The Impresario: an alphabet poem, in twenty-six parts, plus epilogue. The setting, a city of Normandie in the early fifteenth century.
The care he had taken of her in his first fascination
was a rebuke to him in later years
He feared love, to feel it, a twining tendril’s prod
Her trusting kindnesses make his heart go soft
His mind tainted, a sympathy unnatural
for property; a monstrosity can be bought
for the compensation of a few coins
And why ought it to have a name?
But he began to call her Regalus
As the gawpers would not guess her sex
Used by him, although she faithfully sought
To be of use.
His hunchback (such uninteresting freaks earn nothing)
Could undertake dictation of a letter;
Tortu, once thought an imbecile
But taught a fine hand, clerical
To adapt himself to speechlessness
He did not excuse it
in cyphers, written down…the impresario
Having considered the means by which he might learn her secret—
How she had been born clean; when the curse befell
How she’d come to beg from beggars, kept back
Even from the palings of the shantytown
How long had she lived there, dumb herself and wallowing in mud?
No, in time, under tutelage, she could tell him so
“Tell me this, Regalus…”
“Which is like a bird, returning to its nest?”
The dauphin with his flippered arms possessed
Of a rare, sweet tenor sings to her each saying of Tortu’s
She laughs. “My dear, the letter W”
This is progress, learning. Her thigh touches his
As side by side they share the driver’s bench
Her scabbed pink head and hair that grows in patches
Hid beneath a wayfarer’s woolen cap
Her gaiety on this fair day as their wagonload
Of odd attractions slows
A horde of belled and parti-colored travelers
Push handcarts on the road
In his dreaming calculations lying wakeful
He recalls himself, in this bed built for a dying wife
Never so alive with fear for his charges
He had always paid the roustabouts
To guard the wagon, warned Tortu
Whose wise and solemn eyes obey
To take a crown and buy them cakes
To keep his creatures cloaked and masked
Until the day
Now answering in kind he follows clues
Wordless, the distance tightening
Until the rigid half-circle they’d sketched
Became a letter G
Through the seat of commerce with his spine contracted
By an unexpected terror of its shadowed lanes
He searched for symbols, charcoaled, and at length
Traced a pathway marked in cornerstones
Blacked atop with compass lines
Arrows pointing east
And when he came to a butcher’s stall
Where piglets hung like tally marks, in chords
He ducked behind and found a row of houses
Counted on his left an open courtyard
Counted on his right…one, two, three, four
She had swallowed a wasp on Saint Thomas’s day
Eleven months undelivered
A log of wood burst with a shocking report
Spewing sparks that caught fire among the rushes
A heated swarm escaped
The household in a frenzy as the maid
Had at that moment touched a goblet to her mistress’s lip
All is deathly calm now, the rooms unlit
A wine butt holds the offspring born
He has been shown this, cautiously the lid pried loose
“Yes”—his host with timorous courtesies, had laid
His board with a fair day’s bounty
“Yes,” he’d said to the impresario, “if I might not tempt the devil
By showing gold, I would reward you for this kindness.
You deliver me, no less
In taking her from my house.”
Regalus masked moves lithe through the torchlit throng
Pierre the Seer guides her, brusque in the distance he keeps
But cocksure in his speech, his purpose strong
She pities her poor Tortu and her small Dauphin
Like a mother, she has helped to dress and feed them
She cannot tell the number of her years
Nor what the sphere of water in a well
May teach her
Him she loves with a faith implicit
The master who has gone away
But to Regalus her tortured skin is grace
“For in whom will He make his glory manifest?”
The gentle Abbess, once her almoner, had said
“See, child, how the flower will always be . . . has always been
Our Maker’s Mystery couched in impossibility
Eden within a poppy-seed
Not so large as a grain of sand”
Thus Regalus feels she cannot suffer
Being of all women blessed
And knows one day, when scales are shed
She will sing exaltation
The wax-man is too fat to walk about
Out-bellows the bull in a basso voice
But peals chill harmony, high and deep
While Tortu cradles his lute and plucks
Striking her hip with a tambourine, Regalus dances
While the Dauphin sings
Pierre beats a drum, and a stranger comes to join them
At the fire, bearing a long, stringed box in the shape of
The letter I
She feels an unlooked-for joy
Comes the impresario with a servant
Of his host shouldering mystery on a brancard
Lost staging pictures, lulled by the flare and death of flame
Fairgoers enticed, he sees them, made to long
For itching curiosity relieved
A glimpse inside
He stops, the way is thickening with bodies
Singing comes to his ears and the tattoo of a drum
The jingle of a girl in man’s garb rocking foot to foot
She has a lovely smile, he knows it
She smiles at Pierre the Seer
“And so, among your tricks, Pierre…”
The impresario cannot come nigh
This voice that wins his admiration
A troubadour’s with a psaltery
“Is mimicry…you slither through barred windows
Like a snake, gnaw thongs of leather like a rat…”
“I do.” The seer shows his teeth. “Among my talents have I also
The pitiless eye of a chicken hawk. I am like
the badger, fast in his sett, hissing at small dogs.”
He prolongs the letter S
“But most of all I am a man of prophecy. Your fate I’ll tell
at once…I need not fall into a trance, to read your stars, monsieur.
No, I think it would not be wise, for any man to close his eyes
In thy congenial company. My friends, have I ever told you…?”
The impresario rests his burden, from his glove slips
A coin of gold. The servant leaves. He rests on elbows
sheltering the wine butt, rests fingers on his dagger’s hilt
“Told…” Pierre the Seer looks aside. “Come, Regalus, be still.
Why they did not hang me when my first master I killed.”
She peeps from under her mask; he smiles again to see
Her eyes grow wide
“My devoted young novice, all men are liars.”
“And you, chevalier, are the worst of sinners,
to call me by that name.”
“I am, I own it…yet, by faith, I shan’t die unredeemed,
dear Regalus. The false priest whom I served
Minting coin with his blasphemous arts
Pilgrims to Ste-Geneviève’s shrine he canvassed
Offering his pardon for their sins, thus:
‘My children, you must to the altar come clean
Know you the new-shriven soul doth tempt!
‘Tis bait for the Evil One; aye, we wake
To the fresh sun spotted and impure
For in dreams at night we have been lured
Will you tell an untruth in this holy place?’
But his heart could not be at ease.”
The psaltery player speaks: “Mark!…girl
Pierre the vessel, empty and sounding
From out its bowels
Miraculous sayings of a voice dredged from Hell
Angury by the angels compelled
No doubt you found a way, Pierre
No doubt the false priest sleeps
Rocked in the arms of a deathless Peace!”
“Let me draw from your side this bitter arrow, Boniface
Confess to me that you were born covetous.
With ten greedy fingers and a coxcomb’s pride.”
Pierre’s fingers make a letter O
Boniface, named by his foe, leaps up
He has jerked loose his bag, and gathered a stone
With a whip-slinger’s sinew he flings it
Poupée, the doll-woman, grosse tête bobbing, limbs
Thin and shrunken, screams and screams, and being
Her master’s pet, cradles tiny hands around his boot
O, jealousy! Regalus in penance catches Pierre by the sleeve
For amid a burst of cries and laughter none had heard
The missile strike. Silent Tortu from errands of his own
Pads near to Regalus with a bleeding face
Pierre’s hand closes over hers, avec tendresse
“Boniface!” The impresario with Poupée clinging to his neck
Steps between them. “You are an unharmonious guest.
And as your aim is false, you must try another song.”
“Monsieur.” The troubadour bows. “You will not have it thought
you conspire with assassins. Please. Charity is a holy act, no doubt.
Allow them all to know what you have done.”
He turns and eyes Pierre, as do the others.
“My master,” answers he. “I was tasked with spotting marks;
that the priest, by halving his labor, might double his purse.
Yea, the sin beladen soul will find expression
in familiar habit, hesitation;
the guilty heart will speak the chosen phrase.
Why might not I, a man of worth, bestow false consolation?
It is a holy act, no doubt, to say: I know thee for a fornicator.
And you, madame, have lusted in your heart.
Dressed was I in robes of black, whispering my way
Midst pilgrims, blanching cheeks.
Perhaps I had been tardy, for they say
‘Tis a wise man knows himself…it was a lady
Discovered me my gift—she had made to faint
True, friends, I aver myself a villain, but not yet was I embittered
Not yet schooled in prison…I caught her in my arms
Contrite. Ah! But she played a ruse. When close to my ear
Whispered in her turn, “Good monsieur l’abbé, I pray thee
Shrive me here. I give you gold for your pains.”
Then merrily, for willingly enough, I did absolve her,
Went she on her way.”
A shaft of sun casts brilliancy upon a coat of arms above
The gated lane
The dawn has come
The V in virtus newly forged in flame
He lifts the doll-woman onto the wagon’s bed
At once her small feet prance a pirouette
The hunchback has been beaten in the town
He must ask his good servant to mark a likeness down
One whose fortune Pierre the Seer will uncloak
She stands clear for the wax-man, Regalus
He waddles, stately, pale as death, to sit upon his pallet
While the impresario, touching fingers
To her shoulder, ties the tent fly, murmurs
“Dress yourself, the time is nigh”
Tortu sinks and sits cross-legged
With osier basket, lute and reed
She flutters, drawn this way and that
And the impresario cocks his hat
“Humble yourselves before the Lord
Yea, denizens of the North, behold
Creation’s variety manifold
For today we dwell on earth as told
Tomorrow cast into the flames
Spare a coin
And the least most high, and the last be first
Spare a coin
Come, varlet and master
Inquisitor and doubter
The shepherd and the butcher
Come, sergeant and informer
Spare a coin
Now hark! Madame Poupée
Eye, mes amis, if you please
Her silver rings, like a lark she sings
And the prize is yours
Can you guess where it lies—
A riddle. Shall I shine for you
A candle? I make light of a heavy weight,
friends, and give to you Mont-Blanc…eh?
Voilà! The genius of the place
The magnificent Man of Wax!”
His hand describes an alpine view
In the shape of a letter M
He glances, having counted beats
A roar like Stentor’s rends the air
The townsfolk aaah and then applaud
The impresario coughs
Tortu has done no wrong
He lays his lute upon the ground and plucks
A melancholic melody with his toes
A lilting air flutes o’er this, as serpentine
In play of arms and sway of hips
The Pythoness begins her dance
He cannot bring himself to it
His lips form the D of Delphi, there he falters
The impresario coughs once more and leaves her
Turning to his hearers strains to gather
to mind the Dauphin’s verses…she is not
A deformity, a creature
Scales reptilian peeling from her skin
It will surprise the Dauphin to hear himself
Called too soon.
He has done her a cruelty…many such
And cannot extricate a foot
She smiles still. Perhaps she smiles to please him.
But her eyes are bright with pain, as the impresario collects himself
And speaks again.
Mariners tell this tale
How the Sovereign of the Sea
When a man cast to the swells he hears
Dispatches he to buoy him
If he deserve this grace
A messenger to guide him
To a warm and sheltering place”
To a sheltering place
Like a sea bird flown
High where rays of sun make gentle
Winter’s violent froth and foam
He sees a lonely man below
Whose feet set on a cliff’s edge stumble
The fit passes, in commotion of known voices
Pierre can’t stop them crowding past the tent fly
One kicks at Tortu’s basket and a melée
Erupts as trufflers after coins go rooting
The Dauphin, helpless, shirtless, hugged by Regalus
She shames the impresario, her thoughtless heart
Wherein dwell only love and courage
Now he leaps
Atop the wagon’s bed
And seizing Poupée’s silver ring
Strikes a chiming note again and again
With his dagger’s blade
He had been warned
The words made diffident and softly pleading
“I know you for a gentleman, monsieur
I ask you nothing, what you do with her
This thing within the town is little known
I pray that it remain so.”
But…it is his living being savaged
It is the Bishop’s fair, he will be banished
A thing so wrong and yet a thing so small
Malign a soul already damned to Hell?
He knows the lid has not been nailed
And yet it does not yield
His blade snaps, springing free
Wrought with the jagged shape of a letter Z
The wine butt now half-breached and lid atilt
A vapor seems to rise
Such as from which might Oracle prophesy
The keeper of his purse departs
A servile gratitude for this
answering of an urgent summons
The impresario feels
And feels enfolded in a fallen angel’s wings
Bearing the stench of cursedness; a humble plea
To all he meets for small respect. Merci.
He means to pay them each five coins of gold
Adieu, madame, adieu.
Mes pauvres, God defend you
Scattered to the four winds of the world.
“Tortu, I will not tarry
On the next ship leaving harbor I must be—”
On the stable wall of a desolate rogues’ retreat
Tortu in an agony of sorrow
Marks a letter N and from his throat
His master hears his first word spoken
And Pierre, whom the impresario had told,
“Walk Regalus to the town and beg an audience
A convent there is dedicated to Sainte-Marguerite
The noble lady abbess, she will be so good…”
Comes back. “No, my friend, she will not be commanded.”
He holds the way against a probing arm
Another snakes about his waist, but unperturbed
Pierre tells his tale. “Your purse of gold is lighter now by half.
Discount the cost of passing through the gate
For I was stayed without, but to the warden’s house
The pious dame did order wine and bread
To salve my sinner’s conscience I must lay
Three coins beside my plate, the dowry paid
Then whistling on my way, while in my heart
Reciting ten Aves—Ah! I swear it—thus far gone
In thought I had not guessed my peril
A hand did seize me by the collar…”
This fate invoked, Pierre avoids reprisal
Lays hand on Tortu’s arm in sad rapport
Doing so he slips aside and she
Her face washed clean of paint, still washed in tears
Yet seen through penitent’s eyes become unblemished
Returns to him not knowing by what fault
She has offended, and she does not care
The impresario won’t hear her call him master
He catches her before her knees strike earth
Catches her and draws her in embrace
“No,” she says, in answer, “no. You will never go without me.”
If he allows it…the linen of his shirt warmed by her breath
It would be comfort, charity beyond his worth
“Will you not have me, then?” she asks.
And the impresario tells her, “Yes.”
But at this, hooves thunder and harness bells ring
Guardsmen dismount with a clatter and clang
Their tabards carry the Bishop’s arms
Poignards sheathed at a nod and word
From the infamous lips of the Friar Gaspard
Whose counsels are always taken
So intimate has he made him
With his revered lord’s peccadilloes
This heretic’s bane makes a claim to have studied
By use of the bastannade, water, and rack
By fiery tongs and the H-shaped device
Proudly worn for a sign round his neck
The unconfessed sin Gaspard winnows
“Yes, say that a man were no felon
Say falsely he’d been accused…
But yet, let me have my way with him
My persuasions are never refused.”
Gaspard boasts that all men are guilty
No servant devout would deny it
“You! Hand over this fugitive to me
For the blasphemer’s sentence is death.”
The prisoner’s advocate begins to feel himself followed
It seems to him a certainty the footpad is that fellow
Who gives his name in fraudulent humility as Pierre
“Only that.” And loiters round the guardhouse.
The advocate turns on a heel, making the jailer’s victualer
Behind him stagger, dropping the joint
Wrenched from a boiling carcass, possibly of mutton
“No harm done, milord, no harm done,” the jailer’s man
mutters, taking it up at once, and smearing on his blouse
A swath of grease in the shape of a letter X
The advocate sees indeed
Two figures skulk in his train
“By my fortune!” He swears his strongest oath;
This wealth coined from trade in Tuscan terra cotta.
New elevated by fortuitous marriage to baronial rank
He is entitled to the sword he draws
And shows his stength of arm in balancing the point
At Pierre’s throat
“Begone from here, thou rogue!”
“Worthy lord…and you as well, my worthy jailer’s cur.
I dare not bow. Yet witness what I plainly state before your ears.
I mean to second your good promptings, good monsieur.
Shall I tell you your advice? You will trust me better.”
“Tell me…!” The merchant-baron lowers his sword
His sputter interrupted by the turnkey
“I cannot wake the prisoner!
…Pardon me.” He laces fingers at his waist, and bends his knee.
“I speak out of turn, monsieur le baron.
I apologize, if it please your excellence,
I shall begin again…” Clouting the turnkey on the shoulder,
the advocate presses past,
to enter the cell with a shake of the head. Pierre’s boy,
who had been silent, crosses before him like a shadow
And most extraordinary to the advocate’s eye
Kneels on the filthy floor of stone.
Throwing back his cowl he croons, “O, my poor love!”
Caressing the prisoner’s hand in his own
Pierre, rocking back, raises his flask with a solemn, studied lack
Of impudence (although the features of his face
tend against him)
The baron, he notes, has an arrogant flare of nostril
and curl of upper lip, yet
He does not fully sneer in spurning this.
Saying merely, “Do your best. I have set the warden to mark
the hour, and when my time is done here, the prisoner
must call himself counselled.”
“However,” says Pierre. “He must know what is charged against him.”
“Precisely those things”—the baron’s eyes are, without a doubt,
most scornful—“to which he has confessed. I have seen the document.”
“Then, of course, as you have furnished me not one proof, but two,
I must believe my poor friend guilty. But, monsieur, I am an
ignorant, unschooled man. Would it not amuse you to enlighten me?”
“Testimony has been given…”
“By a man named Boniface…”
“Villain! Will you hear, or not? In any case, by two or three
Taken since the outrage at the fair, with suppurating sores…”
“Ah! They were first taken by the village whore.”
“Scoundrel! I leave you with a word.”
“Never weep,” Pierre tells Regalus, after the door bangs shut.
“The baron plays his role to spare the dignity of the court.
That it be not accused of killing out of hand.
As to the prisoner—see, he wakes!—he
will feel unequal to his counsellor’s word. But I will give it,
and urge on him a better choice.”
She wipes her eyes with a bloodstained sleeve,
Mouths the first consonant of her betrothed’s name, “Q—
The prisoner whispers, “What day is it now?
I think, at last, they have let me sleep.”
“Now you recall I had been telling you
How the solicitations of my own Gaspard
Were not to be refused…I, most readily
Admitting everything, called down, mon frère
Heaven’s wrath on my own head
Did I omit a word or tell a lie
For as against the scaffold, this smiting seemed fair bargain
Alas, Our Father, who each day
Must hear a thousand dire prayers
Left this matter of my condemnation
In the hands of men
But I will tell you all that by and by.
I have been deputized, my friend—
Let me offer then, of chances, three
The baron would have you ask of our Most Reverend Lord B
To grant the trial by ordeal.
True, of all tosses, only this
Exonerates, and the advocate’s task is to attempt it.
And only then, if the ordeal be by water.
Innocence in death is something; indeed, it may be much…”
“Pierre, you make me tired.”
“Yes,” Regalus seconds the prisoner, “be quiet. And look, Pierre,
if there is any of that joint seems unbefouled.”
“No, Regalus, I want no food. Pierre, no consolation, no advice.”
He touches fingers to a swollen eye. “No, please, I am content with it.”
“You’ll hang…” This is offered testingly; the prisoner says again:
“Please. Regalus, you know I am to die. Therefore, you will no longer
Defy my wish to see you safe. Pierre…”
Pierre sees her chin quiver, and a light
Beyond refute that of defiance
Glint as a tear spills from her eye.
He says, “No, hear me, friend. You are to die
for some heretical offense, but…do you call yourself an unbeliever?”
The prisoner smiles so far as he is able,
And his smile is sour and sad.
“Yes, you remind me. I have only some short time ago
been branded with an oath.
My faith is perfect. Only I have a rite yet to receive…they may
Pierre peers at him. “Wit, however, too, is combat.
You see where I am going.”
The prisoner sighs. Pierre persists.
“You have some fight in you.
Take the seer’s counsel, then—refuse the scaffold.
This rule by priests may nothing mean to one not ruled by God;
Yet the spark that meekly snuffs itself gives credence
To unholy law. Further,” he lifts a halting hand,
“we’ll weigh the other case.
If in piety do you hold regard for life, a gift no mortal can bestow;
Then you must try, and try again, and try unto the last.”
Regalus and Pierre come upon the tail of a mounted entourage
Flanked, by her knights of the household, rides
On bearers’ shoulders, a lady in a litter
Footmen armed with cudgels seem to relish
No less than those well-distanced from their blows
The abject cringe of beggars venturing close
“Oh, she is very good,” breathes Regalus, as a white hand
Be-ringed with sapphire and ruby, flings coins that splash
Or sink in mud, in desperation trodden underfoot
Pierre enfolds her in his cloak and walks her face to face
To safety, sheltered overhead, beneath a sleeping loft
And with a wondering passion bends to look into her eyes.
“Regalus! Do you not suppose that you might as easily…as
Worthily, I say, occupy that seat?”
“Don’t speak me such a word! Don’t make some devil envy me!”
She flushes…and he lets her be. Here a hooded figure
Joins them, leading by the skirt another. Regalus embraces
One and then the next. “Tortu, it will be well, it will. Oh!”
She strokes the Dauphin’s dangling sleeve. “My poor Michel!”
“No, never trouble over me,” he answers.
“We have spent nothing of our master’s gold.
So then, if Pierre knows the man to bribe…”
“Let us,” Pierre cautions him, “go inside.”
This lower chamber serves the street
They find a bench on which to sit
At Pierre’s sign the pot-boy sloshes up
Leaving a U-shaped dribble midst the rushes
“No,” the seer says, “I know this game. Not his prisoners alone—
The jailer has his reputation under lock and key
And think you how it is that kings and queens
Betimes await the block and bide in towers
But rarely do their wealthy friends gain for them liberty.”
“The gatekeeper, then, must be sweetened with a bribe
For such a one may at any time be called aside
He cannot leave a fire rage or fainting lady lie
So make fair claim to’ve been about his duties…
That, Pierre, is what you mean to say.”
But Tortu’s exclamation surprises Pierre no less
Than such a worldly observation
From the lips of Regalus
“No, money is a handy thing
And at those times it’s needed
I know of nothing better to the purpose.
We will keep ours.”
“Then,” she throws herself in eagerly again,
“Tell me what you’d have me do. For it is done.”
“Patience, love…yes, I beg you let me think aloud.
I do not tell you that I have no plan…”
“He doesn’t,” says the Dauphin, standing. “Regalus, Tortu…”
“The plan…” says Pierre, following; he then trots to the lead
Leaps the gate of a private yard, unlatches this;
Ushers the others before him, and brings his fist
Springing from a crouch to strike the jaw
Of the petty spy who’d trailed them from the alehouse.
“…is real enough.” He strolls to join his fellows.
“In those parts where it exists. I must now
Speak to you of Boniface. You have guessed, he is a
tolerable performer, but no troubadour.
No, my friends, he is an erstwhile Lollard, cast from his county
Thus baited in the proper vein”—Pierre makes a hook of his finger
In the shape of a letter J—“To rise as he aspires
And play sweet justice’s champion
Our ex-knight will appear.”
“How long ago,” the seer begins
“Though not so many days have passed
And yet, how long ago it seems…” The Dauphin interrupts.
“Vraiment! For a great, tedious time, Pierre, you have been talking.
See, Tortu has gone to sleep!”
“My old master, him I’d told you of (Pierre disdains to answer this)
Unfaithful priest, had spied me at my sport.
I had fleeced his flock beforehand; his shearings fallen short.
Alors! There is no maddened mind so haunted
As that sees visions of others’ trickery—
I mean, the trickster schooled himself in nuance
But, my master did not merely watch me
I’d caught him, though he’d thought my eyes were closed,
Ferreting round my pallet
When in a frenzy sought my sack of gold
That I kept safe under the small of my back
He drew a knife…I know the sound it makes
And so I’d seized the old man by the throat
And so I came to stand, hands bound
And saw no mercy in the hangman’s hooded eyes
But this, my bon voyage, had drawn a lively crowd
They would have their fun…I vowed, friends, I’d have mine
Yes, I knew the art, I pointed with my chin
There stood a sturdy burgess of the town
Well…every married rich man’s vice is one
I made to fall into a fit and then
Spoke in a voice all windy like the tomb.”
“I dare suppose,” the Dauphin says, “a voice much like your own.”
“However, when by name I had assigned the sins of two or three
It came into my thoughts as had my good saint counselled me.
‘Speak not another word, Pierre.'”
He eyes the Dauphin; the Dauphin holds his tongue
“Ah!” I told my audience, “it fades.
And now, tant pis, some agony I cannot tell, awaits
That one whose name starts with the letter A.”
The vintner’s house still darkened
By a shade. And it, avenged or no—he sees it now
—will never loose its hold
A girl knocks begging for a room and offers gold
He has not spoken even to his servant
For many days
Yet seeing a daughter in her guileless eyes
Says, “No, my child, you have been ill-advised.
Put your purse away. I will send my own Marie…”
He falters, helpless murmurs, “…make appeal to the abbess.”
Regalus dares not look behind
Where Tortu holds her by the hand
But her angel keeps faith, rain finds its way
A deluge swamps the street, and by the hearth
A sudden drip, drip, drip falls splashing
“Tonight, perhaps,” he sighs, “you had best remain.”
“I have a friend. Will you be so good, monsieur,
As to make only a pallet on the floor?”
Pierre has gone to search for Boniface; the Dauphin for a word
Of the wax-man or Madame Poupée
And Regalus still, shamed to shrink, did cling to him
“No, trust in Pierre’s plan.” With a friendly scorn
Michel had touched his brow to hers.
“I was born this way, you know. I get along.
Now I leave you in the company of Tortu.”
And yet the plan…tonight she broods awake
Knots her beads into a Y to hold a promise
Was this the bed her love slept in, not long past?
Can he be well, or does he lie in agony,
Even as she thinks of him?
Afraid of all she dreams, Regalus ponders
“Who do you suppose Boniface hates,
for ransoming the seer into servitude?
The Kentishman is a creature of the Friar
A man who keeps his word, and pays his debts.
Thus of petitioners demands Gaspard no less.
(Pierre had laughed)
Allow that word to be
a hair’s breadth misintoned; allow that debt to fall
A denier short…the beggar may then dine
on his own liver. However—”
Regalus had stopped him with a brush of hands.
“Surely Boniface is not the man…?”
“Oh, yes. You grasp, for what it’s worth, my subtlety.
The place must be secured; none of our class may fill it.
But once secured, be sure the arms of Boniface
Will take the field to meet our man in combat.”
She rubs her cheeks and neck, not for cold
If the night feels chill, to her this trial seems welcome
She wishes she might bear the world’s pain
Enduring all, if by some alchemy
He might bide in warmth and tender sleep
She slips onto her knees, and bowing over
Clenched hands, prays, “Oh, God,
Why should I now receive this grace?
What is it that you want of me?”
She cannot feel a trace of blemished skin
Recalls how her good lady taught her this
“None in our world of sorrows, child, stands so low
She does not tower in fortune above a lesser.
Who never hope to touch a bishop’s robe,
may, by His love, touch the hand of a blessed sufferer.”
Yes, I have tried not to know what I know well
That combat’s issue must be one man’s death
Pierre’s face of irony so bitter, comes to her
She sees his willing heart noble beyond measure—
Understanding him at last
But it will not do
The vintner’s house offers no looking-glass
So by her shadow’s length at dawn she judges
The ruse will be enough, for that she must contrive
Is only to fall against a knife
And this, she tells herself, is not so much
Tortu speaks one of his rare words
She is aware, now wakeful, that some talk
had filled the hours of darkness.
“My daughter,” says the vintner, “I have one thing more
To confess. I had climbed the stairs, hoping to look upon
your face. You will forgive me. I found you on your knees.
Your servant tells me…”
“Ah, Tortu is my dear friend. Monsieur, I am myself a servant.”
“Tortu tells me I must ask, and so I do. What heartache
is it troubles you?”
He has schooled her in her alphabet. Tortu’s hand traces in air
Behind their host where he cannot see, a letter P
By this to mean, do as Pierre would have you
“Love.” Regalus takes a chair.
The hour demands chicanery
But Pierre’s mood weighs low his spirit
He perches on an oaken chest
Fine-carved in fingered leaves, knobbed round
With acorns…an uncomfortable seat
In a house of placid comforts
Too excellent withal for a humble man to contemplate
With ease, this room, but if his station
Cannot merit such, the dwelling is yet Gaspard’s.
Boniface, standing at the fire, grasping an iron heated by his stirring
Turns and speaks the thought Pierre had read.
“I ought this moment strike you dead. It would give me pleasure.”
“It would. But pains to your master. And as I can no longer
Call you Sir, but varlet merely, it must also be…”
He had anticipated this, untroubled ducks the swing.
“…that while you may be much to him, you are
nothing to me.”
“Swine!” Boniface seizes him by the collar.
“I loved the man I served,” Pierre chokes out.
“And then I grew to hate him.” His enemy stops twisting, utters
A phrase beginning with the letter F.
“And why so? I will let you tell me one more lie.”
“A woman,” Pierre says.
He has been holding court, the wax-man
The aubergiste wrings hands, for this strange guest
Is never to be budged, it seems…and where
Are those coins he’d promised?
Hid, his host must think, within some fold of loathsome flesh.
That has been the wax-man’s sport with him
The villain roars a greeting, seeing three come nigh
One breaks and throws fond arms around his neck
A sturdy yeoman parts the throng, striding through
Escort to a queenly, doll-like dame
Poupée’s grown son with wonder eyes
The wax-man’s pallor, Regalus
Kneels and cradles in her hand, madame’s
Surprised, she asks, “How do you, child?”
The lifted face beneath the cowl, surprises her as well
As though the girl could spy the distant sun
And stood at cliffside staring at such light
As blinds a man
Regalus says, “Pray do you forgive me.”
“Well, but it is done. And yet I think that thou hast never sinned.”
“I have. Said a wicked thing of you, from jealousy, inside my head.”
“Ah…I have not that gift, my dear. I see what is before me.
I mean that skill to judge the hidden heart.
Nor would I take upon me, more than is my lot
…for judgment is the Lord’s,
so I’ve been taught. Content thyself.”
Pierre is seen to cross the threshold
Regalus rises to her feet
And finds he will not meet her eye
She stays, and wary
Sees his shoulders heave as with a sigh
“I would rather,” he says, approaching
And with an alien austerity, “have the girl outside.”
But as Tortu draws her by the hand
And as she remonstrates with foolish tears that course
In silence down her cheeks, the iron-strapped door
Swings gouging out an arc, a letter C
This new arrival will not let them pass
But bows to her in mocking ceremony
“After all, she has some beauty.”
He says this, musing, a speech before his god, perhaps
Then deigns to cast his confidence on Regalus
“Aye, girl, I will deliver thee. To an unworthy suitor.”
Pierre signs to his three companions, palm to palm
Closes this L like a trap door shutting on
A bird in hand…or tiger by the tail
They know their roles
The wax-man can grow no paler,
but glowers and drops his jaw
The Dauphin returns a thin, ironic smile
While Madame tosses her locks and says
“I refuse to be made afraid…garçon,”
Pierre shrugs. “I congratulate you.”
Boniface, as he steals upon them,
Finds the seer’s manner lofty,
Cold…he feels a thrill, his pride
Validated by this curtain raised
This unguarded show of truth
The rogue were wont to hide
He notes the Dauphin’s chin tremble
“Can we not all sup together?” Boniface enquires
Pierre, for too long, holds himself
Arrested, back turned, but then smiles round
A smile Boniface deems unctuous and sly
“I dreamt…yes, let us sit.” Pierre sweeps clear the bench
“The demon that informs me shows me tokens.
A collar of pearls consumed by flame. A purse of gold
Lodged fast at the bottom of a well. A velvet cape in
marten’s fur trimmed, seen to cradle a death’s head’s grin.”
“And wisely, you advised your friends, to give these treasures over.”
An indifferent gesture of the hand. “No, like you
They scorn my humble castings. Neither will you, Boniface,
Care to know it, that two fortunes wait you,
Joy or lamentation, as you choose.”
Madame rises in a temper, fingering her jewels
“Worm! Before the witness of us all, and still
You ply your lying, swindling spiel!”
No sooner has she crossed before the hearth
Her son approaches, bent, to lay upon her shoulders
A cloak of fine-spun woolen stuff, when…tout à coup!
All eyes are blinded by a flash, a puff of smoke
A vile, sulphurous odor drives them choking to their feet
The yeoman’s haunted face they see, the empty cloak he holds
And on the floor a tiny shrunken skull, a pile of ash
A laughing cadre of three…Pierre, the Dauphin
Enter with the ease of welcome guests
They, and the young man, Renald
Pass in chatter the vintner’s threshold
Pierre notes Tortu waits them by the hearth, alone.
Forcing a smile, he says, “Renald.
You must join our guild, and leave your fields to seed.
You showed a face last night…an actor’s turn
So grim as made me doubt my eyes.”
Flattered, as he has been many times, shy…and drunk
Madame’s son stumbles to his feet with thanks,
And bids them all bonne chance
Tortu cracks hazelnuts and tosses these
Into the Dauphin’s mouth
And when they have refreshed themselves, the Dauphin says,
“But, Pierre, you have made ashes of our master’s mermaid!
You will owe him…” His voice dies, on the R of recompense
He softly adds, “I wonder how he does?”
“I suppose”—Pierre says this instead—“again she is at her prayers.
Where is our host? I’ll beg his leave to stay with him ’til morn.
Tomorrow I must step into the lists…and then no more.”
“Pierre, walk out with me.”
Regalus speaks from the stairs.
“You understand,” she tells him. “You have gifts and I have none.
He has a will for you, yet unfulfilled…but as for me—
He has made his will known.”
“No, I don’t understand you. No,” he stops her speaking.
“I don’t know why you come with me, so trusting.
You take my hand, and so we part.
As from unwelcome wooers maidens must.
I find that He instructs me; that His mind is clear enough.
Devil take Pierre the Seer! Even you, sweet Regalus,
Will spare him not the pains of Hell.
Then farewell. You would be wise to take advice.
Was it not his wish for you?
That he would die…and know you safe.”
“Oh, Pierre…oh, I pity you, at least. I say to you, my dear
There is a thing above trust.
And I have prayed on it, as you have not. And if I die,
or if my love and I, should die together
That is just.”
Behind leathern masks are the fighters’ faces hid
To make livelier sport for the pleasure of the mob
For to lose the sight of an eye, or have a nose cut off
Cuts short the combat, those on tiptoes at the back
Do not strain themselves to witness a moment’s dispatch
And a fallen man who lies below their vantage
Bleed to death
The contestants are not armored, nor bear shields
In tunic and cape of or and gules, honors the house
As the rumor flies, of a prince of Anvers.
In his left hand holds a club, for the parrying of blows
In his right, a poignard, this his own, the gossips say
The hilt’s T hollowed round a splinter of the Cross
Yet this Boniface disappoints, his puniness draws rude noise
“Someone plays a joke”, the jeer begins to thunder
Voice added to voice
The prisoner is thrust through a gauntlet of spears
Loudly they boo, for he totters alike, and the weight of his weapons
Saps the sum of his might.
The impresario from the blackness of his cell
Comes pale into daylight, numb now to the bites
Of fleas and lice, haggard with fever that preys upon his eyes.
So he supposes.
Those that meet his own are not the troubadour’s
They are the eyes he’d begged of Heaven to gaze upon once more
The crowd is chanting, urging him to strike
Rather he sinks to fainting knees, his wish
This specter weeping over him in the guise of love
May bare its master’s claw and make an end
The Bishop’s guard holds back the throng.
Armed with bad eggs and wormy apples,
Mud balled round handfuls of loose pebbles,
They begin to hurl their missiles.
Three long blasts and a short to summon
The captain of the Bishop’s horse
The foot-guard lustily bash heads
Gaspard’s men eagerly make arrest
For every fine collected is a feather for their nest
Tortu’s sturdy back unaided must draw the sledge
The wax-man’s mass umbrellaed
‘Neath a hat’s broad brim, plows as the boulder rolls
With heedless certainty, his voice its own authority
And Madame knows the upper hand belongs
More surely to the nimble than the strong
She darts through legs in combat stance
The Dauphin leaps and kicks, his acrobatics
Baffling to those who only fight with fists
And Pierre seizes cudgels in both hands
So the performers cordon off their fallen man
All the while, the horsemen drive their circling mounts
Swing swaths with lances, yawn in their saddles, speculate
In shouts to one another, upon the midday meal
A petitioner presses, urgent, towards the dais
“Good reverend sir, if it please you, hear my case!”
“All this,” the vintner speaks, as silence grows, “is harvest,
of that crop my own sin sowed. This one here,
if his life be spared, may fairly make demand of mine.
What, if a man induce another man to evil,
Is the crime? Who, with unworthy aim in mind,
do offer what he knows full well is food
to the poor man’s appetite, has not done the baser thing?
Both tempter, reverend lord, and miscreant!”
The Bishop, heir to the Herzogthum of K——
Has new acquired this office, a prince’s gratitude
For his father’s aid. He understands but some
Of what is said.
The vintner ushers forth the figure,
before the gasping women who remain
Of one small and vanquished fighter
With a gentle word unmasks her
“You will appreciate my dilemma.”
The Bishop says this to the wax-man
He has been pleased to find this one have Latin
For without the prompting of these matters grave
Had of his own to doubt the Friar Gaspard
Ought so to be relied on, with regard
To dispositions towards the Third Estate
“My verdict must be such as none presume
A laxity of law will now prevail, resting upon this precedent.
And if,” he sharply adds, although the wax-man does not speak,
“I cannot be persuaded such a course exists,
I must uphold the charges, and pronounce death.”
The impresario has been carried to the scullery
The girl among the servants here allowed
The wax-man’s brief is bolstered by researches
And on the strength of Pierre’s news he answers
“As to the charge which is blasphemy…which is,
a willful disrespect for Holy Writ; and the lesser charge
of wizardry, which you must drop for want of testimony…”
He looks up from his vellum, his place marked by Tortu’s
Most ornate E:
“My men cannot discover any claimants, and Gaspard
will not himself reveal names. Ergo…”
“You must expose some virtue in this man, albeit. He is loved,
it seems, and yet, I think, a mountebank…akin in nature to a thief.”
“On the contrary, I mean to prove he has no virtue. And nor do I, and nor do you.
But this offense is thrust aside; the Bishop lifts a shining eye,
For the saint of Aquino he calls his master
And clearing his throat, had spake the wax-man:
“I quote from the Summa Theologica. They receive honor from men by
way of reward, as from those who have nothing greater to offer—”
“We address virtue.” The Bishop nods.
“That virtue that resides in your honored court and in your office. While I, having no honor from men, have nothing I deem virtue either, although I have not the prisoner’s faults. I quote again:
Man is not to be loved for his own sake, but whatever is in man is to be loved for God’s sake.”
“You counter-propose me!” The Bishop rubs his hands, his loneliness in a foreign land, for once forgot. “The life of the body, being man’s great good, and these, this girl…and the other one…”
“…sacrificing this…intending to have done so…”
“…the worldly object of the act is not wherein it derives its holiness, yes.”
“That is something. But neither, I think, has sought counsel of a priest. Do they know what they do…or can they? Say that tomorrow, I am asked to judge the identical case…”
“Could there be such?”
The Bishop smiles. “There is a saying, friend. Nothing succeeds like success. I know what testimony I hear given. I am not an augurer, nor am I an angel. I am a man.”
“I take your point. I return you this. You have brought many a felon to judgment and never by so arduous a path. The vintner, even, truly has confessed—he would not bury the abortion in unconsecrated ground, for fear of those with morbid passions…but hoped my master’s taste for curiosities might spare him losing custom.”
“Before I have finished my contemplations, I will have broached with God this vintner’s question, this matter of abetting, if not instigating. Why,” the Bishop interrupts himself, “are you called the wax-man, now…can you not recall your name?”
“Ah, monsieur. Say that my name is Théophile. Once I was spared man’s ridicule; I dwelt in the cave of a holy eremite. Here my skin did never suffer daylight. Yet through his years of teaching me—for the hermit would in all things sacrifice—I had grown fat, as you see me today. My melancholic master summoned me; the eremite belonging to his family. I mean his living on their land was borne for piety.”
“And you were not dismayed to find yourself made this pitiable display? You and the others?”
“Well, as for misery, to each his own. Only the Dauphin and the girl were purchased. Pierre was ransomed, rather, I and Tortu the happier. Madame Poupée, who taught the girl to dance, cannot bear, she claims, an empty house.”
“And you remind me, God doth place His obstacles until His will be done.”
“I do. Indeed, you have already the guidance of His hand.”
His showman’s eye, a gift . . . he’d called it that
Boasted how poignancy might mix with horror
This he’d known to parse and measure
What string to pluck for piety;
then touch a purse for charity
Urge strong men condescend
Stare and dig in pockets
Give sop to concupiscence
He’d weighed her like an alchemist, this girl
And had she known her worth was gold?
Or was it so
That which bears all takes no thought for self
“I cannot wiser judge, than echo Our Good Lord.
Does no one now accuse thee? Therefore, go and sin no more.”
The impresario finds he has no heart for chasing wealth
Regalus from Tortu has softly drawn
A voice she has the patience to attend
And when she sends the new Abbess her alms
Does sometimes pen a letter giving news
The news is of the eremite’s good works
For since the vintner’s daughter there was buried
Miracles attach to his old cell
The impresario, his wife, and faithful friend
At his father’s court now dwell
The Dauphin to the vintner’s has been ‘prenticed
Among his gifts had honed from fair to fair
Wit enough to play to vanities
Those flatteries the traffic deigns to bear
And at this chance, conducts himself with shrewdness
Doubling his forgiven master’s business
For Madame idleness remains a bore
Her son’s household too needy and too far
From city life, once more she casts her fortunes
This time with gypsies of a traveling band
And can be found performing on the strand
The wax-man at the Bishop’s table has grown fatter still
“You are a scholar, Théophile, I desire you accept
The freedom of my library.
Please remedy, indeed, its insufficiencies.
I shall acquire whatever you suggest.
I admit the sin of ambition, in this one respect.”
And now (though most content) the wax-man jokes he cannot
In the stable yard of a desolate rogues’ retreat
A knight disgraced, hand-over-hand on hilt, blade to heaven
Swears an oath. “My God, if you grant me absolution
Grant me a fell hand, also, and a heart to dare
That for the honor of your Holy Name this weapon
Never miss its mark, though death take
He that bears it”
“I will be circumspect,” Pierre tells Boniface. “And offer then
To carry only your pack.”