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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Parricide

By François Coppée (1842–1908)

  • From ‘For the Crown’

    Unrhymed version, in the metre of the original, by Edward Irenæus Prime-Stevenson
  • The scene represents a rocky plateau in the Balkans. In the background and centre of the stage, a ruined Roman triumphal arch. A huge signal-pyre is prepared for firing, near the path. Beside it burns a torch, stuck into the rock. On all sides are pine-trees and crags. In the distance are the Balkans, with snowy summits. It is the middle of a fine starlight night. Michael Brancomir, solus:

  • I HAVE promised—have sworn. ’Tis the moment, the place—

    Michael, naught is left but to hold to thy oath.

    What calm! Far below there, the torrent scarce drips—

    Othorgul soon will come: I shall speedily hear

    On the old Roman high-road the tramp of his horse;

    I shall see him approach, he, the foe, ’neath the arch

    Built by Dacia’s conqueror, Trajan the Great.

    What matters it? Ripe for all daring am I,

    Basilide! Ah, thy amorous arms, whence I come,

    Have embraces to stifle and smother remorse.

    Yes, thy hand have I kissed, pointing out shame’s abyss;

    With joy throbs my heart that I love thee to crime!

    And since crime must ensue that thy pleasure be done,

    I feel in such treason an awful content.

    Enmeshed in the night of thy locks, I have sworn

    That in place of the Turk, should the Prince of the Pit

    Rise up with a sneer and stretch forth to my hand

    This crown I desire, all with hell-fires aglow,

    To thee, Basilide, my seared hand should it bring!

    Starry night! All thy splendors undaunted I meet.

    [Perceiving his son Constantine suddenly approaching over the rocks at the right hand, exclaims, loud and harshly:—]
    What’s there? Do I dream? Near the crag there’s a man!

    Ho, prowler! stand off, ’tis forbid to approach!

    Further back, and at once! The command is most strict.

    Further back there, I say!
    Constantine[drawing nearer]—Fear not, father! ’Tis I.

    Michael—Constantine! Thou, my son!
    Michael—What brings thee here,—say,—

    To this waste at this hour of the night? Tell me, too,

    Why so trembling thy lip? why so pallid thy face?

    What thy errand?
    Constantine—Say, rather, what doest thou here?

    Michael—First, my answer! My patience thou bring’st to an end!

    Say, what brings thee thus here?
    Constantine—Duty, father. I know.

    Michael[starting back]—What “knowest” thou, boy?
    Constantine—That the clamor of arms

    In the Balkans will rise—the Turk comes—that yon pyre

    Has beside it this moment no warder of faith—

    That this night, if all Christendom’s world shall be saved,

    I shall fire yonder signal, in spite even of—you!

    Michael[aside]—Just God! To a demon defiance I cast—

    And the spirit of hell takes the shape of my son!

    [Aloud.]What madness inspires thee? What folly, what dream?

    Constantine—Nay, spare thyself, father, the shame of a lie.

    Thy bargain is made—thy throne offered—the Turk

    Meets thee here. I know all—I have heard all, I say!

    Constantine——Or no! Let it be, ’tis not true!

    Let it be I’m abused—that a horror I dream;

    That a madness beset me; that truth is with thee;

    That when such a compact of shame thou didst make,

    Thy aim was deceiving the traitress, whose kiss

    Thou hadst wiped from thy lips, rushing forth into night.

    I divine it—thy traitorous part is a ruse!

    ’Tis alone for thy country, the war for the Cross,

    That the mask of disloyalty shadows thy face.

    To fire with thine own hand yon signal thou’rt here.

    Othorgul in an ambush shall fall and be crushed;

    On the Balkans, the girdle of fire—our defense—

    Shall flare from Iskren to remote Kilandar—

    Ah, I wake! I cast from me this nightmare of shame.

    Take the torch, light the pyre—let it burst to its blaze!

    Michael—So suspected I stand? So my son is a spy?

    A new order, sooth! What, the heir of my name

    Dares to ask to my face if a treason I work!

    Since when did a father endure to be told

    That his son sets his ears to the cracks of the door?

    Say, when did I ask thy opinions? Since when

    Does the chief take his orderly’s counsels in war?

    I deign no reply to thy insolent charge.

    Thou hast not now to learn that my frown means “Obey.”

    Hearken then: ’tis my wish to abide here alone

    This night at the post. To the fortress at once!

    Choose the path the most short! Get thee hence, boy, I say.

    The signal I light when shall seem to me good.

    In the weal of our land I am not to be taught.

    I have spoken. Return to thy post, sir. Obey!

    Constantine—It is true, then! No hideous dream of disgrace!

    The villainy ripe to its finish! I stay.

    Michael—Thou darest?
    Constantine—Ay, father, thy wrath I can brook.

    It is love, yes, the last throbs of love for thyself

    That have drawn me to seek thee alone on these heights,

    To stand between thee and that hideous crime.

    Filial duty? Obedience unto my chief?

    To the winds with them both! In my heart rules one thought—

    I would save thee—to God must I render account—

    I must rescue my country, must pluck thee from shame.

    Give place there, I say! Stand aside from that torch!

    Let the mountain heights glow with their fires!
    Michael—No, by God!

    Constantine—O father, bethink thee! O father, beware!

    From above God looks down, and the eyes of the stars.

    Of myself I have asked, when thy treason I knew,

    What by honor was set?—where lay duty from me?

    Alas, it was clear! To denounce to the world

    Thy plot—and thyself—and that woman most vile;

    To unmask too thy spy. But for thee this means death!

    (Death held in reserve through the torture’s dread scenes)

    —It means in an instant thy glory effaced.

    I have pictured thy end at the gibbet, through me.

    I could not denounce thee! I held back in dread

    From the part of a son who to death yields a sire.

    I could not endure that thy name so renowned

    Should be scorned—that thy glory should take such dark flight.

    But at present I act as I must. Time is swift.

    I shall kindle yon signal, I say. Give me place!

    Calm the woes of thy country!—appease Heaven’s wrath!

    Think, think, that my silence has turned from thyself

    A death on a scaffold, and tortures before.

    Think, think that my silence had meant for thee chains,

    And the doomsman’s dread hand laying clutch upon thee …

    O father, thou wilt not that I should—regret!

    Michael—Too late. Regret now to have saved thus my life.

    O son too devoted, best gained were thy wish

    Hadst thou told all—hadst seen me a Judas, disgraced,

    Cut down by my soldiers before thine own eyes.

    The worse now for thee! Thy heart questions, disputes;

    That thing whereon mine is resolved, that I do.

    Who has nothing foreseen, he can nothing prevent:

    I permit that no hand yonder beacon shall fire.

    Constantine—Thou wouldst yield then, defenseless, our ancient frontier?

    Thou wilt suffer the Turk to make Europe his prey,

    To all Christendom’s ruin—
    Michael—’Tis ingrate to me.

    Constantine—And thy Christ, and thy God?
    Michael—Has God made of me king?

    Spite of God, king I would be, will be!

    Oft a crown is too large for a traitorous head.

    It can suddenly prove a garrote—for the stake.

    Michael—Thou insultest! The folly is passing all bounds!

    Constantine[in sudden emotion]—Ah yes, I am wrong! O my father, forgive!—

    What I utter I know not; for aid I must call!

    To my help, then, O memories great of days sped,

    Ye evenings of rapture that followed fights won.

    Come, turmoils of booty, flags snatched as in sheaves,

    Shouts of joy and of pride when from fray I returned

    And felt on my forehead, blood-scarred, his hot kiss!—

    O ye visions like these, of past glory, crowd thick!

    The valor of old years, of old time the deeds,

    Quick, rank yourselves here, face this wretchedest man,

    Bring a blush to his face at his treason so vile!

    Speak, speak to him! Say that at morn, in the town,

    The standards that hang at the gates of his halls

    Will stoop, as he passes, to smite at his face.

    Say, oh say, to this hero become renegade,

    That the soldiers long dead on his battle-fields past

    In this hour know the crime unexampled he plots,—

    That they whisper in dread, ’twixt themselves, ’neath the earth,

    And if passes some wanderer to-night by their graves,

    Indignant the murmur is breathed through the grass.

    No, no! to such falsity thou wilt not go;

    Even now you repent—all unwilling to leave

    A name to be cursed in the memories of all!

    Seest thou not, O my father, thy victories come

    Like suppliants imploring, to close round your knees?

    Will you hold them in hate, will you drive them away?—

    The triumphs that all this West-world has acclaimed,

    Will you treat them as prostitutes, bowed, to be scorned?

    No, this crime so debased you will dare not commit!

    It cannot be, father—it never must be!

    See me cast at your feet, in last hope, in last prayer;

    I shall find the lost hero—the father I’ve lost!

    You will catch up the torch, you will fire yon dry pile:

    With an effort supreme from your heart you will tear

    This project unspeakable,—promise debased;

    You will cast them away to the pyre’s fiercest glow

    As one burns into naught some foul herb, root and fruit:

    You will stand purified as by fire, and the wind

    Of the night will bear off on its wings this dark dream

    In a whirlwind uproaring of sparks and of flame.

    Michael—’Tis enough, I say! Up! By all devils in hell,

    Of the hills and the plains of this land I’ll be king!

    Ay, and crown my fair queen—be revenged on the priest.

    As that sky is unstained, so shall all this be done.

    Thy heroics thou wastest—thy insolence too.

    Go, dispute with the lion the quarry he holds

    When thou seest him tear with his talons the prey.

    Of no use all thy menaces—vain sobs, vain prayers:

    Be sure once for all that thy childishness fails.

    While I live, no man kindles this signal to-night!

    Constantine—While thou livest! What word do I catch from thy mouth?

    While thou livest? O bloody and terrible thought!

    In my brain is set loose worse than horror, than death!

    Michael—I guess not thy meaning. Wouldst see me a corpse?

    Constantine—I dream in this moment that one thou—shouldst be—

    By a doom full of shame, by the traitor’s own fate!

    Michael—What dost mean?
    Constantine—Ah, I think, while we parley so long,

    Othorgul and his Turks in the valleys approach—

    Each instant that’s spent makes accomplice of—me!

    I think of the duty that I must fulfill.

    Michael—What “duty”?
    Constantine[with desperate resolution]—I say to myself that, unjust,

    I have wished from the chastisement—death—thee to save.

    Lo, thy life is a menace, escaping the axe,

    A menace to all. And I have here my sword!

    Michael[in horror]—Thou! Thy sword!
    Constantine—Yes, of old, without blemish, my blade

    Has known well how to stand between death and thy brow;

    Still witness to that is the wound that I bear—

    But since such keen envy, such ignoble love,

    Have made of my hero a creature so base,

    Since to scorn of all men, toward the Turk thou dost turn,

    To beg at his hands for the crown thou usurp’st—

    See, my sword, in its honor, leaps out from its sheath

    And commands me thy judge and thy doomsman to be.[He draws his sword.]

    Michael[drawing his sword in turn]—My sword then behold! It is fearless of thine!

    Constantine—’Tis my land I defend—Christian Europe I keep,

    And my duty as soldier, the truth of my line;

    But you, ’tis for treason alone that you draw.

    God beholds us. He watches the lists. Let him judge!

    Traitor, die!

    [Constantine leaps at his father. The swords cross for a moment in quick combat. Then Michael receives a stroke full in the breast, and falls.]
    Constantine—My God! What a deed!
    Michael[on the ground expiring]—Parricide!

    Be cursed![He dies.
    Constantine—First the signal! The fire to the pile!

    [He takes the torch and sets the signal blaze burning, which soon mounts high. Then gradually one sees far along the mountain-chain the other signals flashing out, and alarm-guns begin to be heard below.]
    Constantine—O ye stars, eyes of God! Be the witnesses, ye!

    But before yonder corpse in the face of that flame,

    I dare to look up and to show you my soul.

    My father his country, his faith would betray.

    I have killed him, O stars! Have I sinned? Ye shall say!