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    Act the Second

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    Chapter 2
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    SCENE I.


    It is the path of death that now we tread:
    At every step my soul grows more serene.
    When I implor'd Apollo to remove
    The grisly band of Furies from my side,
    He seem'd, with hope-inspiring, godlike words,
    To promise aid and safety in the fane
    Of his lov'd sister, who o'er Tauris rules.
    Thus the prophetic word fulfils itself,
    That with my life shall terminate my woe.
    How easy 'tis for me, whose heart is crush'd,
    Whose sense is deaden'd by a hand divine,
    Thus to renounce the beauteous light of day!
    And must the son of Atreus not entwine
    The wreath of conquest round his dying brow--
    Must I, as my forefathers, as my sire,
    Bleed like a victim,--an ignoble death--
    So be it! Better at the altar here,
    Than in a nook obscure, where kindred hands
    Have spread assassination's wily net.
    Yield me this brief repose, infernal Powers!
    Ye, who, like loosen'd hounds, still scent the blood,
    Which, trickling from my feet, betrays my path.
    Leave me! ere long I come to you below.
    Nor you, nor I, should view the light of day.
    The soft green carpet of the beauteous earth
    Is no arena for unhallow'd fiends.
    Below I seek you, where an equal fate
    Binds all in murky, never-ending night.
    Thee only, thee, my Pylades, my friend,
    The guiltless partner of my crime and curse,
    Thee am I loath, before thy time, to take
    To yonder cheerless shore! Thy life or death
    Alone awakens in me hope or fear.

    Like thee, Orestes, I am not prepar'd
    Downwards to wander to yon realm of shade.
    I purpose still, through the entangl'd paths,
    Which seem as they would lead to blackest night,
    Again to guide our upward way to life.
    Of death I think not; I observe and mark
    Whether the gods may not perchance present
    Means and fit moment for a joyful flight.
    Dreaded or not, the stroke of death must come;
    And though the priestess stood with hand uprais'd,
    Prepar'd to cut our consecrated locks,
    Our safety still should be my only thought:
    Uplift thy soul above this weak despair;
    Desponding doubts but hasten on our peril.
    Apollo pledg'd to us his sacred word,
    That in his sister's' holy fane for thee
    Were comfort, aid, and glad return prepar'd.
    The words of Heaven are not equivocal,
    As in despair the poor oppress'd one thinks.

    The mystic web of life my mother spread
    Around my infant head, and so I grew,
    An image of my sire; and my mute look
    Was aye a bitter and a keen reproof
    To her and base Ægisthus[1]. Oh, how oft,
    When silently within our gloomy hall
    Electra sat, and mus'd beside the fire,
    Have I with anguish'd spirit climb'd her knee,
    And watch'd her bitter tears with sad amaze!
    Then would she tell me of our noble sire:
    How much I long'd to see him--be with him!
    Myself at Troy one moment fondly wish'd,
    My sire's return, the next. The day arrived--

    (Transcriber's Note 1: Original text read "Egisthus".)

    Oh, of that awful hour let fiends of hell
    Hold nightly converse! Of a time more fair
    May the remembrance animate our hearts
    To fresh heroic deeds. The gods require
    On this wide earth the service of the good,
    To work their pleasure. Still they count on thee;
    For in thy father's train they sent thee not,
    When he to Orcus went unwilling down.

    Would I had seiz'd the border of his robe.
    And follow'd him!

    They kindly car'd for me
    Who here detain'd thee; for if thou hadst died
    I know not what had then become of me;
    Since I with thee, and for thy sake alone,
    Have from my childhood liv'd, and wish to live.

    Do not remind me of those tranquil days,
    When me thy home a safe asylum gave;
    With fond solicitude thy noble sire
    The half-nipp'd, tender flow'ret gently rear'd;
    While thou, a friend and playmate always gay,
    Like to a light and brilliant butterfly
    Around a dusky flower, didst around me
    Still with new life thy merry gambols play,
    And breathe thy joyous spirit in my soul,
    Until, my cares forgetting, I with thee
    Was lur'd to snatch the eager joys of youth.

    My very life began when thee I lov'd.

    Say, then thy woes began, and thou speak'st truly.
    This is the sharpest sorrow of my lot,
    That, like a plague-infected wretch, I bear
    Death and destruction hid within my breast;
    That, where I tread, e'en on the healthiest spot,
    Ere long the blooming faces round betray
    The writhing features of a ling'ring death.

    Were thy breath venom, I had been the first
    To die that death, Orestes. Am I not,
    As ever, full of courage and of joy?
    And love and courage are the spirit's wings
    Wafting to noble actions.

    Noble actions?
    Time was, when fancy painted such before us!
    When oft, the game pursuing, on we roam'd
    O'er hill and valley; hoping that ere long
    With club and weapon arm'd, we so might track
    The robber to his den, or monster huge.
    And then at twilight, by the glassy sea,
    We peaceful sat, reclin'd against each other
    The waves came dancing to our very feet.
    And all before us lay the wide, wide world.
    Then on a sudden one would seize his sword,
    And future deeds shone round us like the stars,
    Which gemm'd in countless throngs the vault of night.

    Endless, my friend, the projects which the soul
    Burns to accomplish. We would every deed
    At once perform as grandly as it shows
    After long ages, when from land to land
    The poet's swelling song hath roll'd it on.
    It sounds so lovely what our fathers did,
    When, in the silent evening shade reclin'd,
    We drink it in with music's melting tones;
    And what we do is, as their deeds to them,
    Toilsome and incomplete!
    Thus we pursue what always flies before;
    We disregard the path in which we tread,
    Scarce see around the footsteps of our sires,
    Or heed the trace of their career on earth.
    We ever hasten on to chase their shades,
    Which godlike, at a distance far remote,
    On golden clouds reclin'd, the mountains crown.
    The man I prize not who esteems himself
    Just as the people's breath may chance to raise him.
    But thou, Orestes, to the gods give thanks,
    That they have done so much through thee already.

    When they ordain a man to noble deeds,
    To shield from dire calamity his friends,
    Extend his empire, or protect its bounds,
    Or put to flight its ancient enemies,
    Let him be grateful! For to him a god
    Imparts the first, the sweetest joy of life.
    Me have they doom'd to be a slaughterer,
    To be an honour'd mother's murderer,
    And shamefully a deed of shame avenging.
    Me through their own decree they have o'erwhelm'd.
    Trust me, the race of Tantalus is doom'd;
    Nor may his last descendant leave the earth,
    Or crown'd with honour or unstain'd by crime.

    The gods avenge not on the son the deeds
    Done by the father. Each, or good or bad,
    Of his own actions reaps the due reward.
    The parents' blessing, not their curse, descends.

    Methinks their blessing did not lead us here.

    It was at least the mighty gods' decree.

    Then is it their decree which doth destroy us.

    Perform what they command, and wait the event.
    Do thou Apollo's sister bear from hence,
    That they at Delphi may united dwell,
    Rever'd and honour'd by a noble race:
    Thee, for this deed, the heav'nly pair will view
    With gracious eye, and from the hateful grasp
    Of the infernal Powers will rescue thee.
    E'en now none dares intrude within this grove.

    So shall I die at least a peaceful death.

    Far other are my thoughts, and not unskill'd
    Have I the future and the past combin'd
    In quiet meditation. Long, perchance,
    Hath ripen'd in the counsel of the gods
    The great event. Diana wish d to leave
    This savage region foul with human blood.
    We were selected for the high emprize;
    To us it is assign'd, and strangely thus
    We are conducted to the threshold here.

    My friend, with wondrous skill thou link'st thy wish
    With the predestin'd purpose of the gods.

    Of what avail is prudence, if it fail
    Heedful to mark the purposes of Heaven?
    A noble man, who much hath sinn'd, some god
    Doth summon to a dangerous enterprize,
    Which to achieve appears impossible.
    The hero conquers, and atoning serves
    Mortals and gods, who thenceforth honour him.

    Am I foredoom'd to action and to life,
    Would that a god from my distemper'd brain
    Might chase this dizzy fever, which impels
    My restless steps along a slipp'ry path,
    Stain'd with a mother's blood, to direful death;
    And pitying, dry the fountain, whence the blood,
    For ever spouting from a mother's wounds,
    Eternally defiles me!

    Wait in peace!
    Thou dost increase the evil, and dost take
    The office of the Furies on thyself.
    Let me contrive,--be still! And when at length
    The time for action claims our powers combin'd,
    Then will I summon thee, and on we'll stride,
    With cautious boldness to achieve the event.

    I hear Ulysses speak!

    Nay, mock me not.
    Each must select the hero after whom
    To climb the steep and difficult ascent
    Of high Olympus. And to me it seems
    That him nor stratagem nor art defile
    Who consecrates himself to noble deeds.

    I most esteem the brave and upright man.

    And therefore have I not desir'd thy counsel.
    One step is ta'en already: from our guards
    I have extorted this intelligence.
    A strange and godlike woman now restrains
    The execution of that bloody law:
    Incense, and prayer, and an unsullied heart,
    These are the gifts she offers to the gods.
    Her fame is widely spread, and it is thought
    That from the race of Amazon she springs,
    And hither fled some great calamity.

    Her gentle sway, it seems, lost all its power
    At the approach of one so criminal,
    Whom the dire curse enshrouds in gloomy night.
    Our doom to seal, the pious thirst for blood
    Again unchains the ancient cruel rite:
    The monarch's savage will decrees our death;
    A woman cannot save when he condemns.

    That 'tis a woman is a ground for hope!
    A man, the very best, with cruelty
    At length may so familiarize his mind,
    His character through custom so transform,
    That he shall come to make himself a law
    Of what at first his very soul abhorr'd.
    But woman doth retain the stamp of mind
    She first assum'd. On her we may depend
    In good or evil with more certainty.
    She comes; leave us alone. I dare not tell
    At once our names, nor unreserv'd confide
    Our fortunes to her. Now retire awhile,
    And ere she speaks with thee we'll meet again.



    Whence art thou? Stranger, speak! To me thy bearing
    Stamps thee of Grecian, not of Scythian race.
    (_She unbinds his chains._)
    The freedom that I give is dangerous:
    The gods avert the doom that threatens you!

    Delicious music! dearly welcome tones
    Of our own language in a foreign land!
    With joy my captive eye once more beholds
    The azure mountains of my native coast.
    Oh, let this joy that I too am a Greek
    Convince thee, priestess! How I need thine aid,
    A moment I forget, my spirit wrapt
    In contemplation of so fair a vision.
    If fate's dread mandate doth not seal thy lips.
    From which of our illustrious races, say,
    Dost thou thy godlike origin derive?

    A priestess, by the Goddess' self ordain'd
    And consecrated too, doth speak with thee.
    Let that suffice: but tell me, who art thou,
    And what unbless'd o'erruling destiny
    Hath hither led thee with thy friend?

    The woe,
    Whose hateful presence ever dogs our steps,
    I can with ease relate. Oh, would that thou
    Couldst with like ease, divine one, shed on us
    One ray of cheering hope! We are from Crete,
    Adrastus' sons, and I, the youngest born,
    Named Cephalus; my eldest brother, he,
    Laodamus. Between us two a youth
    Of savage temper grew, who oft disturb'd
    The joy and concord of our youthful sports.
    Long as our father led his powers at Troy,
    Passive our mother's mandate we obey'd;
    But when, enrich'd with booty, he return'd,
    And shortly after died, a contest fierce
    For the succession and their father's wealth,
    Parted the brothers. I the eldest joined;
    He slew the second; and the Furies hence
    For kindred murder dog his restless steps.
    But to this savage shore the Delphian god
    Hath sent us, cheer'd by hope, commanding us
    Within his sister's temple to await
    The blessed hand of aid. We have been ta'en,
    Brought hither, and now stand for sacrifice.
    My tale is told.

    Tell me, is Troy o'erthrown?
    Assure me of its fall.

    It lies in ruins.
    But oh, ensure deliverance to us!
    Hasten, I pray, the promis'd aid of heav'n.
    Pity my brother, say a kindly word;
    But I implore thee, spare him when thou speakest.
    Too easily his inner mind is torn
    By joy, or grief, or cruel memory.
    A feverish madness oft doth seize on him,
    Yielding his spirit, beautiful and free,
    A prey to furies.

    Great as is thy woe,
    Forget it, I conjure thee, for a while,
    Till I am satisfied.

    The stately town,
    Which ten long years withstood the Grecian host,
    Now lies in ruins, ne'er to rise again;
    Yet many a hero's grave will oft recall
    Our sad remembrance to that barbarous shore;
    There lies Achilles and his noble friend.

    And are ye, godlike forms, reduc'd to dust!

    Nor Palamede, nor Ajax, ere again
    The daylight of their native land behold.

    He speaks not of my father, doth not name
    Him with the fallen. He may yet survive!
    I may behold him! still hope on, my heart!

    Yet happy are the thousands who receiv'd
    Their bitter death-blow from a hostile hand!
    For terror wild, and end most tragical,
    Some hostile, angry, deity prepar'd,
    Instead of triumph, for the home-returning.
    Do human voices never reach this shore?
    Far as their sound extends, they bear the fame
    Of deeds unparallel'd. And is the woe
    Which fills Mycene's halls with ceaseless sighs
    To thee a secret still?--And know'st thou not
    That Clytemnestra, with Ægisthus' aid,
    Her royal consort artfully ensnar'd,
    And murder'd on the day of his return?--
    The monarch's house thou honourest! I perceive
    Thy heaving bosom vainly doth contend
    With tidings fraught with such unlook'd-for woe
    Art thou the daughter of a friend? or born
    Within the circuit of Mycene's walls?
    Do not conceal it, nor avenge on me
    That here the horrid crime I first announc'd.

    Proceed, and tell me how the deed was done.

    The day of his return, as from the bath
    Arose the monarch, tranquil and refresh'd.
    His robe demanding from his consort's hand,
    A tangl'd garment, complicate with folds.
    She o'er his shoulders flung and noble head;
    And when, as from a net, he vainly strove
    To extricate himself, the traitor, base
    Ægisthus, smote him, and envelop'd thus
    Great Agamemnon sought the shades below.

    And what reward receiv'd the base accomplice?

    A queen and kingdom he possess'd already.

    Base passion prompted, then, the deed of shame?

    And feelings, cherish'd long, of deep revenge.

    How had the monarch injured Clytemnestra?

    By such a dreadful deed, that if on earth
    Aught could exculpate murder, it were this.
    To Aulis he allur'd her, when the fleet
    With unpropitious winds the goddess stay'd;
    And there, a victim at Diana's shrine,
    The monarch, for the welfare of the Greeks,
    Her eldest daughter doom'd. And this, 'tis said,
    Planted such deep abhorrence in her heart,
    That to Ægisthus she resign'd herself,
    And round her husband flung the web of death.

    IPHIGENIA. (_veiling herself_).
    It is enough! Thou wilt again behold me.

    PYLADES, _alone_.
    The fortune of this royal house, it seems,
    Doth move her deeply. Whosoe'er she be,
    She must herself have known the monarch well;--
    For our good fortune, from a noble house,
    She hath been sold to bondage. Peace, my heart!
    And let us steer our course with prudent zeal
    Toward the star of hope which gleams upon us.
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