just conceived of would Be psychologically good For her, boosting her self-esteem; And for the Court, to whom she'd seem Inventive, fearless, cruel, bold, One whom men eagerly obeyed, No matter what at last they paid, (In short: like Ptolemy of old) And see, with due respect, would they What method in her madness lay. Crazies there were indeed. First one Rose to his feet; and then a second; A third followed. (Had there begun Mass suicide?) "Enough!" She beckoned To the High Priest; said "Take their names; "Adjudicate between their claims. "I am indifferent." (Not quite! (In truth, she definitely preferred (The look of him who'd risen third, (A fresh-faced youngster, barely man.) But, having said she'd play the whore She should not seem one client more To favour when all will and can Pay what she's asked. The High Priest chose (Alas!) the one who earliest rose. This was a Roman general Named Flavus, well-known in the town. He'd followed Mark Anthony all His life, sharing in his renown. "Why should he volunteer?" his thunder- -ous expression made her wonder. The also-rans were next a Greek Called Kriton, of whom friends would speak As cultured certainly; but yet, Despite display of all-round knowledge, Worthy of a Platonic college, The most-used epithet was "wet". The third was left anonymous; He clearly was superfluous.
!!!!! Pushkin's story stopped here !!!!!
(Though not to her). She thanked the Priest. His holy choice she would accept; And all attendants at this feast Would see that she her promise kept. Perhaps, though, she'd not made it clear She offered but one volunteer Her body, and in the same breath, In payment (sad to say) a death. Which understanding, any might Withdraw without dishonour. She Well understood how clarity Is hard to come by, late at night. However, if none drew back, she, Could well accommodate all three. Musicians she then bade strike up A joyful tune, with drum and fife; Commanded that each fill his cup With wine and drink to the short life Of ...
---------------------------------------------- Misunderstanding, or, it may be, wanting to Signal their boredom, in the salon too Musicians struck up their own instruments. The maestro's scarce-convincing arguments Became inaudible. Egypt or Rome Were were not their goals; they wanted to go home; Which, making quick finale, they prepared To do. The improvisatore dared Not stop them; he'd paid for a single hour, The normal reach of his poetic power. He bowed; awaiting the polite applause; Which came at last but clearly just because He waited; for no single watcher made A move to leave; evidently they'd paid, In their minds, for much more than they'd received So far. So, since he stubbornly believed In his (to-him-incomprehensible) Ability to tell scarce-credible Stories in which due unbelief's suspended, He indicated his tale was not ended; And, when the last musician closed the door, He would, if so requested, tell some more. The audience answered with a chorused nod; Which, since he spoke Italian, was odd. Once more the swelling chest, the arms outspread, The rolling eyes, the tossing of the head; "Ladies and gentlemen, I shall recite," "The tale," he said, "of what transpired next night."
At evening, as the sun was setting, Flavus, his unpremeditated Volunteering not regretting, Euphoric rather, flushed, elated, Equipped himself with sword and shield, Determined he would once more wield The symbols of his manliness. A lady would expect no less; And queens who wished to act the whore Must surely welcome into bed A man who, though by passion led, Still his accustomed weapons bore. Besides, he had a deeper aim Than playing the stale strumpet's game. Flavus knew whores: his wife was one! Rumours had just reached him from Rome: Her new profession she'd begun The day that he had quitted home To do his blameless soldier's duty. She, mindful of her fading beauty, Felt equally exempt from blame Resolving to do just the same, Although, by her interpreted, That stirring phrase, "a call to arms", Her bold response to war's alarms, Meant mustering new troops... Wags said: Her husband should be proud of her...; But he was no philosopher. The palace guards, who vainly tried To bar him, sounded the alarm, As roughly he thrust them aside. Then she appears, resplendent, calm; Dismisses her bewildered troops, To their amazement meekly stoops Before him as though manhood's powers She'd recognise ... for a few hours. She gives, he takes, her hand. Her smile, A promise she'll unveil her beauty As much for pleasure as for duty, Would anyone but him bequile, Who, grizzle-haired and grim of face, Follows, but at his own firm pace. Flavus knew harlots. He had fought In Spain where, when the foes had fled The field, their subtler women sought The victors to vanquish in bed; To which they easily were brought. Love was not less for being bought, For Flavus: those denari-i Wiped out responsibility. And Parthian women would offer Themselves for nothing: nights were cold Warm blankets far more worth than gold, Beneath which more than warm they were. Flavus, tempted to reminisce, Refrains: Not on a night like this! The queen invites her guest to lay Aside his weapons. He complies, Willing obedience to display And so his inner will disguise. She offers wine; and herself pours It slowly, drop by drop, like hours Condemned-to-death criminals pass Before they drink their final glass. Soft music from outside he hears; And he is conscious of her scent. Her publicly-declared intent Holds firm in private, it appears. He waits and watches for his cue; But misses it, as most men do. In Egypt he'd a full year been, Its brand of harlotry knew well; And now it had offered its queen! Would she, could she, their arts excel? He lets this interesting doubt, Thrusting the hidden motive out, His full attention occupy, Letting his wife's betrayal lie Apart, unheeded, as though it Had nothing more to do with him, Its memory fast-fading, dim, Much like a dream which one can quit By rising, rubbing eyes and head, Stretching, then going back to bed. She did excel, he must admit When midnight came: she had surpassed His special Spanish favourite; Pale Parthians were far outclassed. Egyptian harlotry's quintessence, She was, of love the very essence. He slumbered in her arms, and dreamed Of wars and women. Now she seemed To be his own: she was the wife For whom he'd battles fought, marched long Through deserts, 'sieged and conquered strong Defended fortresses, risked life And limb. In Egypt, here, not Rome, He'd found this night his final home. And what of her? He was not one To disregard the woman's side. He'd heard how, when the deed was done, She'd murmured: "Marcus". Once the bride Of Caesar, called by Rome his whore, Could she now want one Roman more? Why had she at that famous feast Made her outrageous offer? East- -ern customs did not yet admit What Roman liberality, Or, better said, depravity, Condoned. What was the point of it For her? To let her courtiers see She cared not for Mark Anthony? But stay! He had intended harm. His sword could not be far to seek. He fumbled with his one free arm; But, brushing, by mischance, her cheek, Awakened her: once more desire, Kindled in her, set both on fire, Consuming in the conflagration Her haughtiness, his indignation. Alas, poor Flavus's resolve To do this night a famous deed Of vengeance on a faithless breed Did, in the consequence, dissolve. Ambition withers soon enough When it's not made of "sterner stuff". He well remembered words like that From Anthony. Flavus had stood Among the crowd, wondering at Mark's praise (ironic) for the good And "honourable" killers: they Stemmed tyranny, stood in its way, Pure arbiters of right and wrong (Who did not profit from it long). Flavus, the bitter wronged husband All week had seethed; and, when the queen Miraculously spoke, had seen The perfect plot for what he planned; Revenge's super-celebration ... A harlot-queen's assassination. Now all was otherwise. The sky Was lightening. He'd reached the end Of his ambition: time to die It was. He had no female friend; And he had never known a man To trust since adulthood began. To no-one could he make confession Of how he'd failed. In his profession, The only true reward was praise From men who'd trusted him to lead; To others he paid little heed; And having passed his leading days, Now said, looking his last on her: "Call, please, my executioner." The queen ordered the curtains drawn, And disregarded his request. Until she rose, there'd be no dawn, And she was disinclined to rest. Besides, she'd willingly confess: Her banquet boast was foolishness Which she was minded to revoke. Queens sometimes, she admitted, spoke Before they thought. Her people knew Her changeability; but did Not fear her less, knowing it hid A will of steel, and cruel too. Just now she'd like to carry on The course they were engaged upon. Girls brought refreshments; baths were filled With scented waters, ass's milk, And such-like. Flavus, more weak-willed Than ever, acquiesced in silk- -en sheets the maidens swathed him in; He felt upon his face a grin Of foolishness, and was not proud, Knowing he now had twice allowed Himself to be diverted: first From killing (well, that was not bad), Then being killed, as though he had, Become by cowardice accursed. That Cleopatra liked him though Was evident, for weal or woe. The without-end variety For which the lady was renowned, She now revealed to Flavus. He Marvelled, enjoyed, but sadly found His strength unequal to her needs. "Even the sturdiest of steeds "Cannot be always galloping," He murmured, as she sought to bring Him back to that state of elation In which he'd been not long ago; But she, pretending not to know Of the male sex's limitation, Withdrew her favour from poor Flavus. From such a mistress may God save us! The night had had its ups and downs, Its struggles, reconciliations, Its smiles, e'en laughter, later frowns, But ended with recriminations, As often in human affairs When couples bring their private cares With them when coupling, and revert To private remedies if hurt. "Open the curtains", cried the queen. The sun had reached its noon-time height. Bemused and dazzled by the light, Flavus found what all night had been Waiting. She watched in coldness, bored, While he (what else?) fell on his sword.

------------------------------------ Chapter 5: The interlude ------------------------------------

The improvisatore bowed; tonight He could no further delve, create, recite Th'imagined past, which his experience Of life, of books, tempered by common sense, Sought to make fitting for a modern time. He'd never lived in an exotic clime, And guessed only how that so-long-dead queen And her triple admirers might have been Embroiled. Whence came the verses he'd declaimed? He knew not, so should not (he hoped) be blamed. Had his perfomance pleased, then, in a week, He might have more to tell. Should any seek Him out, he'd leave his forwarding address With Signor Tsarsky, whose great politesse (As fellow-poet, he would not refuse (Even the lowliest follower his dues) Had made it possible for all to share The entertainment and the splendid fare. Meanwhile, he mentioned, by the door an urn Stood ready, should some needless small change burn Inside their purses, to accept donations And so prevent the threatened conflagrations. Applause! Sufficient, but not over-long. The ladies gathered round him in a throng Of twittering. Though few could understand Italian, his gestures were so grand, His voice mellifluent, his rolling eyes Exciting, that, when saying their goodbyes, They promised to return in one week's time To relish his next "Masterpiece of Rhyme". The men debated what the story meant. The Neapolitan's true argument, Some thought, was that both women were to blame. Others maintained that Flavus had brought shame On men: he should have carried out his plan; Such suicide scarce suited a true man. A few regretted absence of detail. What did she do, exactly, to regale A man sufficiently experienced? Proposing likely answers recompensed Them for the tedium; imagination Was not confined to the Italian nation. Tsarsky (his protege's manners so grated) Offered no view. Although much irritated, He recognised this charlatan possessed A gift, while he himself was not so bless'd. With luckless Flavus he could sympathise, Feeling he too had failed ... in his own eyes.

--------------------------------------------- Chapter 6: One week later; Kriton ---------------------------------------------

The audience, when next they re-assembled, Was larger than before. The room resembled An over-crowded court-room where the crimes, Though vile, are so in-keeping with the times The public feels it must participate In sending perpetrators to their fate. The improvisatore entered. Then The princess spoke: "My man, I think that when "You first appeared, 'twas said you'd improvise "On any theme your hearers would devise. "I'm sure that none of us is very keen "To hear more of that most immoral queen. "This phrase is what I'd have you improvise: "'A prince is oft a devil in disguise.'" The audience tittered; knowing whom she meant; But, all the same, most of them were intent On learning how Greek Kriton would behave, When he, to whom Queen Cleopatra gave The second invitation, came to claim His joy. The Roman could not match her passion; Might tables now be turned in Grecian fashion? Tsarsky, as usual, found compromise; Why not then all: prince, devil, queen, disguise? If improvising could these four combine, The poet's bill he'd gladly countersign. With glowing eyes, the Neapolitan Strode forward, cleared his throat, and thus began: Prince Kriton to the palace came; He held a wicker basket up, Announcing to the guards his name, And saying he had come to sup By invitation with the queen. The basket held a gift he'd brought; For in his home-land men were taught To demonstrate their gratitude For being graciously invited, And show how much they were delighted By giving presents. It were rude To come to dinner bearing none. He was not rich, so brought but one. The guards knew Kriton was expected So waved him on without inspecting The basket's contents; they'd elected The easiest choice for them, neglecting That their queen's guest might still contrive, In order to remain alive Beyond the morning, to import Some poison, some product of hell And chemistry; or witch's spell To conjure devils up for sport. Kriton looked harmless, even quite Effeminate; he'd be alright. The queen, fully from last night's capers Now quite recovered, did not rise When Kriton entered. By the tapers' Light be-dazzled, her black eyes Did not first notice what he carried. So young he seemed. Surely not married? Perhaps a virgin? That would be For her a pleasing novelty. She beckoned; when he neared, began To loosen garments, one by one, Intending that, with all undone, She would assess what kind of man She would enjoy tonight. "But wait; "I'm not yet in the proper state "Of readiness", the lad declared; "You see, I'm bringing for your pleasure "A trifle from my home, prepared "By artists, our island's great treasure. "I'll act out, if you will, the rite "Designed for that long-waited night" "On which by law lovers are first "Allowed to slake each others' thirst." So he was not so innocent, This seeming boy! Well then, why not Grant him his wish? Perhaps he's got Something at least for merriment. The room was darkened; she lay still, Willing that he should have his will. More darkening than that he needed: Total invisibility Was necessary. She conceded, Letting him blindfold her; for she Was near succumbing to his charm. How is it that some men disarm A lady's instinct for defence? It's a mysterious influence Which many seek to learn, in vain. Poets try constantly: it's said That getting women into bed Is the whole purpose of their pain. Prince Kriton no verses required; The lady did what he desired. She was the queen, and could decide, Who would be pampered, and who whipped; At her nod, once, a hundred died. Yet she was not always equipped To play the tyrant; she had been A tom-boy girl before a queen; One who rode high on children's swings; Who loved, in night-time wanderings, To roam the streets, her state forgetting, Her birth, her duties, and her fate, With some rapscallion as mate, Her teacher's rule-book over-setting. Prince Kriton was the kind of lad She used to go for. Some she'd had She still remembered: what's-his-name From somewhere strange (Jerusalem?) Who often came; and how he came! Oh, she could fill a book with them. But, while she mused, Prince Kriton worked; Labours of love Greeks never shirked; And showed what we now call fore-play Was well-developed in his day. Some words he spoke, some moves requested, She acquiesced and felt no pain. Not often had she passive lain As, now moved on and now arrested, She floated like her golden barge With precious cargo to discharge. It was enjoyable, no doubt. His gentle touch gave her a sense Not wholly new but still well out Of run-of-mill experience; Familiar, yet different. Their treasure? She felt what he meant; The artists of his island were Undoubtedly the men for her. She mused: before the execution It would be prudent to extort All details, if need be resort To torture... No! grant absolution; Such satisfaction she'd just had That any more would make her mad. The rite was ended; and the queen Was satisfied. Prince Kriton took The blindfold off; he who had been Unseen till then, said now: "Please look." He stood before her. The dim light Was puzzling. Did she see him right? Or was he truly what she saw: A woman, naked, in the raw Except a girdle at the waist, Of snakeskin maybe; by a thong Suspended too a thicker, long, Extension was discreetly placed. So this deceiver she'd believed; And was content to be deceived. Kriton was beautiful, but that Was not what Cleopatra felt At first. No, what she wondered at Was that the cards she had been dealt This night fitted so well: the hand Was perfect, flawless, master-planned. With these she could win any tricks, As slave or as dominatrix. But how did ...? Answering the query, Kriton looked down with meaning nod. The queen, well-read, found nothing odd There-in. So what? But she was weary Of questioning; and far above All else she wanted Kriton's love. That is not all I brought, she said (Kriton must now be called a "she"); "May I, if we again in bed "Come close, bring a close friend with me?" "He's waiting, coiled up in my basket. "Who's he? Even before you ask it "Ill show him to you; see, I take "His cover off. He is my snake." She coiled him round her waist and breast, So comfortably that the queen, No matter that at first she'd been Startled, shocked even, acquiesced. So now all three lay intertwined. Broad truly was the royal mind. They made a loving threesome. What The snake made of it's hard to say; But the two women gave and got Uncommon ecstasy; for they The normal bounds had so transcended, Having this sly serpent befriended, And learned what poor Adam and Eve Lost when from Eden forced to leave. Kriton then told the queen the tale All children in her island knew; How snakes were devils only to The human male; to the female, So smooth and soft, so free from threat, They loved to play domestic pet. All slept a little. Then the maids Prepared the baths, the asses' milk, The robes, the marvellous brocades, Bracelets of gold, dresses of silk; How different it was from when Flavus (what imbeciles were men!) Had sulked, ashamed of losing face Because ... men were the weaker race. Kriton and Cleopatra were In harmony, in total touch (Could two men ever claim so much?); No rift could open to inter, Within the sudden-riven ground The deathless unity they'd found. Invited, Kriton told the queen About her isle's society, How, long ago, Sappho had been Its founder; and its polity Was founded on this simple ten- -et: women had one use for men, For which only a few were needed. Nature's provision far exceeded Necessity's requirement; so Young boys were sold in course of trade, Which quite a handsome profit made. The queen, it may be, did not know Her army took many recruits Who had in Kriton's isle their roots. Who ruled? They had a queen: Cleis, Now elderly, without successor. Missions to all the isles of Greece They'd sent; and "Now I must confess a "State secret," said Kriton, "I" "Must find a candidate, or die. "Our senators, grown desperate, "Freed me from prison, where of late "As murd'ress I had languished, could "My wiles induce great Egypt's queen, "Who greatest men's weakness has seen, "To leave Egypt, and men, for good. "Your banquet invitation gave "Me a slim chance my life to save". A prince-princess, a devil-snake, And an astounding proposition! What next turn will the ev'ning take? So Kriton had a secret mission; And motivating all the love The lass had lavished, and above Her seeming aim to give pure pleasure (By means of that most artful treasure), She'd kept constantly this in mind: A sensual queen to captivate, And so escape a twice-set fate. Was Cleopatra so inclined? Of course not: Kriton's desperation Had fostered her miscalculation. Cool Cleopatra thought things out: For, though she'd made mistakes, from all She'd learned; why therefore wisdom flout Flowing from Julius Caesar's fall? The blood-swilled fateful Senate floor Taught her, whom Romans called his whore, That women, though they can wield power, Need men at that accursed hour When battles and the campaign's course Decide who'll rule ... for a few years. Women, with tantrums and with tears, Can influence, but not enforce. Besides she liked (Sappho despite) A male companion in the night. Yet being loth to say one nay, Who'd worked at pleasing, she devised A clever, not-too-cruel, way: This time she'd be the one disguised, A pliant pupil, quick to learn, By letting Kriton in her turn Blindfolded on that great barge float That golden, scented, fun'ral boat, (The writhing snake did with her lie), Surrendered to her partner's will; Who, reaching for a sharpened quill, Plunged it into the serpent's eye. With venom the revengeful snake Did Kriton's quick quietus make. The sudden end quite took away their breath. It was as though the audience felt Death In person there, indeed impersonated By this magician, who, sudden deflated, Sank into silence like the blinded snake He had portrayed. He also was o'ercome, Perhaps much more than most of them; for some Will have supposed that all was his invention, That how things ended chimed with his intention, And he, apologist for how things are, Sought to preach only what was popular. How wrong! When he stood up to speak he had No notion of the ending. Hearers had A better chance than he of quessing how Rhyme's randomness and metre's mensuration Would stretch and twist his innocent narration Which he hoped just as quickly to conclude As guests were ready for the interlude. Yes, they were ready. There was brief applause; Neighbours' demeanours watched for any cause For indignation which required support; Which being absent, left most present short Of things to say; and, those who were inclined To do so, free to make up their own mind. The princess boomed: The prince WAS a deceiver; The poet too: unwilling, he, to leave a Salacious story of outrageous times And choose a proper topic for his rhymes. He had, she granted, brought a devil in; But not, alas, to turn weak folk from sin. As far as she could see, he glorified Limitless lust, no appetite denied. The ladies, who last time were all a-twitter Though flushed and flustered, now found silence fitter Than praise, or doubt, or adverse criticism. The story had been for them like a prism Dividing white into a range of hues, Of which each could her own favorite choose, So that somewhere 'tween red and violet Her place might be definitively set. What Kriton stood for was a far extreme, But still allowable as any dream; And Cleopatra? Yes they did admire Her ruthlessness, her speed, her passion's fire; For ladies though who'd not yet found a mate The mean was golden ... and the married state. The men? Most of them had lost interest As soon as Kriton made her too-clean breast (If one may use the phrase) of her deception. But there was the occasional exception: Tsarsky was not alone in recognising That this chaotic poet was revising Persuasively his hearers' moral code In ways which might become quite a la mode. It was subversive, well-thought-out or not; But change is not always the same as rot. This time the poet skipped his final speech. He had tonight no more morals to teach, But was himself unsettled and distraught By what his poem seemingly had taught. In Naples he'd a wife whose virtue he Was sure of, and with whom he'd rather be Than here in Russia. Tyranny and snow Were all they had... and money! He did know, Despite the sore complaints he wrote and uttered, On which side his black bread was daily buttered.

------------------------------------------------ Chapter 7: The third lover ------------------------------------------------

They gathered, one week later, as before. Three lovers only, God be thanked; not four. So, one last evening could yet be spared To see if the Italian still dared Present himself as "improvisatore" When it was plain he'd long prepared his story. Tsarsky, some said, was well aware of this; And should be treated as an accomplice. Quite probably week-long the two conferred, And wrote the next instalment word-for-word, Which the performer mainly memorised, Improved a bit, but hardly improvised. This time the Prince himself had deigned to come (The Princess ostentatiously kept mum, (Making it clear, to those who had not guessed, (Whom she had meant last week). The Prince addressed The improvisatore: "I have heard "Your hero for tonight will be the third "Of Cleopatra's victims, a young lad "Who, since a Roman and a Grecian had, "Stood up, thought that, should he not do the same "His nation's men must hang their heads in shame; "For love of country did he volunteer "To love the queen, then die by axe or spear." "What country? Since that's not yet specified, "As the most senior here, I shall decide: "He was an Abyssynian; that race, "To which even some Russian poets trace "Ancestral links, is foolhardy and proud. "Moreover, as your host I'll be allowed, "I trust, to test your true improvisation's "Power, to switch somewhat the generations: "This "lad" was seventy, not seventeen. "Let's see how he now manages your queen! "He's old, and should be wise enough, I'd say, "To do the deed, and live another day." His hearers clapped, because he was the prince; But also from relief. They'd feared that, since The princess's remarks at the last session, The prince would match his sad wife's indiscretion By some proposal making quite impossible Continuation of that strange, implausible But still-entrancing, unexhausted dream: The Cleopatra-plays-the-harlot theme. Why did it so attract? The ladies never Themselves considered (did they?) such endeavour. Men too had reason to be reticent: Did those who just occasionally went To houses branded as "of ill-repute" See in this bawdy tale a substitute, Which all could talk of, for the grosser acts They knew? Fictions are easier than facts To contemplate, when truth demands attention. Birth, copulation, death ... they're no invention Of poets, or mankind even; we share Them with the ass, the monkey and the bear (And goat, too; pace Kryllov!). Yes, these three Are facts with which in fiction we make free. These philosophical reflections we Inject to aid the improviser; he Needs a few moments to absorb what now The Prince and audience demand, and how The strands they offer can be woven in. Enough! He is now ready to begin: Within him burns imagination's heat; Two stanzas are already near-complete! When at the palace gate appeared A septuaginarian, Dark-skinned, and grey in poll and beard, The guards guffawed. "So you're the man "'Of unknown name, with freshest down "'Upon your cheek'? Be off, you clown!" He waited. No young lad drew near. The palace's portals stayed clear Except for this mere-skin-and-bone Sepulchre-white apology (His cloak was so, pitch-black was he) For man, standing silent, alone. Sunset. Star-rise. And still he stood, Strange effigy of stone or wood. The queen, after the last two taxing Nights, was ready to enjoy A simple lover. How relaxing To treat the young man as her toy ... And her pretended customer ... Whose wishes were commands for her. She had already planned how she Would realise his fantasy, Which she, in domineering fashion Presumed with certainty to know. But where...? "Charmian, Ira, go! (The queen was in a sudden passion) "Find him, or he'll have lost his head "Before he's even reached my bed." Ira returned: "He's sent, instead, "His man, who says, till called, he'll wait "Outside. He's black, old, underfed; "Best leave him, I'd say, to his fate." "His man!" the queen expostulates; "And you, Ira, fate me no fates! "He volunteered, and so is bound "To come himself; or I shall hound "Him here and have him crucified." She was beside herself (which is (An odd phrase. None can claim that his (Words are in logic justified.) "Go, get the old man. Drag him in, "So he can purge his master's sin." He stood, still silent, in her room. The queen talked, just to Charmian, About the building of the tomb; Made servants fetch, roll out the plan, Showing the tower and obelisk; Asked about rainfall and the risk Of subsidence, just as though her Main role was estate manager, Concerned with benefit and cost. Who could now credit she had just Been burning with frustrated lust For a teenager whom she'd lost? Intently watched, she still pretended Her interest was wholly ended. He waited. On his staff he leant; With ears alert and nostrils flared, Absorbed the sounds, the echoes, scent Of recent past: when Flavus dared To seize his sword, an emanation Was spread, half fear, half perspiration. Likewise the queen's sweet satisfaction Gave out a quite-distinct olfaction He recognised. Now old, he'd smelt, Tasted and savoured, through all senses, Such manifold experiences, Thought was irrelevant: he felt; And what th' unwitting queen would do He guessed; or, better said, he knew. Ira and Charmian she sent To bed together; called for wine, And food, with sweetmeats redolent Of all on which the gods might dine. Then music. When her ear was sated, While still the Abyssinian waited, Undressed, reclined on the divan, There to be massaged by a man (A eunuch, strictly; she enjoyed (His evident sense of frustration, (Which added zest to each sensation (His hopeless fingertips deployed). She never looked in that direction; But thought: surely he feels ... rejection. She beckoned; he advanced, and spoke (His voice profundo; educated): "Your Majesty, e'er I uncloak "Myself, my message should be stated: "The noble who, with eagerness "Then grasped your offer, now no less "Desires to do that doom-filled duty, "Of sacrificing to your beauty "His youth, his ardour and his life. "His father though, possessing power "Sufficient, seized him; in an hour "Secured his marriage; him and wife "Exiled to Ethiopia "Like criminals. That country's far "From Egypt (it's also my own). "His absence means no disrespect "To you. He begged me to atone "If possible; and to neglect "No opportunity to make "Amends. So I begin: the snake "Which you have entertained of late "Was, though I do congratulate "You on escaping, not the last "Venom-charged serpent which, I fear "Will in your life-story appear. "The future's oft naught but the past, "Repeated with an altered twist, "Disguised so the connexion's missed". "What snake?" They'd dumped it in the sea, With Kriton in a sack with stones, To keep both corpses company. How could this wretched bag of bones Know of it? E'en presume to tell, Not only past, future as well? "Fear not, I nothing heard before "I entered, but beside the door "First sensed its blinded bloody head. "As to the future, sometimes I "Have visions of near-certainty. "But now you live; and the snake's dead!" The queen was startled, but impressed; This man could stir her interest. "Clean him; feed him; and bring him back".... "I have tonight some time to kill.... "And fetch also another sack "In case I've more than hours to fill. "Recall the eunuch: this affair "Requires I properly prepare." It had, she saw, sev'ral aspects: His age, his culture, also sex. Her forbear's tutor, Aristotle, Taught that, to judge of character, One should observe what his or her Free choice is; so she'd serve a bottle Or two of best Falernian To test this Abyssinian! Cleaned, clothed and fed, oiled by her maids, He now seemed quite another man (Did we enjoy such potent aids, (How different a life we'd plan!) "Yes, I shall stick to strumpetry," The queen resolved, "He looks to me, "Despite his years, to be a man "To'appreciate a courtesan". No longer conscious of his age, She exercised then all the arts With which so oft she'd swayed the hearts Of warrior, and fool, and sage; And he responded as expected, Almost; some constraint she detected. It surely was not physical; In that department all was fine; But deeper, philosophical, Divisions stayed to draw a line Between them. Neither proved quite ready To drink too deeply of that heady Fine draught (not the Falernian) Which difference of gender can Distil. Yet he was truly tender And sensitive to her desire .... Perhaps we should not more enquire Into what happened. So we end a Hopeless essay: they separated With neither's appetite quite sated. It happens oftener than one Might think, since seldom talked about. Of course, the deed should have been done; But, when not? Well, one doesn't shout It from the roof-tops. Men desire One thing; women another. Fire And water hardly co-exist. The miracle's that sometimes, kissed And cossetted, woman's defences, Besieged by masculine aggression, Softened by verbal intercession, Do yield, and satisfy all senses, The circumstances being right.... But that can't happen ev'ry night. But something happened. She dismissed All that melodramatic stuff About the doom at dawn, the kissed- And-killed-for-love victim. Enough! She was an adult; so was he, Neither without philosophy. No matter he was twice her age: Minds so time-distanced can engage And as-it-were hand-grasped-in-hand, Over life's boundless territory, Of self and it exploratory, Enjoyably their scope expand. She was a queen. He was ... who knows? But they were equal in repose. At dawn they parted: he to walk The shore, the streets, to meditate; And she to queening, without talk Of executions. Things of state Importance held attention now: Of money, politics, and how Her horde of hanging-on relations Could be appeased without vibrations To threaten the ancestral throne. She took advice from Charmian, Her hairdresser (No, not Chairman!) But then decided on her own. She did her day's work, as was right, In consciousness of nearing night. And so the old man had somehow achieved Survival, and (so peace-lovers believed) Prospects of turning Cleopatra's mind Into a thought-mode less extremes-inclined. The smiling Prince was clearly gratified, Having the new hero identified As his true self. His smirk in the direction Of the young ladies meant that the erection Of barriers 'twixt them and him would be Now inappropriate; if poetry Were always like this, he would gladly pay To found a chair of "Poetry Today". His wife, who knew his vigour but too well, Was less enchanted, but, as one could tell From her demeanour, felt better-resigned To his adventuring. The human mind Behaves in ways not easy to explain; But reduced anger is always a gain. The audience tonight, a lively one And talkative, agreed they had begun To think the improvisatore's speech Quite relevant to current life; and each Found the decisions of domestic days, Through Aristotle, worthy of more praise Than they had thought. Quite surely life-enhancing Was this obscure adventurist's romancing. The Neapolitan was happier This time; he had removed one barrier To his ambition for a safe income Week after week, until he'd gained the sum He'd told his wife he'd have e'er he returned To the uxorious life for which he yearned. It had, he saw, been a novice's blunder To raise the notion of a three-night wonder. But how persuade them to come back for more? He didn't know. Besides, his throat was sore. The Prince came to the rescue. "You, my dear, "Have organised an entertainment here "Of culture, elegance and intellect, "Of which the prolongation I'll protect. "Each week, if he is willing, this monsieur "(No, signor rather) can, him I assure, "Come to this salon, where our Russian wit "Dazzles, to entertain us. You sought fit, "With a broad-mindeedess I much applaud, "Princess, his first endeavours to afford". "Let all further expenses fall on me". He bowed briefly to her, and processed out, Leaving the main performer in some doubt As to just whom he'd get his money from. Wherefore he added, with complete aplomb: For his part he was happy to return, If welcomed by the contents of the urn. Observing from the corner of his eye, He noticed that no lady passed it by Without contributing; so, as he shook The hands of those who leave politely took, Promised he'd Cleopatra's tale extend Until he reached its not-yet-foreseen end. Tsarsky the cynic though, with some relief, Thought: now the enterprise will come to grief; Tonight's serene dramatic resolution Will pall. Without prospect of execution, Of lover's passion and imperial rage, Of blood (imagined) flowing on the stage, The salon soon will seem too far to go, Especially once it begins to snow. Who'd go to bull-fights if the bull strolled free? Or gladiator bouts if victory Were celebrated with a fine bouquet For the victors, while victims walked away? Art is not art, unless it over-states. What we can stand experience indicates In life is little; but the human mind Towards extremity remains inclined. This will the improvisatore learn Too late: only responsive actors earn.

------------------------------------------------ Chapter 8: The second feast ------------------------------------------------

It did snow; and the audience was thin. Before the improviser could begin, One coxcomb shouted: What about the feast? Three days they've waited; and not yet the least Concern you've shown. You said the queen invited Into her bed all volunteers who plighted Themselves in payment. We know what transpired; But they're not by your clairvoyance inspired. The guests at the queen's feast still have their rights. They should be told what happened, those three nights. The Neapolitan, with visage grim, Observed the speaker, and acknowledged him. He'd had something quite different in mind, Which he at least agreeable would find, Of married love, sunshine and azure skies, Which Russians surely would not quite despise. But his profession was.... improvisation, Which must respond to any invocation. Hungry three days, they now knew why: An old man walks, and meditates. Flavus had been "recalled to Rome", The army said. Kriton's reply To callers was ... he'd stay at home, Was ill ... his words seemed muffled, slurred; And that young man, the eager third, His parents said, had left the land To make a journey long-since planned. Cover completed, their Queen might Call them again to feast tonight? She did. The courtiers resumed Their 'customed seats; the music played; The waiters made their mute parade Till food and drink were all consumed. No doubt the queenly appetite Was sated. All could sleep tonight. She rose, gestured with gentle hand: "My guest is Rasselas, the Prince "Of Abyssinia, a land "Far distant, whose menfolk evince, "If he is typical, a power "Incredible: hour after hour, "I've learned, they can plough doubtful fields "Until the most obdurate yields." He rose, black-skinned, not young, black-eyed, Bowed to the queen, then raised his glass, Said: "Yes, my name is Rasselas; "But my Princedom I set aside "Long years ago. I drink the health "Of him who has no need of wealth." "And who is that?" the whisper ran Around the tables. Some obscene Answers were offered: "He's the man "Who can pleasure all night a queen".... "Raised I was in our 'Happy Valley', "Where the surroundings so well tally "With all mankind's needs and desires "That no-one anything requires "That is not there. Yet I was not "Despite its blandishments, content; "But all my thoughts and actions bent "Towards escape. I yearned for what "I was denied: for suffering; "For unfulfilment, anything "Which, I was told, the world outside "Possessed in plenty. With my sister, "Nekayah dear, I boldly tried; "At last succeeding. 'Who'll persist a "'Little longer will succeed' "Was my fond father's constant creed. "Together we explored the world; "Saw how its history unfurled; "How ill fared simple innocence, "Merit by poverty oppressed "Unrecognised, all interest "Reserved for vice's false pretence. "We dared observe, censorious, "Having brought out much gold with us." "That's half a century ago. "To tell its tale an equal time "Were needed. I've journeyed, and know "All continents, have learned to climb "Afric's high mountains, traverse seas "Where Aeneas and Hercules "Performed their well-renowned feats; "In northern colds and southern heats "I've suffered, worked, and always learned "This truth: without a woman, man "Nothing of great importance can "Achieve, whether he's loved or spurned." He paused, and looked towards the queen: "That sums up how my life has been." "I've little more to say. I rose "To him who has no need of wealth "A toast (superfluous) to propose, "(For he surely enjoys good health). "Who is he? Perhaps more than one; "Although, when all is said and done, "There can't be many who, as he, "Enjoy love's reciprocity. "I'm old. Some say I've lost my wits, "'Twixt space and time disoriented, "Future like past being presented "Indifferently. That cap fits. "Yet drink I with feeling profound "To him who his right woman's found." The guests divided their attention. Some wanted proof of the prowess Of which the queen gave passing mention; Could they not equal power profess? Others the 'past-and-future' phrase Found interesting; in some ways He did seem one whose temporal Framework was with theirs not at all Aligned, but curiously skewed: Or (some did say) too antiquated For cities as sophisticated As Alexandria; how crude The notion Adam needed Eve; The kind of thing Jews might believe! Just then the belly-dancers burst Into the banquet room, a-quiver With energy and sensual thirst, And keen to each man there to give a Sharp testosterone injection Awakening an insurrection Of impulse against social checks, Inciters of subversive sex. Unready, Rasselas still stood, And soon was targeted by the Most energetic dancer; she Was vibrant; he as stiff as wood. The feasters crowed, in jubilation: "Now justify your reputation". She drew him to the hall's clear centre; He followed, silent, dignified; Her gestures pleaded that he enter There and then. But he denied So premature, importunate, An offer; though aroused, he'd wait Until attendants dimmed the light, The music's rhythm was just right, The dinner guests had ceased to chatter The dancer's sinuous undulation Had reached its presaged culmimation And the queen's nod approved the matter. His cloak he then laid on the floor And did what all had waited for. Applause! In Cleopatra's feasts, We must admit that conduct tended Much more to that of boors and beasts Than to the golden mean commended By Aristotle. Most preferred Extremes, and judged restraint absurd. Therefore it's needless to deplore That now the cry went up: "One more". The queen's first speech had spawned a notion, E'en loud-mouthed drunkards understood: This man must make her promise good As master of perpetual motion. So belly-dancer number two Was called, to see what she could do. It took perhaps somewhat more time; Musicians must begin again, From calm, letting the tempo climb Quite gradually; the refrain Was also different, the words Poetic, about bees and birds, And all of Nature's loveliness, Of beauty, and of gentleness. Some guests, inclined to sentiment, Saw in the dancer and the man Diana and the great God Pan, Entwined in holy sacrament. The ritual reached its due conclusion, Leaving the doubters in confusion. The queen now rose, appeared distraught, Declared enough was quite enough, Recalled that Aristotle taught 'The Middle Way and all that stuff'. Midnight long past, the early hours Beckoned to bed. (Would now the powers (She'd spoken of with admiration (Meet her still-sanguine expectation?) With Rasselas, she left the hall; Those guests still sober speculated On what she'd do when her awaited Lover fell from his pedestal: Like other volunteers, all dead, New Rasselas would lose his head. The others' bodies she had hidden Away; but this fresh one's would be, They guessed, on show, with people bidden To come, with cart and family, So all should fully understand Who must be pleasured in this land; That not to satisfy its queen Was sacrilegious, obscene. His head upon the gatepost spike; His limbs hung up for dogs to lick; And bleeding wounds with inches-thick Layers of flies, a-buzz, and like Well ... courtiers; for did not they Swarm round, and buzz, and gorge each day? Next morning dawned. The sky was blue. (In Egypt, almost every day Is thus). The wheeling sea-birds flew Over the palace as though they Had been appointed to inspect The gate and railings, and detect And warn about swarmings of flies, Or tortured limbs, or gouged-out eyes. Their cawings, so unlike the lark's Sweet trillings, or the sparrow's cheep, Could cause the timid's flesh to creep. But not this time: there are no marks Of bloodshed; and, beyond the gates, An old man walks, and meditates. "Damn him!" thought Tsarsky, he's escaped again." (He meant the improvisatore: vain, (Cunning, self-interested charlatan; And not his unbelievable old man). "He's sensed they want more blood, more pain, more sex, "Although his story's logic would perplex "A trained cryptologist to set to rights, "He's saved his income for a few more nights" The bitter smile the lady at his side Appropriated, and seemed gratified. Tsarsky responded: "When, not long ago, "You plucked that paper out, you could not know "What a strange fantasy would then unfold, "Like stories once Scheherazade told." "Are you content? The others seem well pleased." "Oh no! I think he's mad; his mind's diseased. "I know not why I come, but feel that he "Exerts uncanny power over me: "Though now I see clearly how base he is, "While he's orating I'm completely his. "Forgive me that this weakness I confess "But you, I feel, can feel his wickedness." He nodded. True, he thought she'd over-stated; But handsome girls are not to be negated. So, soon they were both deep in conversation Which, if our man continues his narration A few more evenings, may lead to what Dramatic critics term a minor plot. Her name is Ira, a coincidence Allowing him to say, in confidence, His father's father was Italian, Which helped him understand how gestures can, Uncannily exert a fascination Peculiar to menfolk from that nation; But not excuse, he was alert to add: This one was most indubitably bad. Tsarsky was right in this: the crowd was pleased. Did that mean that they too had minds diseased And dissolute? They'd heard the seagulls' cry In horror; shuddered when th'imagined fly Bloated with (this time non-existent) blood Fell earthward with (ridiculous!) a thud. No, not diseased, nor any way abnormal. Though bodies cannot, lively minds perform all Actions presented by imagination With half-proud and half-shamefaced exultation. They had not come to learn about the queen's Coiffure, or view Mediterranean scenes; But love and death, daring, last-chance success, And doubt of outcome primed their eagerness. The Neapolitan (he needs a name; (Let it be Lippo Lippi; just the same (Appears in a poem of Robert Browning (Which those who tire of our new Lippi's clowning (Might find a worthier object of attention). Lippo, despite his previous intention, Was not displeased with what he'd just contrived. He'd soothed his critics; and he had survived! What in his rigmarole would happen next Let others puzzle: he'd not be perplexed. Back in his room he counted what he'd gained And in a letter to his wife explained: So many roubles in the urn he'd found Tonight that soon he'd come, rich and renowned, To do ... oh, all a man who dwells afar Dreams of: to kiss, to hug, etcetera. To one who read his letters he'd seem no Magician, just a middle-class maestro, Who missed his home, his wife and family, Not least because he'd had, unhapppily, To picture, in his mind, licentiousness Which he could only verbally express.

-------------------------------------- Chapter 9: The Eagle Room --------------------------------------

Another week. Attendance figures up! (He'd changed the time, so visitors could sup Beforehand. The success of poetry Depends on such details in high degree.) Ira and Tsarsky entered at the same Moment. It was no accident: the game Of courting lovely ladies is an art Which can be learned: first find out in which part Of town she lives. Alone? How does she travel? With whom? And where? These questions help unravel Her mystery, at least to the extent That apt meetings occur by accident. He'd learned about her movements, not her mind. Holding his interest, she's not inclined To satisfy it: too much information, Coy mistresses know, kills infatuation. Yet this he learned: she was a woman who Could challenge Lippo Lippi: "How can you," She cried, almost as soon as he appeared, "Have us believe this queen, whose subjects feared "(With reason) her ingenious cruelty, "And who, also with reason, claimed to be "A woman for whose love some men would choose "To die, that she would let that man abuse "In public the support she had bestowed? "Enjoy attention that to her was owed?" "So would not I! My woman's instinct's sure: "Who plays me false shall pains of hell endure." Tsarsky was startled. Signor Lippi too: He must once more his half-made thoughts review. Approving murmurs round the room made clear Ira was backed by all the ladies there. Love, tolerance, live-and-let-live .... farewell! A tale of wreaked revenge must he now tell. But what the motive? Cleopatra's guest, Placed by her on the spot just thought it best To prove her oblique praise was justified. Must now the nod he'd noted be denied? Some women can approve an abstract notion; Then, the deed done, feel the reverse emotion. Men (Lippo? Rasselas?), who try to please The ladies, therefore live no life of ease, The vainly-hoped-for favourable reception Proving to be mere manly self-deception. Chagrined, because he had supposed last week To see a gleam of eye and flush of cheek In Ira's visage (often he orated (As though to her alone) which demonstrated Her pleasure in the tale that he unfolded, Pained too to be by her publicly scolded, Lippo resolved henceforth (he was not proud) To heed her outburst, and so please the crowd. "The Queen commands: The Eagle Room "Is where she waits," so said the guard, When Rasselas, the scarecrow whom He'd judged two-days-past as a hard- Luck case, a butt for ridicule. Appeared at dusk. Trickster? or fool? The word had spread: he was a prince From somewhere ... gossip said that since His last visit, she'd "acted strange". This .... Abyssinian! that was it! ... Of royalty the opposite, Could somehow Egypt's Queen derange. At one with common superstition, The guard agreed: he's a magician. Not 'strange', but angry, was the case. What motivates, if you're a queen, Is keeping countenance, or 'face', Appearing as you've always been. For Cleopatra, dominance Was dominant. That double dance By one seen as her protege, With her unable to say nay, Too much her sway had undermined. She was, true, somewhat fascinated By him; but, after they had mated, For more was wholly disinclined. How many men needs woman? None; Unless he is that special one.... "You summoned; I am come," he said. The room was where two eagles, kept In mock confinement, daily fed; Flew out by day; and sometimes slept. Thick curtains covered now their cages. Their keepers, paid by double wages (To their surprise) had scurried down To'enjoy the ladies of the town. Her fury's evident: will he Be crucified? It's in her mind Something yet more extreme to find To answer his iniquity Of which the pain-incurring weight Is measured by her feelings' state. Some women, seething, straight erupt, Ranting and raving. Others can With frigid reason interrupt Their passions, and impose a ban On prompt expression, keeping still Their stern and unrelenting will, While choosing some outrageous act They'll find deniable as fact. The queen, here in a belly-dancer's Scanty accoutrements scarce clad, Did greet him as the fresh-faced lad; Yet to herself vowed: "Necromancers "Need death. Else how perform their function? "His I'll contrive without compunction." "All praised," she told him, "yesterday: "Your manly grace, your proper pride; "Reporters I heard later say "Priapos you personified. "I've borrowed from the girls their dresses; "Like them, you see, I've loosed my tresses; "The orchestra, though out of sight, "Will play, if I say so, all night. "Since here the lady calls the tune, "On this mosaic stone stand still, "Watching my body's movements till "You're stiff with standing; but not soon! "Last night you made the lady wait. "Premature moves I'll too frustrate." He stood, as though but half intent On her; the atmosphere he sensed, Absorbed its secret argument, And, ready for its trials, tensed His will; but to her nonetheless Responded with male agelessness (When shines the sun, the earth grows warm; ('Twas ever thus, and does no harm), Yet saw the evil in her eyes; The hatred now of any man; Her smile as she relished her plan; Her pride in its believed disguise. She noticed but his physical Response, and thought him in her thrall. There was no hurry; she could choose The moment when the music ceased; Meanwhile she would his state abuse Pretending pleasure. She released Him from his immobility; And, beckoning, required that he Turned invitation into action Designed for her pride's satisfaction. Observers might have thought her groans And cries were somewhat over-done, Almost as though she wished someone Eavesdropping to envy their tones; Perhaps an out-of-sight musician Wishing he were in like position? She rested. He resumed his place, Standing in silence. Egypt's queen ... And paramour? His solemn face Disturbed her somehow; it had been, Moments before, so close to hers And seemed then like a roisterer's, Such as she'd so enjoyed when young, Before ambiguous fate had hung Around her neck trappingss of state. He seemed now such an empty man. Send him with the next caravan Packing, and so wipe clean the slate? But no; she has something in store Which she all day has waited for. "Prince Rasselas: I choose to trust "You spoke the truth last night, so I "Treat you as royal; ere you die, "As all but the immortals must, "(A platitudinous remark) "And on that pilgrimage embark "Which is for all our destiny, "I ask you to accept from me "A gift. I hope it suits your taste "As it does mine; for there's no better "Guide I know. Festoon and fetter "Have fascinated many. Chaste "Virgins prefer to be confined "Sometimes, fearing freedom to find." "Your Majesty, you too much honour "One who came only to atone, "And did; what you now heap upon a "Messenger is too high-flown "A benefit. I know you chose "It carefully: to pinion those "Two dancers cost your troops some trouble; "One were enough, yet you paid double." The queen, at first not comprehending, Stares at him, fury in her eyes. What? How? Does he know? Or surmise? Belief and disbelief contending Her regal powers impotent make. Recall that other time: the snake! "Behind the curtains, I believe," He said, "Probably gagged, but bound "Quite surely, waiting for reprieve "Or sentence, are two girls who found "Pride last night in the acclamation "Of feasting grandees of the nation. "They occupy, I guess, the cages "Of birds whose absence now engages "Their thoughts less than the feared return. "Around them, so that when you pull "The curtains back we'll see in full "Their plight, a score of candles burn. "The one whose clothing you now wear "Will be wholly naked, I fear." This lecture let the queen recover. She'd been surprised; but now she knew Herself in danger, without cover That this wizard could not see through. She rose from the dishevelled bed And pulled... it was just as he'd said. The girls were to the perches tied, One naked, and from every side Brightly illumined. Gagged indeed; Coloured ribbons their fetters were; With scarce a finger free to stir, Only their eyes could mutely plead. Their presence, and their state, he'd guessed. Was he with second-sight possessed? The candles' acrid smoke she smelt; Saw the perspiring olive skins Which his own skin last night had felt The texture of. Insight begins From chance observances, then grows Apace: of course, it was his nose In which that second-sight resided (The now-triumphing queen decided), Sensitized to faint emanations Emitted by each fragrant pore, Wafted as through an open door Past visual barriers. Vibrations Not magic but olfactory Were his weak guide. Tame trickery! So she'd continue as she'd planned. She struck a gong. Four eunuchs ran To do her bidding. Under-manned Her team, perhaps; but 'gainst one man She felt secure: annihilation Would follow; first, humiliation He well deserved; so let him wait And wonder what will be his fate. "Untie them, wash them, let them eat; "Be sure that they no comfort lack; "Dine, wine them well; then bring them back "To be beaten; or else to beat. "This one, meanwhile, lock in the cage. "Comfort's not needed at his age." They went; she waited. Long she stared Into his eyes; and he stared back. Never had any other dared To meet her visual attack. Caesar looked sidelong when she spoke To him; Mark, too, would make a joke, Avoiding her demanding eyes. Yet this man, like a mentor wise (Who knows, was Aristotle black?) Looked at her as though peer-to-peer, Brother perhaps or other near- Relation; and she still looked back. If in those glances death lay hid, One would have wilted. Neither did. Her anger did not dissipate But swelled into a new dimension. This was no lowly reprobate; Rather a source of deep dissension Whose influence, if not now quelled Her self-esteem might have dispelled; Put subjects' fear and adoration At risk: Egypt's very foundation. Yet she would not this awe admit; Better proceed as was expected Of cruel queens slightly subjected To insolence. Scourging would fit The case: a quite popular sport With people of the lower sort. The improvisatore paused, in part Out of exhaustion, for he felt his heart Beating irregularly; but also Because uncertain if his tale should go In the direction its logic dictated, Or be, no matter how, at once negated. He personally was afraid of pain, And feared its easy rhymes with 'cane' and 'chain'; And he foresaw the girls first 'stripped' then 'whipped'; The sweaty eunuchs who return, 'equipped' With ... what he knew not .... but, once flagellation Had gripped his faltering imagination, With what his knowledge of the world might lend, He was aghast at how his tale would end. A glass of water came; he wiped his brow. He sought for rescue, glances showing how Offensive some had found the tendency Of his oration? Maybe Ira? She Was starry-eyed; her hands clasped on her knees, White-knuckled, her whole posture speaking: "Please "Continue. Fetch the dancers. Let me see, "And feel what's done to them is done to me". Hers was the most extreme expresssion; but The other ladies' minds seemed just as shut. They wanted him to go on the end; Nor did he find among the men a friend. Tsarsky, perhaps, saw Ira in that cage From which his mind declined to disengage, Imagining, it may be, he and she Might share a liking for perversity? So Lippo Lippi swallowed a last sip, Reluctantly constrained to wield the whip.

-------------------------------------- Chapter 10: Transformations --------------------------------------

The girls came back, as baggage tipped Without the slightest ceremony, Off a crude cart eunuchs, tight-lipped, Pulled in. One could have bet good money The eunuchs hated every minute; Obeyed; but there was nothing in it For them. That they had been castrated Did not imply they should be fated (They thought) to handle transportation For females who, though showing skill Of sorts, and other assets, still Deserved a much inferior station. Manhood's prerogatives denied, They still possessed their human pride. "Your Majesty, they have well eaten; "No delicacy was denied. "Is it your will they should be beaten? "Would it be of elephant-hide "The implement should composed? "The executioner supposed "You might yourself prefer to choose "The whip or cane which he should use. "Suggestions he's prepared to make, "Of course, and has today devised "A novel variant comprised "Mainly of crocodile. Please take "A moment to inspect a sample: "He's sent a slave as an example". The slave crawled in; truly well-flayed. The queen however did not look. Extreme obsequiousness made Her sick. Disdainfully she took The well-wrought piece of crocodile, Apt emblem of the cruel Nile, And threw it to the eunuch. "Eat "It! Chew! Its taste is hard to beat." To her perverse imagination, Such notions easily occurred, Brilliant at times, sometimes absurd; The haughty empress of a nation Then watched with an amused contempt Her wretch the impossible attempt. "In Parthia, I've seen that done "Successfully" ... it was the voice Of Rasselas ... "Once there was one "To whom they gave the fateful choice: "'Consume it or by that be beaten "To death by what you might have eaten.' "Admittedly, the whip was smaller, "And he who ate it stouter, taller, "And under a more real threat "Than this poor wretch, who knows you meant "For him merely mental torment, "And that you finally will let "Him off, enabling him to boast "He is your favourite, almost". "You know then Parthia?" She turned ... Mark Antony's campaigning there She thought of always, and now burned Even the tiniest scrap to hear Of information, hearsay, guess, To stanch the thirst of loneliness, Which suddenly was over-powering ... Turned to one she'd imagined cowering On the cage floor. But he stood tall And confident, as though he was Her equal, making conversation, Controlling her new animation, Of which he knew the hidden cause. Her queer command, he'd let her think, Proved she'd with Antony some link. "I do. They are barbarians; "But learned men from India, "Philosophers, grammarians, "Astrologers and others are "Like heroes treated. Courtesans "Are honoured too for knowing man's "Conflicting needs for love and war "And reconciling them. What's more, "These practice their own medicine "Based on the notion: mental health, "And bodily, can be by stealth "Conveyed through touching, skin-to-skin." She listened, thought of Mark, her man, Contacting such a courtesan. "Go on," she said, "How can one steal "A young girl's beauty, young man's strength? "Purloin perchance sinews of steel? "Of long-lived lives extend the length "Until, having accomplished "Our aims, we're willing to fall dead?" She was still beautiful, still strong, Yet evidently thought: "Ere long "My limits, mental, physical, "I'll surely reach." Then thus the sage, As though unconscious of the cage: "Their medicine's a magical "Dramatic dermatology, "To me not wholly mystery." Uncaged at her command, he told The girls, until-then disappointed, To strip, to stand closely and hold Each other's shoulders. He anointed With olive oil their olive skins As were they wrestlers of whom wins Always the one who best can slip His adversary's thwarted grip. The Abyssinian doffed his cloak, Wrapped it around the girls and tied Its girdle tight; elephant hide He judged to deal too harsh a stroke And, having a light cane selected, Delivered what they'd long expected. The queen looked on with interest, Admired his shoulder's rise and fall, Envied indeed the holy zest Which he exuded, not at all The brute's grimacing satisfaction, But more the air of one whose action Formed part of a religious rite To initiate an acolyte. The girls made not the slightest sound. Were they anaesthetised? A smoke Of droplets rose from every stroke And spread a sweet aroma round The stock-still cloak-enclosed pair Who had been (were they still?) so fair. The action stopped. Upon release The girls, still silent, now seemed older And sadder, on each brow a crease. With sagging breast and drooping shoulder, They slank without protest away. "There is a purpose to this play," He said, "Which if, you wish to see, "Take this; then do the same to me "O Queen, as I to them." He wrapped His cloak around him, foot to head, And waited. She did as he said, As though in ritual entrapped: An unbeliever, nonetheless Constrained by extra-worldliness. She stopped at last from weariness (Fit only for other exertions, (Expressions of the lustiness (Which under-lay feast-time assertions, (Her thighs being stronger than her arms); And thought: she'd like to see what harms On this old man she'd now inflicted. Had she not not-long-since predicted For him complete annihilation? Somehow, through thoughts of Antony, Or else the man's effrontery, She'd lost her wonted concentration. Peel off then the now-steaming cloak And see ... but what? was this a joke? Or miracle? The man was gone; Or, rather, totally transformed Into the lad she'd counted on As her third lover, eager, warmed By youthful vigour, innocence, And above all the radiant sense That Cleopatra was the sun And moon for him, the sacred one For love of whom he'd forfeit all His own, his family's, ambitions, Fame such as flows from daring missions, And what the ordinary call Success, which less than nothing means To one who has once been his queen's Companion for a final night. So she surrendered totally Her unbelief. To touch and sight, That youth it was assuredly, Of whom she'd till now been deprived; And instantly that love revived Which she had felt when at the feast He'd volunteered, the last and least Yet dearest of the volunteers. The others were run-of-the-mill Admirers, good enough but still Not of this lovely lad the peers. She took his hand and gently led Him to the pleasures of her bed ... Where we should leave them for a while, Having experienced surprises Which may perhaps beside the Nile Be commonplace; for us it wise is To ponder what is false, what truth; And wonder if regret for youth, Slipping always, answers the question: Whether it's not auto-suggestion Which us, and Cleopatra, moves To treat as truth what cannot be. She dares not think: "It is not he"; And we disdain him who disproves (Spoiling our sentimental dreams) What fits our poetasting schemes, So passed the night. By rosy dawn The lad had vanished; Rasselas Had reappeared; the two forlorn Belly-dancers were chirpy as A pair of chicks, who grimed with mud, Had just been rescued from the flood. Youthful again, too: gone dejection; Chastisement suited their complexion. And what of her for whom had been Contrived the whole grotesque charade? Mish-mash of Casanova, Sade, And Faustus: the grimly-gulled queen? She slept, peaceful as peasant child, On whom a guardian angel smiled. On waking, the old man still there, She in her sudden wont decided He should remain as her Vizier, Her guru, who henceforth resided Within her palace. His insight Into her mind saved her last night; And pleasured her, she knew not how. He acquiesced; his courtly bow Was Roman-strong, was cultured-Greek, Parthian-cunning, Macedonian, Abyssinian, Babylonian ... All these, and yet still tongue-in-cheek. He'd be her bounden servant, true; But, unabashed, her teacher too.

Chapter 11: Lippo Lippi bows out --------------------------------

Signor Lippi had done his very best To satisfy those whose main interest Was sex and violence. Were nakedness, Total, abject, extreme defencelessness, Not well, indeed excellently, portrayed? Had he not, in the circumstances, made Much of the threat to that tiresome old man (Who'd never fitted his poetic plan, (But by the equally repugnant prince (Had been invented)? It was weeks now since He'd felt himself less audience-beholden; For, now, he felt they felt, his words were golden: They'd followed him along the razor's edge, Beguiled and grateful for the privilege. The girls had been, as hoped for, duly stripped; The eunuchs (but who cares?) humiliated; A handful beaten, no-one fiercely whipped; Someone (only a slave-boy) flagellated. The queen, whom all admired, had had her will With one whom some might envy (but he still (Had only half a claim to be alive). Meanwhile Prince Rasselas ... he would survive. By his desire, two lovely girls were beaten, In order that their elixir of youth Should be extracted (borrowed but, in truth). He'd told tall stories of a man who'd eaten A whip, or some such instrument; and now Had got himself a job for life, somehow. He (Signor Lippi) now simply refused To do more rhyming. Had he not just used The careful scheme he'd chosen for tetrameters Forgetting it was time now for pentameters? He bowed, awaiting the hoped-for applause, Meek subject of the entertainer's laws. It came: the audience was quite ecstatic. The princess, till the last verse enigmatic, Smiled at him, nodding. Why? Because she'd seen His struggle to avoid being obscene? The prince had, as both lad and Rasselas, Smirked with contentment. That was it: a lass He lay with only so that, skin-on-skin, She could exude and he imbibe; no sin It was by this merely to minimise The gap that else 'twixt youth and old age lies. Ira? She was, he saw, not disappointed. He'd watched her while old Rasselas anointed The two young ladies with such feeling fingers The after-glow it seems still with her lingers. And Tsarsky, Lippi sees, no longer can Judge for himself: he is a shallow man Whose surface every wayward wind reflects That's breathed upon him by the other sex. As to himself, he is well satisfied. His finer feelings he has not denied (Or hardly). Overt sensuality Was minimal. Tonight he'll write that he Has given the performance of his life, Inspired by her alone, his virtuous wife. The future? He's prepared to say farewell; Feels he indeed has little more to tell; But, should some few desire that he return He'll count the votes they cast ... there, in the urn.

Part 3 of three. How it ended ----------------------------- Chapter 12. Charsky; and Lara -----------------------------

His fit poetic had a long while lasted ... One hundred lines a day, for many weeks (And most of them condemned to be waste-paper), Had left our poet tired, almost exhausted; Yet still content. He'd reached that happy point Which, if still in poetic mood, he'd liken To that which strivers in the act of love Sometimes attain: the goal is not yet reached; But there's a certainty that, striving on, They surely will enjoy the strained-for bliss. Just so he felt; through Lippi he'd expressed it (Much of himself he'd half-displayed through him); And basked in self-regarding admiration. It wasn't bad, he thought; not bad at all. He'd read it through. Yes, there were lines to change; A coarse word here to switch for something finer; Just there a rhyme that's too far-fetched; even A whole line missing! Such defects he patched, Item-by-item, working all day through, Concluding finally: I'll send it now. Charsky was not a writer who could do Without a Muse, a special reader, whom He thought of always; and, in this case, she (It was one always of the female gender) Lived far away, in Moscow; whom he saw Infrequently. They'd met ... no matter where; ... And she, so he asserted, then revived Poetic impulses he'd thought were dead. Her name? Larissa. But to him she was "His Larochka"; although for that smug "his" He had no warrant. Still, kindly, she'd not Reproved him for this liberty; so he Concluded, with his male insouciance, That she allowed (a little) the absurd Ownership implication of that word. Next day, in his best hand-writing, he wrote All out again (with some last-chance amendments) And sent it with a newly written sonnet, In strict acrostic style, whereby first letters Must make up words, even sometimes make sense.

Dear Lara, you who drew attention to Egyptian possibilities, I send All I have done so far: Parts 1 and 2. Read them please; then advise me how to end. Lippi has taken charge: he knows he can Attract the crowds, amuse, and let them feel Raw fear, pure pity (Aristotle's plan (For Art: catharsis can the soul's ills heal). You are the one, though, my poems must please Or else be destined for that sad limbo Unpublished writings languish in; where these Will lie deservedly, I fear. But, oh, Had you a word to say not too adverse, Of praise even, I'd plod on with my verse.

The servant took it. It was his affair How to despatch the missive. Charsky never Had learned (or needed to) how any letters Were paid for, trusted to unknown transmitters, And somehow into far-off hands delivered. For him enough it was, in his work-book And rhyming couplets, own thoughts to record:

Charsky's work-book -------------------

I've sent it to my Muse, believing she, Acknowledging responsibility For my pen's pourings, cannot but be pleased. It's true: Ira thought Lippi was diseased In mind; but that was female affectation Disguising hard-to-swallow excitation Resulting from the scenes he had portrayed. My Larochka will not be so dismayed. Did she not first suggest the theme to me: That Cleopatra's love-life might well be Of interest? She could instead have pointed To saints and saintesses wholly anointed In holiness. She could have, but did not. Surely, she wanted me to make plain what, In this department of humanity, Is true and wholesome, as it seems to me. Until she answers though, I've much to do. Between Lippi and Tsarsky troubles brew, For which I must contrive to give expression; Else they will sour the spirit of each session. How shall I engineer it? In the urn Ira places this message: "If you'd learn "More of Egyptian ways, I have a book "Which an ambassador to Turkey took "(He was my father) home with him, then died "Within the year; but did to me confide "Its secrets. There are pictures too. Alone, "I scarce dare look on them; yet I must own "They've long exerted a strange fascination "Upon my late-at-night imagination. "Could you give them poetical expression "For all to hear, my personal obsession "Might be relieved. A 'Lady in Distress', "I need a 'White Knight'. This is my address..." Lippi accepts, of course, the invitation; Visits her with naive exhilaration, Conscious of making grand social advances, Which surely will reflect on his finances. An hour later, leaves, wearing such a grin As must mean happy consciousness of sin To watching Tsarsky, whose more-noble brow Has never crossed that threshold, but who now Surely has evidence, revenges's fuel, Sufficient for a challenge to a duel... Were only the base Neapolitan, Instead of what he is, a gentleman. Pistols at dawn? the outskirts of the town? In honour's cause?! .... but not with such a clown! So, though his fury urges him to action, He sees no way of finding satisfaction.

But poets, furious or baffled, still In adverse circumstances can preserve (Mostly) their peace of mind by mockingly Writing of self, of friends, of enemies, Of Fate, of what they do (or wish they did); And they're content to read their fourteen lines Over and over, like a pilgrim's mantra. So, taking up again his rested pen And a-propos of nothing obvious, Our Charsky frowned, pursed lips, and frowned again; And in a dozen minutes produced this:

I dally with the ladies of the town, Delightful girls, who do not ask for much. Not one has ever met me with a frown; And some say they enjoy my gentle touch. After we've done what we've agreed to do, We talk about their lives (and mine), their hopes (Not fears; they seem to have none. One I knew Had conscience problems once; but now she copes.) They're learners all, not just in their profession, Horizon-wideners, well-versed, well-read, For some, self-education's an obsession; For none is life only what's done in bed. It's not their fault they cannot satisfy My deep desire with you to live and die.

Who was that "you"? His Larochka perhaps? Or could he have Tsarsky write this to Ira? Probably neither. Lara, who existed, He must be careful of, treat with respect, Especially while waiting for her letter. Fictitious Tsarsky, sadly, was too solemn For such light-hearted utterance; for him, More tenderness was proper. Maybe this ....

When, ballerina-like, you stood, Half-smiling, half-enquiring too, That your performance would be good I knew with certainty. But you Had only your professional Cool courage to rely upon, Should I prove the exceptional But ever-watched-for wayward one. I nodded; you advanced, and then With tender expertise began What love and women do for men. For you, I now was one more man; For me, you were my matchless maid, Naked, defenceless, unafraid.

Of course not, though the girl's name had been Ira (A strange coincidence? But maybe not), Whom he remembered with the fondest pleasure; For she indeed had been the very first. More thoughtfulness, less sensuality, Was what Charsky's and Tsarsky's cases needed.

What do you think of Egypt's conjured queen? Has she lived up (or down) to expectation? As tyrant, should she more cruel have been? The whore, was she a credible creation? Did you identify with her some way? Or else with Kriton? Or the belly-dancers? Young ladies of today, or so they say, Open their hearts to roues and romancers, Unthought-of by their mothers' generation. To understand what they, or, rather, you Have of this mish-mash made, what constellation Illumines your mind now I wish I knew. Not knowing, I must my own thoughts suppress; Knowing, my apprehension might be less.

This sonnet could the Ira-Tsarsky pot Keep boiling; or, he could send it to Lara, Into whose mind he'd dearly love to look. The problem was the one which constantly He grappled with: bland unacknowledgemnt Of sensuality Art galleries Display as unashamedly as Eve And Adam (till they knew that they were nude); Which poets are allowed to make but in- Direct allusion to. And this was why He let his puppet Lippi stagger on, Along the ridge dividing crudeness from Sweetness's insipidity. What did (He truly wished to know) demure females Make of it all? Was there any connection? If only they'd speak out! Perhaps just one, Just once, in him confiding first, would be His confidante, with whom talk could be free. Yes, that was what he wanted: someone who Would take him, Charsky, as he sought to be, Sharing ambitions, relishing the same Pleasures and interests, including those Convention frowned on, even utterly Forbade. Not better; no, nor worse than he; With frailties to match his own; rueful About them, hers and his; but not ashamed. Of such imaginings are sonnets made.

Be, if you will, my only confidante, Exceptional in acting all of these: Mistress, dear sister, wise favourite aunt, Youth-sharer, maker-up of memories. Confiding, with and in full confidence, Outing my shaded secrets to your light, (Nor, when I flaunt my self-judged innocence, Fearing your scorn. You need not say I'm right!), I'll pay your pains by seeking to amuse. Do not then fear a catalogue of sorrows (A poet, you well know, can pick and choose Now past joys celebrating, now tomorrow's). Take then my sonnetised confessions; and Enjoy even some loves at secondhand.

So Charsky whiled away his leisure hours, Musing, amusing, waiting for his Muse In far-off Moscow to decide if praise Or blame he'd earned; sometimes quite confident; Sometimes aghast at what he had revealed About himself (or so she must suppose), Enough to make himself a monster in Her eyes... and in his own now.... He was quite Sure, suddenly, that she would never write.

Chapter 13. Waiting; the end of Cleopatra -----------------------------------------

A letter came; but it was not from her. Delivered by a lean, lugubrious, Wide-hatted and long-coated, grey-bewhiskered, Cadaverous, grey man, with no word said, To Charsky's servant; then the man was gone. It was hand-written, in flamboyant style; Its language grand; its sentiments obscure, But menacing. A lady's name was mentioned: Elvira! And the implication was Charsky had compromised her honour. How? Such details were unnecessary; for, If Charsky were a gentleman, he'd know His duty... Wherefore, at a certain place And time he'd be expected ... and so on. How idiotic! How despicable! As poet, he'd enough to bear, God knows! Approached incessantly by... but already In Chapter One it's been explained... and now, Because he wrote some playful verses for A lady, he's regarded by some oaf As target-fodder. How ironic, too, That, even if the lady were the one He had designs on, he had nothing uttered To her or anyone! And now he shuddered, Suspecting fact and fiction had diffused Into each other; that Prince Rasselas, His creature, had divined some hidden thought And in his reason-guided but uncanny Manner, implanted it where it might grow. For, it was true he had, on that fifth night, Pictured ... well, someone ... in the eagles' cage. Imagined only! Surely not a sin. In any case his challenger did not Seem saint-like, but rather the opposite. Our Charsky was a literary man. He knew contemporary writers who Courted such dangers; but, as to himself, Had no pretensions. Let them call him coward When, like Octavian to Anthony, He said his challenger had better ways To die. He too; and old age not the worst. Rational Charsky! Cleaver to the mean; Nor hot, nor cold; but somewhere in-between. He was, nevertheless, somewhat disturbed; With the inevitable consequence: Out came the work-book; moistened was the pen; The frown; the sky-ward look; then, once again...

Already spring. Signor Lippi was now Established; his good friends had shown him how To rent a hall, arrange for catering, And advertise each week a gathering To which came: dandies; letters-loving gents; Blue-stocking ladies primed with arguments, For and against all fashionable notions, (But furnished also with quite fierce emotions); Young girls with disapproving chaperones; And stern-faced moralists whose lofty tones Laid down the law after each episode, Discharging in this way the debt they owed To their upbringing. With this motley crew, Some from the demi-monde fore-gathered too. "See you at Lippo Lippi's," was the phrase The modish uttered as they went their ways. Tsarsky came weekly; but solely for Ira. He loathed the hateful Lippi, but could bear a Boring bombastic out-pouring, if it Allowed him, without looking, just to sit Near her; and maybe afterwards discuss What passages were not too cretinous. The improvisatore still desired Suggestions; told his audience: "Inspired "I can be only if my hearers find "The spark sufficient to ignite my mind". Start me on anything; I'll do my best: "Magnetic Pole; climbing Mount Everest; "Ivan the Terrible; The Golden Horde; "Nikita's daughers; or Tsar Dadon's sword." Ira it was (Again! thought Tsarsky, What (A character! What intellect!): "Forgot "I've not, your several hints that Rasselas "Could see the future. I'd have you tell us "How he cautioned Queen Cleopatra to "Prepare to make wise choices; though he knew "Which she would make. It is the prophet's fate "To see; with urgent clarity to state "What still-avoidable dire consequence "Impends ... to those locked in the present tense." The improvisatore nodded, closed his eyes, Dramatically; all could hear the sighs Which told his watchers he had feared this task; But known it was inevitable. Ask Reprieve he would not: though his final breath It cost, he'd tell of Cleopatra's death.
That Rasselas was more than an Ancient-and-modern world scholar The Queen knew; yet what kind of man She'd made her Vizier, she was far From understanding. Could he see Into the future? How could she Test him? She knew! "Bring me the dice, "I'll throw; but he shall write, before "I do, what he thinks I shall score." She did; he did. Results compared With what (mathematicians said) Random predictions might have led To, left no doubt that, if he dared To stake his livelihood on what He could predict ... he'd better not. His friends (and he had made some in (Court circles) said he'd never claimed Insight into which chance would win When cards were cut or arrows aimed; Indeed, he'd nothing claimed at all. But ... judging psychological Propensities, predicting how Some character, all-powerful now, Might his days end (or hers, of course) Unless advised, prepared aright, Submitting whim to reason's light ... That could engage his mental force. The Queen, they said, could make no wiser Choice than take him as adviser. She did: "Octavia is wife "To Anthony ... in law only. "Use now your paid-for lawyer's knife "To cut the ties." "Legality "With prudence joined says what one should "Not do. Octavia's a good "Woman," he said. "She's sister, too, "To one whose power over you, "Will grow, as far as I can see "(Though all could turn out otherwise; "(Ask me, and I'll a plan devise!) "Because you're you; and Anthony "... I hesitate his tale to tell, "To one who knows his mind so well ..." "Continue." Anything he said Was welcome; he had such a voice... Moreover his words always led Towards her still-unspoken choice Of topic. What cared she for wives? She cared for Anthony; their lives Were lived upon a higher plane; But for how long? That was the main Question for her, which her Vizier, Who seemed sometimes her father, brother, Ex-lover, ex- ... something-or-other .... Might answer for her. Could he peer Into the future, guess, advise, Help her what-will-be optimise? "Mark Anthony (a worthy man "In half the world's opinion), "Being averse to plot and plan, "May seek to base his future on "A duel's outcome. Many do, "(In this age!) think it proper to "Allow a weapon, well- or ill- "Wielded (both methods need some skill), "Life-and-death questions to decide. "Cautious Octavian, I think, "Will not venture up to that brink, "Reflecting: those who calmly died, "When they were ready for their fate, "In bed, 'twere best to emulate." "Their contest will be proxy-fought "Therefore, whether by land or sea. "That choice, historians have taught, "Is crucial. Will Anthony "Choose rightly? You, as Egypt's queen "And fleet commander, will have been "Consulted surely. I surmise "Much power for good in your hand lies "And will, when comes the fateful day. "No-one can know, so far ahead, "Will seas be calm, dawn skies be red, "Or what the auguries will say. "Till then, over old records pore: "The battle's won ere starts the war." Wise words; but Cleopatra still For vision ravened; argument, However sage, she'd had her fill Of. Back her whirling mind then went, Back to the Eagle Room; the night When, gasping, she guessed second sight: Was his who, from the scented cloak Emerging, ... as another spoke, And looked, and acted! Magical That moment; that was when she knew His trees of secret knowledge grew In gardens supernatural! "Have you your old cloak still?" Which one He knew ; and why she asked. 'Twas done Within (an Oriental) minute. (The servants ran, and searched, returned (Not empty-handed). "Wrap me in it," She bade her maids, "For I have learned "Visions are not made in the eye; "Nor is this cloak mere clothing. I "Have seen from it emerge what might "The past have brought of sweet delight. "Now of the future I would know, "Asking only what kind of woe "May me befall; and what the choice "Not yet fixed in my destiny "Still may I make; for history, "Not written yet, must check its voice, "Judgmental, holding back its scorn "Until the future's truly born." Into the Eagle Room, alone, They went. He'd shed his Vizier's gown And was again that skin-and-bone Black-skinned scarecrow. The Queen lay down On a divan. Within the cage, Two eagles, of uncertain age But certain symbolism (Rome!) Made clear that this room was their home. He stood and waited, not for her, But for a wind to fill the sails Of his vessel of vision. Gales May follow; now, mere light airs stir. While waiting, this his thought: "It's clear "The queen was wise to bring us here." This vision first he saw, recounted, While she, within his cloak's protection, Saw equally, as though both, mounted Upon some Pegasus, detection- Free, rode through the still-future world Reading the scrolls not yet unfurled: She walked though Rome; her children too; But not as honoured royals do. She was as tattered harlot clad, Her hands tied to a chariot's Railing, the children's too, by knots Impossible to loose. They had Been honoured with the prime position In the triumphal exhibition Octavian, the conqueror Of Egypt, and of all the world, Had, no cost spared, created for The Romans, who, delighted, hurled Abuse, offal, and excrement At targets clearly Heaven-sent To represent the enemy That dared doubt Roman destiny. "Would it be so?" she mutely asked, Her eyes conveying all. "Maybe," His eyes replied, "But I can see "Alternatives. Though much is masked, "Study, if you'd that fate avoid "The scene before you now deployed." There comes a boat, Liburnian In style, and swifter than the one The Queen sails in (Egyptian- (Designed, a palace, built to run (Away from battle in, and carry (The treasure chests, though pirates harry (It grievously). Was this one now? Not so; for, standing at its prow, Is General Marcus Anthony. He wears no armour, wields no sword, Seems eager just to climb aboard, Then squat in abject misery: Betrayed, beaten, as if, unmanned, Nor mind nor body more can stand. Three days he's mute, with heavy head Held in his hands. At Matapan, Anchor and pride drop both: her bed He creeps into; she takes her man; Persuades him to accept some food, And drink with her. So is renewed A love inimitably deep: Again together, they can sleep ..... "This can not be! I do not mean "The loving reconciliation, "But the before-it separation; "And the defeat!" protests the Queen. "The ship-builders of Egypt are "Of the known world the best, by far." "All may be well," says the Vizier, "Though building is but the beginning. "Ill-preparation costs one dear; "At last, the only good is winning." Seized now though of another theme, He draws a hard-to-credit dream Of Anthony in Libyan Retirement, as a holy man! Landed in Cyrenaica, He new-creates himself: hermit And anchorite for naught more fit Than death, self-made, in Africa; Where you, O Queen, leave him to die. But he will follow, bye-and-bye; For Ptolemys are stronger than This bombast weakling, who at home Defers to women, plays the man Only when street-scrapings from Rome Applaud him as, with Caesar dead, They flattered, praised him when he said That Brutus was a noble man And Cassius, that also-ran, Was noble too. So, why endeavour Him to revive, mere waste of breath: "Inseparable e'en in Death" He'd have you both. It is not clever To die, when there's another man, Of weight, waiting: Octavian. The Queen, now cowering in his cloak, Face-hid, knew duty to her nation, And to her ancestry. Who spoke Of Ptolemy, continuation Raised to the top of virtue's list, None's higher than persist! persist! Octavians may come and go, But Alexander's heirs all know Difficulties are merely what The gods devise so as to sieve The lighter out. The weightier give They strength to cut the Gordian knot. It might be wise, she could well see, To, yes, abandon Anthony!
So Lippo Lippi dragged the matter out. He knew the way she died, had read about Her vacillations, her romance-less cold Consideration of what, if she sold Her lover, she'd collect in recompense ... Perhaps ... (but she had also enough sense To know the bargain-makers would indeed Do nothing promised, once she had agreed). Was there the Happy Valley Rasselas Rejected? In the mountain-guarded mass Of Ethiopia, did there exist A vale designed for such a hedonist As she, a refuge for the rest of life; For him (whomever), and his loyal wife. Why should not Rasselas and Anthony Confer? 'Gainst such a combination she Would not prevail. 'Twere better it so ended, With all at peace, and no statute offended. Lippo thought of his wife, the town, the sea Of Naples, sighing almost audibly. So churned his thoughts, still, as he checked his speech, Coughed unconvincingly, then peered at each Front-row visage, relishing here a smile, And there a pensiveness which could beguile A less susceptible person than he (If such a record-breaker there could be) Into believing Cleopatra's end Was not the point, that he had made a friend. His eyes sought Ira's. Since he'd visited Her, looked with her at those pictures she said Disturbed her (Egypt's Queen as naked slave In Roman triumph, she said, truly gave Her deepest anguish), he had tried to keep In mind her mind, in which he saw a deep Involvement in the issues which he'd chanced To be embroiled in: sex and violence; Voyeuristic obsession, innocence Yet claiming, which she needed to confess.... She met his gaze, and nodded; meaning: "Yes, "You said it well." For she had told him how (Plutarch she'd studied), squatting in the bow, Mark Anthony had stayed all day, all night, Speechless, desireless, no more fit to fight For victory, for dignity, for fame, Than an extinguished taper can inflame Even dry straw, or than an out-of-breath Deck-landed flying fish can dodge dry death. Tsarsky observed their glances. Agitated, He rose, bowed coldly, and the hall vacated. This jumped-up foreigner had over-stepped The final mark; such scoundrels should be kept In check; he'd have his servant tonight beat Him senseless in the snow-stilled-silent street. Lucky Lippi, were he a gentleman; Honour would hold him to a nobler plan Which, 'spite its idiocy, to refuse He'd not be able; so much more than bruise His all-too-mortal body would afflict, Leaving him lost and dead and derelict. But neither noticed. Many came and went; Glasses were filled, brows mopped, powder and scent Spread lavishly, lips pursed, and looking-glasses Perused in rooms apart. Meanwhile what passes For conversation - "Oh! how this! how that!" - Unhearing totally, pale Ira sat In apprehension. She (perhaps alone (In all the audience) had made her own The fate of Cleopatra; Lippi's voice And gestures had left her no other choice. Lippi, poor man, was otherwise turmoiled. The concentration Ira's eyes had spoiled He needed; for whatever Muse controlled His trance-like perorations had just told Him to wind up the play, parade the cast, And humbly bow: tonight would be his last Performance; Cleopatra's doomed to die; The improvisatore must comply. He hoped only his voice and mind had strength To tell a tale of such tragical length.
"I too can guess, and think ahead, "Prepare alternatives and plan: "If this..., or that..., or else," she said; "A woman may out-think a man, "If she but choose. I know what may "Transpire; before that fearful day, "I shall my ships by land transport "Over the mercifully short "Sea-separator. Launching then "My fleet, my treasure in its hold, "I can, with Anthony, the Old "World leave behind me. Let all men "Marvel, and write new histories "Of Egypt in the Southern Seas." Said Rasselas: "So think we all: "We've will, and opportunity, "The acumen, the wherewithal, "To shape anew our destiny; "Yet often there's the unexpected: "Some by-stander whom we've neglected "May intervene without due cause, "Putting our enterprise on pause; "And then, for no apparent reason, "Aborting it. Prepare for this. "Not only the dramatic kiss "Signals defeat; nor high-flown treason; "Mere humble human waywardness "Will do the damage, nonetheless. "Ships, made of workable, Nature- "Formed substance, tool-friendly, the same "Which man employed once to secure "The sharpened Stone historians name "An Age by, are easily burned. "Boat-burning's an old practice, learned "From ancients, who a dead hero, "With flaming trophy-store launched so "To plummet to the ocean floor. "And Mark will pyre, just to prevent "Defections, many. Time ill-spent! "He might have won, had he burned more. "And those you'd send to the Red Sea? "All burned by Malchus, Nabatee." The Queen's Vizier had changed: his erst- While diffidence was gone. How it Would be? He knew! Cassandra's cursed- By-lack-of-credit role were fit For him. He'd not, sure, be believed; But, of foresight to be relieved, Would be a grand unburdening. He heard the gleeful chorus sing On Samos, which the now-doomed pair Had chosen as their special isle, On which they'd their last months beguile, Where all should famous be, and fair; Where Dionysus (Bacchus) stood Above all other gods: the Good. Old Rasselas could see how it Would be: they still had time, but wasted Their chances; and the benefit Fell to the prancing crew which hasted With them to Samos: dancers, actors, Hair-dressers, painters, chiropractors, But none who could defend a town, Storm over ramparts, or strike down, Around the central seas wide shores With arrow swarm or horsemen's charge An enemy, whose troops, at large, Are massing. Although he abhors A traitor, says Octavian, he Can come to terms with treachery. Samos, an isle not far from Troy, (Where Helen's Paris lived and played (Favoured by goddesses: a boy (Who thought the world for him was made) Became for Anthony and his Besotted (sometimes) Queen-Isis A place of theatre where all Plays would be played. Therefore the call, In both their names pronounced, was: "Bring "Your artists, singers, conjurers, "Snake-charmers, sabre-swallowers, "All who can harp, or chant, or sing; "While cold Octavian his forces "Scrapes up discreetly, our resources "We'll squander, showing thus the measure "Of Egypt's unsurpassable "Riches and strength. Italy's treasure, "Compared with ours, is laughable". 'Twas true in part; except that time Is bestowed equally. Those climb Into the vantage-point who choose Their share unequally to use. "There is a time...," Brutus had said, "Which taken at ... etcetera, "Leads on to... " He'd done better a Simple question to pose instead: Where, in one year, will each side be, If neither change its policy? The queen, now spell-bound, in his cloak Huddled and heard. She knew he knew What would befall: the words he spoke She was condemned to make come true. She'd send to Mark the message dread That, lying, told him she was dead, And drove him to that suicide So badly bungled. Ere he died He'd stagger to her refuge tower, To be by rope and tackle heaved To see alive the one he'd grieved For; overcome, in that last hour, Mingling her blood with his she'd strive To will him, order him, alive. She knew the dagger she would use To free herself from that parade Through Rome; also that she might lose The chance. Arms pinioned, harmless made By scaling-ladder-wielding troops, She'd play the subject queen who stoops To bargain, pleading, penitent, Begging the victor to relent. Her children: might they be allowed To take the throne which she'd vacate? To stabilise the shaken state And pacify the sullen crowd Of citizens? She'll smile and smirk; The worn-out magic might still work. She knew also that Flavus' death Had been a portent: suicide By sword-falling, a man's last breath For her breathed out, indeed implied Fatality was truly what Her love entailed; and it was not A dramatising feast-time speech Merely, when she declared that each Should die. Then what did Kriton show? That serpents are woman's true friend; And, should one need a life to end, There was no better way to go: Pick from the offered fruit, and grasp What lies beneath, the bidden asp. And the last lover of those three? He'd sent an aged substitute, Who nonetheless, in some degree, Discerning the deep-delved root Of her desires, her hopes and fears, Had stripped her. As her world's end nears, She sees herself as in a cage, Victim of higher ruler's rage; There eagles may fly in and out At will; yet she is trapped inside, Like those two belly-dancers, tied Helpless. There's no more room for doubt: Prince Rasselas's vision is How it will be: her Nemesis. She shudders as her inner ear, What future chroniclers will tell Of, now as loud as life can hear: The crowd's clamour, the tolling bell, The raucous semi-drunken voices, (Here one protests, there one rejoices); A chorus chants; cymbals and drums Compete; a swelling murmur hums. Outside, the palace walls, illumed By smoking hand-held torches waving Over the heads of ranting, raving Multitudes, darken. Then the doomed City falls silent, bleak, bereft: The Dionysian crew has left. ------------------------------------------

Charsky considered: That's the end of her. I have now only Tsarsky to dispose of. And Lippo Lippi. Maybe also Ira? The Prince and Princess too will need a mention? What of the ladies of the demi-monde, Whom I brought in upon a sudden whim But have not managed to inject as yet Into the story? Save them for my next. Lara, if she does write, may choose another Ending. Meanwhile, what else have I to do? Pistol practice? Though that would both pass the time And serve some purpose too, I'd rather rhyme. But letters, pistols, put him now in mind Of that odd visitor, and what had led To his latest poetic outburst. Yes, An answer his antagonist required. Let it be sent, nay muzzle-stuffed, then fired.

Dear Sir, I rather think you've been misled. Elvira (I address her as 'Madame') Always I have respected, bowed my head Reverently towards. I could not harm So pure a lady, even if I would. I therefore totally reject, resent, Resist, repudiate, renounce ... (and, should (I have missed any verb of like dissent, (Regard it, please, as a super-addition) ... All other imputation. You may call Ten thousand witnesses: but their submission Has weight against the truth .... nothing at all. Emphatically, I'll not take the action Requested. Seek elsewhere your satisfaction.

Poets are fortunate. To' express, in words Fitting a pattern proved in countless tests To pacify men's minds, what worries theirs, For them is to resolve the problem. They Can turn attention then to subjects more Congenial. He sent the sonnet off (Or, rather, put it in his servant's hands, (With a dismissive wave), and thought about Another letter. What would it contain? With this result, of course: a second sonnet.

Dear Lara, while I wait your judgement, I Endeavour to imagine you, sitting At home and pondering the question: Why, Rather than choosing a subject more fitting... Love, which I feel; hope, which I'm much prone to; Appreciation of feminine beauty, Revealed, indeed personified, in you; Alas, I deemed it my poetic duty Word-dams to breach, verse-torrents to let loose, Horrors to hint at, actions to portray In doubtful taste, of man-woman abuse, Letting you glimpse my fantasies? Are they Extraordinary? No, many dream thus. I'm ordinary; as are most of us.

He would not send it. This acrostic style Was an affliction. It enforced distortion Of meaning: forced rhyme was bad enough; But first words not to be allowed to choose! The last two lines, had he been free, had run:

Abhorrent to you? My work then shall be Flame-fodder, burnt like boats in Nabatee.

But still, another paper-boat he'd launched; Imagination could get back to work. Tsarsky we last saw grimly threatening His "protege" with unprotectable Assault. I'll settle that affair at once.

Lippi was satisfied; exhausted too, And scarcely able to answer those who Praised him for sentiment; for choice of word; For feeling; how he mingled the absurd With poignancy. When Bacchus left the city, Some said, he had conveyed the fear and pity Tragedy's made of. Here now comes the Prince, Princess on arm, to praise him: "It's long since," He says,"My wife and I have been united "In being so excessively delighted "By a perfomance. I believe my niece," (Ira he meant) "also enjoyed the piece. "Her father, as I know, lived in the parts "You've talked of, was a connoisseur of arts "Egyptian; and indeed he's shown to me "Such things as young ladies should never see. "But now our coach awaits, Ira, my dear. "Signor Lippi, since we'll not meet, I fear, "Later, now that your story's done, allow "Me to convey you to your house, hotel, "Or hostelry. The farther you may dwell, "The greater pleasure; pleasant conversation "Flows always from signori of your nation." Together they drove off: Ira demure; Lippo discreet; and both of them unsure Whether the Prince suspected their connexion. The Princess eyed the young lady's complexion Suspiciously when Lippo chanced to need To grasp her hand (She'd slipped. No one should read (Purpose into an accident); conclusion She could not draw. Due to this brief confusion None of them noticed the two ruffians who, Peered in the carriage window, then withdrew Into the darkness, fury in their eyes, Like hounds from whom the fox, their rightful prize, Is plucked up suddenly by some Deus Ex Machina, to leave them ravenous.

Reader's will guess that they were Tsarsky's men, Who must now quit our tale unsatisfied, Charsky concluded. And, why not? he thought. Revenge-takers are ruffians who deserve To be thwarted. And Cleopatra too, In Lippo's story of the belly dancers, Had had to let them go. So should it be With all such: the "protector" of 'Madame', To take a near-at-hand (was he?) example, Would also have to swallow up his bile; And if the consequence was deadly, so Be it; of such details he would not know.

Deposited at his unhumble dwelling ... (Some part he'd spent of those funds he'd been telling (His wife he'd bring home, to improve his image. ('Twas necessary: art's as much a scrimmage (As politics, diplomacy or war. (Merit is good; appearance though, by far (More influential at decision-time; (The type-face as important as the rhyme)... The improvisatore, in two minds Till then, to his astonishment now finds (To stay, and make more money? or to quit?) The prince and princess have decided it. "May I express in rhyme my gratitude?" The prince nodded. This last stanza ensued.
'Twas lady Ira made the choice, Picking from the unbiassed urn The theme which Signor Tsarsky's voice (My friend. Where is he?) helped me learn Was not impossible, although 'Tres difficile', as you all know Who heard me struggle. Her I thank. Your Highnesses, my spirits sank Often; but when your presence graced The hall I felt that inspiration, Without which ratiocination Is by mere rigmarole displaced. Whate'er you think of my success; Without you, it had been much less.
He was a good man, and a true husband. Despite the nearness of the demi-monde, (Unlike "friend" Tsarsky) he had stayed aloof, Counting his roubles; and, as final proof Of faithfulness, would book a costly berth, (Home-coming is a monarch's ransom worth) On the (coincidence!) "Egyptian Queen", An English sailing vessel, which had been Touting for days for paying passengers And cargoes, and its captain now avers Will sail in two days for the Mittelmeer, For Genoa, for Florence, and just there... Whither Lippi so dearly, longs to go... In Naples will discharge its last cargo. So we may leave him. He has served his turn; Profited from the contents of the urn; Given some pleasure to those willing to Be pleased; and done no harm to others who Prefer to judge, disdain and disapprove. Let him go home contented, there to prove Himself potent paterfamilias To many a vivacious lad and lass; And to his lady a most gracious lord, Who, when she's of the neighbours' gossip bored, Can tell her what in Peterburg occurred, Or would have done if he had not preferred The proper path of righteous abnegation And scorned the Princess Ira's invitation.

------------------------------------------------------------ Chapter 14: Lara's letter -------------------------

At last it came, the letter long-awaited, And lay all day unopened! Coward Charsky Feared what it might contain, although he'd never Yet had from Lara anything unkind, (Nor ever would. As soon will be apparent, (She was a true lady, in all respects). Opened at last, this was what Charsky read.

--------------- Oleg Garoldovich, my friend, fondly respected: (( We readers are to know then, at last, his comic name!)) My answer's tardy indeed; and long ago your patience (For which I'd not reproach you) may well have reached its end. The honour was excessive you did when asking me to Advise. I lack the skills of translating into words What are in any case but mere personal reactions, Especially as touching thought-children of a friend. From you, my dear, derive my too-scanty scraps of knowledge; You taught me always I should: "Consider him who reads". "Or her", you might have added, had you thought of those females (I'm one) who study keenly all that you deign to write. Another of your lessons (You are sometimes a poet; (But often, in your letters, you act the pedagogue): "At all times ask: will readers (enough of them) believe and "Enjoy the images that your words will conjure up? pleased." "Fiction must be believed in." The improvisatore Was my suggestion; but, so many verses I've read, I ask: could any one (even you) keep on ad-libbing So long, in rhyme and metre? No! But I will let that pass. Admit I must also that "The Loves of Cleopatra" Was my suggestion; but, I did emphasise the loves. I thought of noble Caesar, of half-noble Anthony, The children that she bore them, of her dignity in death. For Cleopatra lived: her well-founded reputation Is formidable. Would she offer herself as whore? And if so, could she risk letting Flavus keep his weapon About him when his frown showed love farthest from his mind. To Kriton, the surpriser, your queen meekly surrendered. Would she? and lie there floating, as on a golden barge? An empress I've not been; but, were I one, I should stay more Alert, alarmed, attentive; not blind-fold in the dark. When Kriton turned to woman, your quaint queen found her attractive As though the laws of Lesbos were wholly to her taste. Perhaps, but letting snakes snuggle in as sly bed-fellow Third parties ... no, I'm sure that, quite sure, that I would not! The last lover? Yes, maybe a queen would take a stripling, No status threat, a toy to enjoy then throw away; But in his place accept a black septuagenarian, Be awed, beguiled, then pleasured! I can't believe she would. Well, were he truly Prince, yes; she'd honour him with dinner; But as for sitting meekly while to her gross mob's applause (Mob's the right word; no courtiers in any land could act so) A pas de deux develops of such a disgraceful kind.....! And so on: threats of torture, hypnosis, flagellation; Then finally appointment of that man as Grand Vizier. The speed is truly dizzying as you spin out the story, But stronger strands are needed to suspend my unbelief. That's all about believing. So let us now consider Whether, or whom, those notions and images will please. For me, the best were those where the wretched Lippo Lippi Appeared as the performer, and struggled to maintain His dignity, his morals, and behaviour he could safely Report, even dilate on, in letters to his wife. Of all, he is the only character in your story Whom, when I think about it, I'd truly like to meet. That is "Lara's criterion", my gift to bookish critics. I'll put it to the test now: Hamlet? Ophelia? Yes. Othello? Desdemona? Yes. The test works! But Iago? Jealousy-monger, handkerchief-stealer! No, no, no, no! So good works need some devils (your princess also did say so) But there must be a balance; Rasselas would agree. I'm sure that Aristotle too, whom you o'er-often mention, Wrote "not too much or little... between there lies the mean." That's my belief at least. So, whom else would I say yes to? Rasselas, I suppose; though I'd truly have to know First his real age, or whether it varies in accordance With how he's asked, and maybe the phases of the moon. Tsarsky? Now, here's a problem: Why is it you dislike him? I am concerned; it looks like: you, Oleg, dislike you. Dislike's one step from loathing; and that from self-destruction. Know then, dear friend, I'm one who would also be destroyed. Enough! My sister's sent me a poem; you may know it; The author too; his name fits the Cleopatra theme. It's Alexander; but that's beside the point, which is that He handles subjects you do, but somewhat otherwise. In this poem, an old Tsar at last seeks peace and quiet In vain; his neighbours think: "Now he's weak; so we are strong." The Tsar resorts to magic; and various marvels happen Which I'll omit; but here is the moral that I'd prove: After some doubt, some slaughter (the Tsar's two sons the victims), The dumb-struck monarch's met by a Samarkand Princess, Who smiles at him, and beckons; he goes into her silken Enchanted and enchanting, miracle-making tent, And is regaled with ... what then? The poet says; imagine Yourself: the things you've dreamed of ... they happened to the Tsar. In short, the less that A writes, the more supplies the reader. You, generous as always, supply perhaps too much. It is just my suggestion: emulate Alexander. But not please, I do beg you, in all his vagaries; For he, so writes my sister, is over-quick to quarrel And makes as prompt responses with pistol as with pen. You asked me; so I answered. From you I got this habit; Though my untutored instinct is: "Beware! Don't take such risks! "He will be disappointed; you are honest, but he's human." But you take risks, dear Oleg; so ... I'm doing as you do. How should it end, your story? That is indeed a puzzle, So many hares you've started, to catch them all is hard. So my advice is: end it as I conclude this letter With kind thoughts, good intentions, and sympathy, and love. ---------------

He might have thought: How fortunate I am To have a friend who reads so carefully What I have written, thinks, and takes the time To answer, and to give me her advice, Springing from kindness, and intelligence! He might have; but did not. He merely skimmed It rapidly, looking for praise untinged With doubt or contradiction, and found none. "She did not like it," was his instant thought. And then another: "But she did like A's!" Then "emulate"! as though 'twere possible To treat that man as model. He had met, Even crossed verbal swords, with poet A; Admired him also; but antipathy He felt; of racial origin perhaps? Enough! (as she had said). The word "destroyed" Was far too strong; maybe she meant "distraught". Better; for poems are but strings of words, Which break no bones, nor deal out sudden death. He would reply; and, in the end, comply; So much was certain. First, his best defence He'd cobble up; and then surrender. But, By God, should last month's challenger repeat His call, he'd find the wind-direction changed, And chilly breeze replaced by hottest blast. Which having thought, he called his servant, told Him what to do, to say, and in what tone, Should it occur; himself not to disturb, But, as a sign the message had been given, Just leave the needed box beside his bed.

Chapter 15: Charsky's reply ---------------------------

A sonnet first, to raise his drooping spirits. Where other men might turn to alcohol, Charsky played word-games; and he made the rules To suit his capabilities, so in Nine out of ten times he'd be sure to win.

You are, dear Lara, she whom I must please, On whose decision only I depend. Unless you favour my poor fantasies, Away with them; let fantasizing end. Rhyme is a heady liquor, which empowers Even a prosing pedagogue like me, Drunk with its fumes, forgetting places, hours, Eager for praise, to take for poetry A rigmarole of images and phrases, Roughly-sketched story-lines, anachronisms, Light-weight allusions to the latest crazes, A modish pot-pourri of all the -isms. Respect I must your so-uncommon sense; Admit though, please, this pitiful defence.

Permit me also to adopt the stanza Our Signor Lippi liked. He picked it up (I'm sure you noticed) from your poet A, Whom I must emulate; which I now do!

Eve, in the garden, blamed the snake. I too some censure may deflect To others; Lippi's part I'll take Who dared not totally neglect His audience's preference For some salacious violence (So he believed that he believed, (But was perhaps just self-deceived). And, at the banquet, Rasselas, Reasoned; deduced the queen desired (Had even planned) what then transpired, That he should gratify the crass Court-mob's apparent predilection; Then did so out of circumspection. Yes, that's a pitiful excuse. As well to blame the blot of ink The random spread of which we choose To say (revealing much) we think Looks like a woman, or a vase, Or cudgel, or Aegean bays. Rhyme's randomness allows, not forces; The final choice of words, of course is Ours, and leads to lines of thought We may follow; or else flinch back From, when their mental pictures lack Propriety. But those who've caught The old addictive "Poet's Curse", Succumb to vain seductive verse. Defenceless then, I will attack. That other poet. Did he not Needlessly mock at men whose lack Is like the wizard's? Please say what Is good about two armies slain And strewn across the silent plain With helmets, armour, daggers, swords And corpses, while the Tsar awards Himself as his deserved prize, The Samarkand Princess whose beauty Persuades him to forget all duty Simply because she with him lies. Of Cleopatra's lovers three, Not one was quite as daft as he. You'd like to meet the Tsar? Not I. But to the wizard I'd say yes, So I could ask, "Say, eunuch, why "Should you demand the strange princess? "Was it solely to shame a king "Who was too careless, promising "Whate'er his saviour might desire? "A workman's worthy of his hire; "And your brave golden cockerel "Had done (almost) what you promised. "But why, unless some point I missed, "Did it those final untruths tell: "There was no foreign enemy; "Yet sons and father died, all three." A also, by the way, sails quite Close to the wind. His other Tsar Has forty daughters to delight His old age; but not all things are (A tells us, with a nudge and wink) As they should be; for they can drink And eat and most things physical Accomplish, but not what we call ... Or rather don't call anything (It has to do with procreation, (Unapt for genteel conversation). This tale I'm not disparaging: There are some threats, though no-one dies; But why should A win every prize? Thus Alexander, who is not (As I) a manque pedagogue, Promotes morality!? He's got A following (the lucky dog!) Of members of the sweeter sex (Your sister 'mong them?), and naught recks Of calculation: he's Mozart; While I play Salieri's part. Also (how one thought prompts another!) We're both at risk: the Stone Commander Stands waiting, ready to demand a Reckoning; so A's my brother In this: for reasons various, Living's become precarious. The septuagenarian You saw as an improbable Queen's bed-mate; but a proper man Is of such wonders capable And ready always to adventure. "Possunt quia possunt videntur" Explains it well (In Virgil's book (You'll find the phrase, else I'm mistook): "They can because they think they can!" I put him in my poem so Should I be tempted to let go Of life too soon (who knows God's plan?), I'll think of sturdy Rasselas And let the urge unheeded pass. You say I'm generous; but mean I write too much; and it is true. I'll stretch a thought to fit fourteen Lines which, maybe, could fill out two. To say I'm "generous but mean" (No, you did not) transforms the scene; So now I have an argument, Which is exploring what was meant: "To them who have, give over-much; "Of those without, ignore the need." Scripture does justify such greed, Decked out as prudence or some such. I wrote this just to illustrate Your point: with words I'm profligate. I too liked Lippi; and his dream Of Naples, sunshine, family, Delights which as enchanting seem To you, I guess, as dear to me. He had ventured into a life Remote from his, to please his wife; Wanted only enough to earn In Russia (anywhere!). Return- -ing was his unforgotten aim, With gold enough to build a home And garden (no need for a dome) To which he could affix his name. His goal was innocent. We can Be glad we've met one decent man. Yes, I accept the "Lara test": Those we don't like had better serve To move the plot along; and best Receive the sentence they deserve. You've not yet read, I now recall What (in my story) did befall The queen, the fleet, and Anthony. I could not wait for you, you see, And carried by the impetus Of five long nights, and Lippi's need For money, with more haste than speed, Tied the loose ends with little fuss. Some deaths there were, I must admit; But these historic records fit. You did not mention Ira. She, Was modelled (dare I say?) on you. She had originality; Emotion, much; but reason too. 'Twas she who picked out of the urn The crucial theme (as you did turn (Me from more near-at-hand delights (To contemplate Egyptian Nights). Lippi was much impressed by her; She gave him some quite useful tips, While he watched her bewitching lips; Which led mad Tsarsky to infer An understanding, or some link; But what? He was too crazed think. So, Tsarksy? No. I don't admire Him much. He poses; but what does He do? The heroes I desire To meet will be industrious. I think of Shakespeare, even A, A sonnet now, next week a play (Last lines completed as the stage (Is opened, less for art than wage.) Disliking T, I dislike me, You think? Whether your guess is true Or false, it pleases me that you Can care enough to muse, and be Solicitous. Foolish, I know; But you're aware that men are so. No, self-destruction's not my style. I carp at Tsarsky, so that I At own behaviour need but smile (Albeit wryly) and then try To put a decent face upon it By writing an (acrostic) sonnet. My works I can destroy; and will; Though how? I am in two minds still. I'd thought to build a funeral pyre, Such as burned Cleopatra's ships, So that snake-corpses, cages, whips, Might be consumed in one great fire. Yet suddenly another thought My flitting fantasy has caught. I have a box (with pistols in it, (Which I don't need). It's water-proof; And I can run up in a minute To drop it from my neighbour's roof Into the Neva, now in flood, And watch it float, beyond the mud That grimes our streets, far out to sea, Bearing my grimy poetry Away forever. I recall The grave-digger said of Hamlet, Who likewise had been forced to set To sea, were England his landfall, No-one would notice he was mad, Such strange notions its people had. So shall it be tomorrow then; And, in a hundred years, or two, Some scrounging Thames-side longshoremen Will break my box, and read of you, And Cleopatra, Anthony, Flavus, and Kriton; and of me; Then take it to a publisher (Will they exist still? I prefer (To think they will), who'll read a bit Then pass it to his secretary, Who'll skim, and smirk, and then make merry With cronies, find some parts of it Quite touching, though in doubtful taste, Then "file" it with the office waste.

So, satisfied, Charsky retired to bed, Observed his servant had done what he said, Which neatly solved the problem of the box, And muttered as he slipped off shoes and socks: "Tomorrow then ... for now I can't stop yawning ... "After that stupid duel in the morning".