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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesVittoria - Book 4 - Chapter 21. The Third Act
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Vittoria - Book 4 - Chapter 21. The Third Act Post by :Trevor_Reed Category :Long Stories Author :George Meredith Date :May 2012 Read :2480

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Vittoria - Book 4 - Chapter 21. The Third Act


The libretto of the Third Act was steeped in the sentiment of Young Italy. I wish that I could pipe to your mind's hearing any notion of the fine music of Rocco Ricci, and touch you to feel the revelations which were in this new voice. Rocco and Vittoria gave the verses a life that cannot belong to them now; yet, as they contain much of the vital spirit of the revolt, they may assist you to some idea of the faith animating its heads, and may serve to justify this history.

Rocco's music in the opera of Camilla had been sprung from a fresh Italian well; neither the elegiac-melodious, nor the sensuous-lyrical, nor the joyous buffo; it was severe as an old masterpiece, with veins of buoyant liveliness threading it, and with sufficient distinctness of melody to enrapture those who like to suck the sugarplums of sound. He would indeed have favoured the public with more sweet things, but Vittoria, for whom the opera was composed, and who had been at his elbow, was young, and stern in her devotion to an ideal of classical music that should elevate and never stoop to seduce or to flatter thoughtless hearers. Her taste had directed as her voice had inspired the opera. Her voice belonged to the order of the simply great voices, and was a royal voice among them. Pure without attenuation, passionate without contortion, when once heard it exacted absolute confidence. On this night her theme and her impersonation were adventitious introductions, but there were passages when her artistic pre-eminence and the sovereign fulness and fire of her singing struck a note of grateful remembered delight. This is what the great voice does for us. It rarely astonishes our ears. It illumines our souls, as you see the lightning make the unintelligible craving darkness leap into long mountain ridges, and twisting vales, and spires of cities, and inner recesses of light within light, rose-like, toward a central core of violet heat.

At the rising of the curtain the knights of the plains, Rudolfo, Romualdo, Arnoldo, and others, who were conspiring to overthrow Count Orso at the time when Camillo's folly ruined all, assemble to deplore Camilla's banishment, and show, bereft of her, their helplessness and indecision. They utter contempt of Camillo, who is this day to be Pontifically divorced from his wife to espouse the detested Michiella. His taste is not admired.

They pass off. Camillo appears. He is, as he knows, little better than a pensioner in Count Orso's household. He holds his lands on sufferance. His faculties are paralyzed. He is on the first smooth shoulder-slope of the cataract. He knows that not only was his jealousy of his wife groundless, but it was forced by a spleenful pride. What is there to do? Nothing, save resignedly to prepare for his divorce from the conspiratrix Camilla and espousals with Michiella. The cup is bitter, and his song is mournful. He does the rarest thing a man will do in such a predicament--he acknowledges that he is going to get his deserts. The faithfulness and purity of Camilla have struck his inner consciousness. He knows not where she may be. He has secretly sent messengers in all directions to seek her, and recover her, and obtain her pardon: in vain. It is as well, perhaps, that he should never see her more. Accursed, he has cast off his sweetest friend. The craven heart could never beat in unison with hers.

'She is in the darkness: I am in the light. I am a blot upon the light; she is light in the darkness.'

Montini poured this out with so fine a sentiment that the impatience of the house for sight of its heroine was quieted. But Irma and Lebruno came forward barely under tolerance.

'We might as well be thumping a tambourine,' said Lebruno, during a caress. Irma bit her underlip with mortification. Their notes fell flat as bullets against a wall.

This circumstance aroused the ire of Antonio-Pericles against the libretto and revolutionists. 'I perceive,' he said, grinning savagely, 'it has come to be a concert, not an opera; it is a musical harangue in the marketplace. Illusion goes: it is politics here!'

Carlo Ammiani was sitting with his mother and Luciano breathlessly awaiting the entrance of Vittoria. The inner box-door was rudely shaken: beneath it a slip of paper had been thrust. He read a warning to him to quit the house instantly. Luciano and his mother both counselled his departure. The detestable initials 'B. R.,' and the one word 'Sbirri,' revealed who had warned, and what was the danger. His friend's advice and the commands of his mother failed to move him. 'When I have seen her safe; not before,' he said.

Countess Ammiani addressed Luciano: 'This is a young man's love for a woman.'

'The woman is worth it,' Luciano replied.

'No woman is worth the sacrifice of a mother and of a relative.'

'Dearest countess,' said Luciano, 'look at the pit; it's a cauldron. We shall get him out presently, have no fear: there will soon be hubbub enough to let Lucifer escape unseen. If nothing is done to-night, he and I will be off to the Lago di Garda to-morrow morning, and fish and shoot, and talk with Catullus.'

The countess gazed on her son with sorrowful sternness. His eyes had taken that bright glazed look which is an indication of frozen brain and turbulent heart--madness that sane men enamoured can be struck by. She knew there was no appeal to it.

A very dull continuous sound, like that of an angry swarm, or more like a rapid mufed thrumming of wires, was heard. The audience had caught view of a brown-coated soldier at one of the wings. The curious Croat had merely gratified a desire to have a glance at the semicircle of crowded heads; he withdrew his own, but not before he had awakened the wild beast in the throng. Yet a little while and the roar of the beasts would have burst out. It was thought that Vittoria had been seized or interdicted from appearing. Conspirators--the knights of the plains--meet: Rudolfos, Romualdos, Arnoldos, and others,--so that you know Camilla is not idle. She comes on in the great scene which closes the opera.

It is the banqueting hall of the castle. The Pontifical divorce is spread upon the table. Courtly friends, guards, and a choric bridal company, form a circle.

'I have obtained it,' says Count Orso: 'but at a cost.'

Leonardo, wavering eternally, lets us know that it is weighted with a proviso: IF Camilla shall not present herself within a certain term, this being the last day of it. Camillo comes forward. Too late, he has perceived his faults and weakness. He has cast his beloved from his arms to clasp them on despair. The choric bridal company gives intervening strophes. Cavaliers enter. 'Look at them well,' says Leonardo. They are the knights of the plains. 'They have come to mock me,' Camillo exclaims, and avoids them.

Leonardo, Michiella, and Camillo now sing a trio that is tricuspidato, or a three-pointed manner of declaring their divergent sentiments in harmony. The fast-gathering cavaliers lend masculine character to the choric refrains at every interval. Leonardo plucks Michiella entreatingly by the arm. She spurns him. He has served her; she needs him no more; but she will recommend him in other quarters, and bids him to seek them. 'I will give thee a collar for thy neck, marked "Faithful." It is the utmost I can do for thy species.' Leonardo thinks that he is insulted, but there is a vestige of doubt in him still. 'She is so fair! she dissembles so magnificently ever!' She has previously told him that she is acting a part, as Camilla did. Irma had shed all her hair from a golden circlet about her temples, barbarian-wise. Some Hunnish grandeur pertained to her appearance, and partly excused the infatuated wretch who shivered at her disdain and exulted over her beauty and artfulness.

In the midst of the chorus there is one veiled figure and one voice distinguishable. This voice outlives the rest at every strophe, and contrives to add a supplemental antiphonic phrase that recalls in turn the favourite melodies of the opera. Camillo hears it, but takes it as a delusion of impassioned memory and a mere theme for the recurring melodious utterance of his regrets. Michiella hears it. She chimes with the third notes of Camillo's solo to inform us of her suspicions that they have a serpent among them. Leonardo hears it. The trio is formed. Count Orso, without hearing it, makes a quatuor by inviting the bridal couple to go through the necessary formalities. The chorus changes its measure to one of hymeneals. The unknown voice closes it ominously with three bars in the minor key. Michiella stalks close around the rank singers like an enraged daughter of Attila. Stopping in front of the veiled figure, she says: 'Why is it thou wearest the black veil at my nuptials?'

'Because my time of mourning is not yet ended.'

'Thou standest the shadow in my happiness.'

'The bright sun will have its shadow.'

'I desire that all rejoice this day.'

'My hour of rejoicing approaches.'

'Wilt thou unveil?'

'Dost thou ask to look the storm in the face?'

'Wilt thou unveil?'

'Art thou hungry for the lightning?'

'I bid thee unveil, woman!'

Michiella's ringing shriek of command produces no response.

'It is she!' cries Michiella, from a contracted bosom; smiting it with clenched hands.

'Swift to the signatures. O rival! what bitterness hast thou come hither to taste.'

Camilla sings aside: 'If yet my husband loves me and is true.'

Count Orso exclaims: 'Let trumpets sound for the commencement of the festivities. The lord of his country may slumber while his people dance and drink!'

Trumpets flourish. Witnesses are called about the table. Camillo, pen in hand, prepares for the supreme act. Leonardo at one wing watches the eagerness of Michiella. The chorus chants to a muted measure of suspense, while Camillo dips pen in ink.

'She is away from me: she scorns me: she is lost to me. Life without honour is the life of swine. Union without love is the yoke of savage beasts. O me miserable! Can the heavens themselves plumb the depth of my degradation?'

Count Orso permits a half-tone of paternal severity to point his kindly hint that time is passing. When he was young, he says, in the broad and benevolently frisky manner, he would have signed ere the eye of the maiden twinkled her affirmative, or the goose had shed its quill.

Camillo still trifles. Then he dashes the pen to earth.

'Never! I have but one wife. Our marriage is irrevocable. The dishonoured man is the everlasting outcast. What are earthly possessions to me, if within myself shame faces me? Let all go. Though I have lost Camilla, I will be worthy of her. Not a pen no pen; it is the sword that I must write with. Strike, O count! I am here: I stand alone. By the edge of this sword, I swear that never deed of mine shall rob Camilla of her heritage; though I die the death, she shall not weep for a craven!'

The multitude break away from Camilla--veiled no more, but radiant; fresh as a star that issues through corrupting vapours, and with her voice at a starry pitch in its clear ascendency:

'Tear up the insufferable scroll!--
O thou, my lover and my soul!
It is the Sword that reunites;
The Pen that our perdition writes.'

She is folded in her husband's arms.

Michiella fronts them, horrid of aspect:--

'Accurst divorced one! dost thou dare
To lie in shameless fondness there?
Abandoned! on thy lying brow
Thy name shall be imprinted now.'

Camilla parts from her husband's embrace:

'My name is one I do not fear;
'Tis one that thou wouldst shrink to hear.
Go, cool thy penitential fires,
Thou creature, foul with base desires!'

CAMILLO (facing Count Orso).

'The choice is thine!'

COUNT ORSO (draws).

'The choice is made!'

CHORUS (narrowing its circle).

'Familiar is that naked blade.
Of others, of himself, the fate
How swift 'tis Provocation's mate!'

MICHIELLA (torn with jealous rage).

'Yea; I could smite her on the face.
Father, first read the thing's disgrace.
I grudge them, honourable death.
Put poison in their latest breath!'

ORSO (his left arm extended).

'You twain are sundered: hear with awe
The judgement of the Source of Law.'

CAMILLA (smiling confidently).

'Not such, when I was at the Source,
It said to me;--but take thy course.'

ORSO (astounded).

'Thither thy steps were bent?'

MICHIELLA (spurning verbal controversy).

'She feigns!
A thousand swords are in my veins.
Friends! soldiers I strike them down, the pair!'

CAMILLO (on guard, clasping his wife).

''Tis well! I cry, to all we share.
Yea, life or death, 'tis well! 'tis well!'

MICHIELLA (stamps her foot).

'My heart 's a vessel tossed on hell!'

LEONARDO (aside).

'Not in glad nuptials ends the day.'

ORSO (to Camilla).

'What is thy purpose with us?--say!'

CAMILLA (lowly).
'Unto my Father I have crossed
For tidings of my Mother lost.'

'Thy mother dead!'

'She lives!'

'Thou liest!
The tablets of the tomb defiest!
The Fates denounce, the Furies chase
The wretch who lies in Reason's face.'

'Fly, then; for we are match'd to try
Which is the idiot, thou or I'

Graceless Camilla!'

'Senseless girl!
I cherished thee a precious pearl,
And almost owned thee child of mine.'

'Thou kept'st me like a gem, to shine,
Careless that I of blood am made;
No longer be the end delay'd.
'Tis time to prove I have a heart--
Forth from these walls of mine depart!
The ghosts within them are disturb'd
Go forth, and let thy wrath be curb'd,
For I am strong: Camillo's truth
Has arm'd the visions of our youth.
Our union by the Head Supreme
Is blest: our severance was the dream.
We who have drunk of blood and tears,
Knew nothing of a mortal's fears.
Life is as Death until the strife
In our just cause makes Death as Life.'

''Tis madness?'

'Is it madness?'

'Tis Reason, but beyond your ken.
There lives a light that none can view
Whose thoughts are brutish:--seen by few,
The few have therefore light divine
Their visions are God's legions!--sign,
I give you; for we stand alone,
And you are frozen to the bone.
Your palsied hands refuse their swords.
A sharper edge is in my words,
A deadlier wound is in my cry.
Yea, tho' you slay us, do we die?
In forcing us to bear the worst,
You made of us Immortals first.
Away! and trouble not my sight.'

Chorus of Cavaliers: RUDOLFO, ROMUALDO, ARNOLDO, and others.

'She moves us with an angel's might.
What if his host outnumber ours!
'Tis heaven that gives victorious powers.'

(They draw their steel. ORSO, simulating gratitude for their devotion to him, addresses them as to pacify their friendly ardour.)

MICHIELLA to LEONARDO (supplicating).
'Ever my friend I shall I appeal
In vain to see thy flashing steel?'

LEONARDO (finally resolved).
'Traitress! pray, rather, it may rest,
Or its first home will be thy breast.'

Chorus of Bridal Company.
'The flowers from bright Aurora's head
We pluck'd to strew a happy bed,
Shall they be dipp'd in blood ere night?
Woe to the nuptials! woe the sight!'

Rudolfo, Romualdo, Arnoldo, and the others, advance toward Camillo. Michiella calls to them encouragingly that it were well for the deed to be done by their hands. They bid Camillo to direct their lifted swords upon his enemies. Leonardo joins them. Count Orso, after a burst of upbraidings, accepts Camillo's offer of peace, and gives his bond to quit the castle. Michiella, gazing savagely at Camilla, entreats her for an utterance of her triumphant scorn. She assures Camilla that she knows her feelings accurately.

'Now you think that I am overwhelmed; that I shall have a restless night, and lie, after all my crying's over, with my hair spread out on my pillow, on either side my face, like green moss of a withered waterfall: you think you will bestow a little serpent of a gift from my stolen treasures to comfort me. You will comfort me with a lock of Camillo's hair, that I may have it on my breast to-night, and dream, and wail, and writhe, and curse the air I breathe, and clasp the abominable emptiness like a thousand Camillos. Speak!'

The dagger is seen gleaming up Michiella's wrist; she steps on in a bony triangle, faced for mischief: a savage Hunnish woman, with the hair of a Goddess--the figure of a cat taking to its forepaws. Close upon Camilla she towers in her whole height, and crying thrice, swift as the assassin trebles his blow, 'Speak,' to Camilla, who is fronting her mildly, she raises her arm, and the stilet flashes into Camilla's bosom.

'Die then, and outrage me no more.'

Camilla staggers to her husband. Camillo receives her falling. Michiella, seized by Leonardo, presents a stiffened shape of vengeance with fierce white eyes and dagger aloft. There are many shouts, and there is silence.

CAMILLA, supported by CAMILLO.
'If this is death, it is not hard to bear.
Your handkerchief drinks up my blood so fast
It seems to love it. Threads of my own hair
Are woven in it. 'Tis the one I cast
That midnight from my window, when you stood
Alone, and heaven seemed to love you so!
I did not think to wet it with my blood
When next I tossed it to my love below.'

CAMILLO (cherishing her).
'Camilla, pity! say you will not die.
Your voice is like a soul lost in the sky.'


'I know not if my soul has flown; I know
My body is a weight I cannot raise:
My voice between them issues, and
I go Upon a journey of uncounted days.
Forgetfulness is like a closing sea;
But you are very bright above me still.
My life I give as it was given to me
I enter on a darkness wide and chill.'

'O noble heart! a million fires consume
The hateful hand that sends you to your doom.'

'There is an end to joy: there is no end
To striving; therefore ever let us strive
In purity that shall the toil befriend,
And keep our poor mortality alive.
I hang upon the boundaries like light
Along the hills when downward goes the day
I feel the silent creeping up of night.
For you, my husband, lies a flaming way.'

'I lose your eyes: I lose your voice: 'tis faint.
Ah, Christ! see the fallen eyelids of a saint.'

'Our life is but a little holding, lent
To do a mighty labour: we are one
With heaven and the stars when it is spent
To serve God's aim: else die we with the sun.'

She sinks. Camillo droops his head above her.

The house was hushed as at a veritable death-scene. It was more like a cathedral service than an operatic pageant. Agostino had done his best to put the heart of the creed of his Chief into these last verses. Rocco's music floated them in solemn measures, and Vittoria had been careful to articulate throughout the sacred monotony so that their full meaning should be taken.

In the printed book of the libretto a chorus of cavaliers, followed by one harmless verse of Camilla's adieux to them, and to her husband and life, concluded the opera.

'Let her stop at that--it's enough!--and she shall be untouched,' said General Pierson to Antonio-Pericles.

'I have information, as you know, that an extremely impudent song is coming.'

The General saw Wilfrid hanging about the lobby, in flagrant disobedience to orders. Rebuking his nephew with a frown, he commanded the lieutenant to make his way round to the stage and see that the curtain was dropped according to the printed book.

'Off, mon Dieu! off!' Pericles speeded him; adding in English, 'Shall she taste prison-damp, zat voice is killed.'

The chorus of cavaliers was a lamentation: the keynote being despair: ordinary libretto verses.

Camilla's eyes unclose. She struggles to be lifted, and, raised on Camillo's arm, she sings as if with the last pulsation of her voice, softly resonant in its rich contralto. She pardons Michiella. She tells Count Orso that when he has extinguished his appetite for dominion, he will enjoy an unknown pleasure in the friendship of his neighbours. Repeating that her mother lives, and will some day kneel by her daughter's grave--not mournfully, but in beatitude--she utters her adieu to all.

At the moment of her doing so, Montini whispered in Vittoria's ear. She looked up and beheld the downward curl of the curtain. There was confusion at the wings: Croats were visible to the audience. Carlo Ammiani and Luciano Romara jumped on the stage; a dozen of the noble youths of Milan streamed across the boards to either wing, and caught the curtain descending. The whole house had risen insurgent with cries of 'Vittoria.' The curtain-ropes were in the hands of the Croats, but Carlo, Luciano, and their fellows held the curtain aloft at arm's length at each side of her. She was seen, and she sang, and the house listened.

The Italians present, one and all, rose up reverently and murmured the refrain. Many of the aristocracy would, doubtless, have preferred that this public declaration of the plain enigma should not have rung forth to carry them on the popular current; and some might have sympathized with the insane grin which distorted the features of Antonio-Pericles, when he beheld illusion wantonly destroyed, and the opera reduced to be a mere vehicle for a fulmination of politics. But the general enthusiasm was too tremendous to permit of individual protestations. To sit, when the nation was standing, was to be a German. Nor, indeed, was there an Italian in the house who would willingly have consented to see Vittoria silenced, now that she had chosen to defy the Tedeschi from the boards of La Scala. The fascination of her voice extended even over the German division of the audience. They, with the Italians, said: 'Hear her! hear her!' The curtain was agitated at the wings, but in the centre it was kept above Vittoria's head by the uplifted arms of the twelve young men:--

'I cannot count the years,
That you will drink, like me,
The cup of blood and tears,
Ere she to you appears:--
Italia, Italia shall be free!'

So the great name was out, and its enemies had heard it.

'You dedicate your lives
To her, and you will be
The food on which she thrives,
Till her great day arrives
Italia, Italia shall be free!

'She asks you but for faith!
Your faith in her takes she
As draughts of heaven's breath,
Amid defeat and death:--
Italia, Italia shall be free!'

The prima donna was not acting exhaustion when sinking lower in Montini's arms. Her bosom rose and sank quickly, and she gave the terminating verse:--

'I enter the black boat
Upon the wide grey sea,
Where all her set suns float;
Thence hear my voice remote
Italia, Italia shall be free!'

The curtain dropped.

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