The Novice of St Benedict

Miss Vardill

A Fragment

In the 1st Act of this Drama we are inform’d that Sophia of Wurtemberg (presumptive heiress of the Russian throne after her brother Ivan’s mysterious disappearance) took refuge in an Italian convent. Demetrius, and agent of the Empress Catharine, endeavoured to decoy her by professing love, and sent a soldier to escort her thro’ the forest where assassins were instructed to lurk; but instead of Sophia, his wife Paulowna came diguis’d to meet him and fell into the hands of his confederate. She counterfeited death to preserve her own life and her brother’s.

Only the first and last Acts have been found among the lots sold at a late celebrated auction; but if combined, they give some idea of the plot. Perhaps the rest was disposed of in the portable theatre sold near Harley St. last month.


quondam Director
of Positive House

May 1st

Dramatis Personae

Demetrius — The Empress Catharine’s emissary
Menzikoff — A Russian Officer
Stephano — A Calabrian Bandit
Father Lawrence — An Inquisitor, Confessor of the Benedictine nuns.
Sophia — Princess of Wurtemberg
Paulowna — Menzikoff’s sister, secretly married to Demetrius

Scene, Calabria

SCENE, a Subterranean Cemetery’s Entrance

Enter SOPHIA and DEMETRIUS disguised.

Soph. ’Tis all in vain! no cloister’s rev’rend shade
No vesper hymn can soothe my soul to peace
While my lost country bleeds and I am banish’d!
Come, gentle breeze, and fan my burning brow!

Dem. As these sweet breezes cool the sultry noon
The breath of bland affection cheers the soul.

Soph. True, holy father; if the incense breath’d
By the false world was balmy as this air,
How soon the fever of the soul would cease!

Dem. Mine, mine is past! as the chaste moon breaks thro’
Some fond reluctant cloud, thy virtue pours
Light on my gloomy soul. Sweet Lady, hear me — 
Be thine th’ absolving ministry of peace,
A sinner’s place is here [kneels]

Soph.  Astonishment!
What purpose lurks in this?

Dem.  A holy one!
Love well may wear the garb of Mercy’s priest
For Mercy’s heav’n is love. Behold my shrine!
A truer vot’ry never breath’d his vows
Or sought his saint with fonder pilgrimage.

Soph. Is this the valiant, sage, renown’d Demetrius!
The safeguard of his chief — the realm’s delight!
Has crooked policy no fairer guise?

Dem. Truth needs a guise in courts — my face has worn
Smiles foreign to my heart to win thy foes
Whose brooding souls no softer purpose nurse
Than murder, midnight murder! O beware
The ready slaves of treason seek their prey
In royal Beauty’s couch.

Soph.  I thank your zeal,
But this is heav’n’s own mansion and its arm
Shall crush the traitor who invades my rest
To murder or deceive.

Dem.  If all the ardor
Heav’n wakes in Man to guard its fairest work
Can claim Sophia’s trust, this faithful hand
Shall from her sacred bosom turn the sword
Or bury it in mine — 

Soph.  ’Tis fitly spoken
The prudent chief reserves his sword for kings
And vindicates with words his zeal for justice.

Dem. Shall words alone attest it? Smile, Sophia — 
Smile and my constant arm shall hew its way
Thro’ hireling crowds and plant thy banner high
While tyrants gasp in chains.

Soph. Go on and prosper!
If suff’ring nations call thee, rend their yoke
But spare the guilty! — leave in Heav’n’s red store
Th’ avenging bolt, and all its richest gifts
Shall cluster round thy head!

Dem.  One, only one
I ask to crown my toil — Sophia’s love!

Soph. Be thankful for my pity! When I fall
My love shall stoop to traitors. [Exit]

Dem. Stay, proud princess!
Why is her scorn so beauteous? Am I dust
That thus she spurns me? Hold thy strength, my soul!
Love with revenge shall banquet.

[Enter Father Lawrence leading back Sophia]

Father Lawrence. Lady, by holiness, by truth’s own self
Thus I adjure thee! — Fly! — yon knightly guide
Waits thro’ these devious paths and fun’ral caves
To lead thy soundless footsteps — take his aid — 
Mine and heav’n’s blessing guard ye! [Exit]

Soph.  Mercy, mercy!
Demetrius, not for life or help I crave
It is thy presence wounds me — let me die,
But not by smiling ruffians!

[Enter Menzikoff with a torch]

Dem.  Menzikoff!
Advance and take thy trust — imperial lady
How thou hast wrong’d my honour thou wilt learn
And own, perchance, with smiles. When next we meet
Moscow’s high throne shall be thy resting-place [Exit]

Menz. [approaching and speaking to himself as he views her]
  Thou most fair pile
Of frozen pride by woman’s cunning deck’d!
He loves her then! She loves him! The proud princess
A sage confessor finds in young Demetrius!
O this is tenfold vengeance! She shall perish
The smiling saint-like siren and her minion!
Is it for her he wrongs me? Was’t for this
He mock’d my sister’s faith?

Soph.  Is this form human?
Methinks if dark unearthly spirits walk
They must look thus, with lips so marble-white,
And eyes like fun’ral lamps in hollow cells
Glaring with livid light — I’ve seen such smiles
Part the pale lips of an expiring man
When his soul’s hope was past.

Menz.  Follow me, Lady!

Soph. That voice is from the grave! It is a vision
Of this sepulchral gloom! I tread on tombs — 
Alas! what phantasies my fear hath rais’d!

Menz. Thou knowst me not — 

Soph.  I’ll tell thee what thou art!
A slave by tyrants chosen to fill up
The measure of their crimes. I pity thee
More than myself, tho’ thou art come to lead me
To an unhallow’d grave, for thou wilt live
A thing for scorn to hiss at and devour;
And the base gold which bribes thy coward heart
Shall canker and consume it. Raise thy torch,
And look into what mounds of hateful dust
Av’rice and Grandeur drop their shining hoards,
Then win them if thou can’st.

Menz.  Thou know’st me not!
None know me now! But once in Moscow’s court
A fair dame sat on Pow’r’s imperial throne
Whose beauty was my sunshine — while it smil’d
The summer of my youth was rich with flowers
And laurels grew to deck me — Soon they fell!
Dishonour stripp’d the blazon from my name — 
Friends were unfaithful, and with hearts most cold
Join’d the false world in crushing him whose breast
Shrank from no stab but theirs!

Soph.  Menzikoff!
Thou cam’st for vengeance, then? Or would’st thou buy
The smiles of thy proud empress once again
With innocent blood?

Menz.  Tonight my sister’s tears
Fell on my cheek — my hand has felt her touch
The touch of softness, innocence and love — 
And could I stain it think’st thou, with one drop
From veins so pure? Think of thy brother, lady,
I have a brother’s heart.

Soph.  Mock me not now
With thoughts of him thy cruel mistress slew.

Menz. Lady, they say the guilty brow has speech,
The false man’s lips have vows and eloquence
But noble hearts are dumb. I will not swear
That thou hast wronged me. Thou shalt ask my eyes
If e’er they look’d on murder.

Soph.  Speak again!
Say thou are innocent!

Menz.  ’Twere abject guilt
To say I have not err’d. I have stray’d far
From honour and firm faith, for when I knelt
By thy lost brother’s prison-couch and heard
His executioner’s tread, I did not save him
Until I thought of thee!

Soph.  Of me? Alas!
Thou never knew’st me.

Menz.  Yet for thee I saved him:
He told me of his sister, one whose hope
Hung on his life — of one whose heart and form
Were twin with his: then sadly to my thoughts
Came my own orphan sister, brotherless — 
I tore the midnight mandate of his death
And led him forth to freedom.

Soph.  Lives he yet?

Menz. To distant lands he fled and on my brow
Fell the dark brand and signet of his murder
But I have borne it well — his blessing seem’d
A dew that fed my soul tho’ from his lips
It dropp’d half-frozen.

Soph.  Could’st thou deem him thankless?

Menz. We parted without smiles — without one grasp
Of intermingled hands, and his proud spirit
Look’d from his shrinking eye as if it loath’d
Life from my gift altho’ its price was mine.
His youthful beauty was his panoply:
He had a cherub’s cheek and such a smile
As rosy childhood shows us when it sleeps.
His tongue was womanish — his heart was man’s,
Hollow and dark and stony!

Soph.  From my lips
A warmer blessing take — thy mercy sav’d
The sister, not the brother!

Menz.  Not the brother!

Soph. In manhood’s garb I wore my brother’s chain,
The sceptred woman’s minions knew him not,
And ’twas a gracious fraud: yet oft, perchance
My fitful weakness wrong’d his noble name
For woman’s bravery is brief — and thine
Mock’d my faint tongue, wan cheek and tearful eye.
Now, if my silence stung thee, take my praise:
I am again thy captive, and I know
Thou was’t a gentle gaolor.

Menz.  Do I wake?
Or have I dream’d till now?

Soph. No, noble Menzikoff;
Thy better soul has slept — Revenge and pride
Have lur’d thee to heap scorpions on thyself
And seal thy own despair. [Bell tolls]

Menz. It is the signal!
The wolf-dogs are awake — Come forth my sabre!
This hour redeems or crushes me — Have faith,
Princess, have faith! Nor vengeance nor despair
Burns in me now. Souls of my fathers, aid me
One hour — one glorious hour!

[Enter Father Lawrence and Attendants]

Law.  Thine ear is apt;
It is the noon of night when Justice wakes
The rend the traitor’s web. Thou are my pris’ner.
Yield, double hypocrite!

Menz.  To whom? to thee!
Thou lean artificer of woe — whose face
Dares not affront Day’s eye! Away, my sword
Disdains thy frozen blood — 

Soph.  Mercy, have mercy!
If ye love justice, spare him!

Law.  Bear them hence — 
His crime is writ in blood. Lead to the danger
Demetrius waits him there — 

Menz. Demetrius taken!
Then Chance is providence!

Law. Away, away
The hour is ripe — today is wisdom’s prize,
Tomorrow laughs at fools. [Exeunt]

SCENE. The Hall of Justice, Inquisitors seated under a black canopy with Attendants. Enter Demetrius guarded.

1st.  Inquisitor. Unmask the prisoner!
Thou art accused of crimes whose lightest name
Freezes the unsear’d heart: thou has profan’d
A cloister’s holiest shade and lur’d by vows
Of most abhorred deceit, a royal maid
To meet beneath the forest’s blackest screen
Thy purchas’d murd’rer’s knife.

Dem.  Most holy fathers
Heralds of heav’n on earth, I bow before ye
With reverential awe. Behold this scroll
The mandate of your chief! It bids me claim
A fair but faithless princess whose dark wiles
Profan’d the church of peace. Unseen, unaided,
She fled from saints to warm a warrior’s breast.

1st. Inq. Priests! Ministers of Justice! shall pure blood
Flow round out altars? Wrest the scroll from him.
That forg’d and impious mandate! That false signet
Of power as false — 

Dem.  Know ye the pow’r ye brave?
It shall unseat these walls and heap your shrines
With ashes till ye free me — Smile, proud priest!
This burning dome shall light thee — 

2d. Inq.  Thou say’st true;
Thyself shall kindle a bright beacon-flame
To warn our foes. Cam’st thou to seek the princess?
Behold! She waits thee here!

[The black curtain is rais’d and discovers a bier covered with a nun’s veil]

3d. Inq.  Bring forth the witness!
The frank and ready ruffian whose bold hand
Show’d as its own dire deed.

[Enter Stephano chained]

Dem.  Stephano here!
Then heav’n itself has fiends to serve its purpose.

1st. Inq. Man, look upon us!
Know’st this warrior’s voice and visage?

Step.  Ay!
Dark nights have seen us meet — this gold was his — 
The forest-glades have fresh and grassy mounds
Look well beneath them!

Dem.  Slave! apostate slave!
Thou had’st a golden price. I pay thee now
With steel in thy heart’s core [Offering to stab him.]

1st. Inq.  Bear hence the guilty — 
He hath confessed. What fearful shout is yon?
Who rushes on us thus?

[Enter Menzikoff]

Menz.  Another witness!
I am his guilt’s accomplice — 

Dem.  Hear him not!
He is my direst foe — suborn’d to crush me — 
He utters the base coinage of his hate — 
Hear him not, holy judges!

Menz.  Erring man!
I bring thy ransom. Venerable chiefs,
Blood rests no there. The purpose, not the deed
Sits on his soul. The virgin princess fled
Unstain’d by ruffian-touch and lives to claim
Mercy for him and me.

Step.  Monks, guard him well!
His whisper urg’d me first — his tongue beguil’d her:
Deep in the forest’s darkest dell I saw him
Stretching her stiffen’d corpse — My scar’d
The coward from his toil: Even as she lies
On that dark bier, he left her — the torn flow’rs
Hang in her tresses yet.

2d. Inq. [to Demetrius] If thou art guiltless
Advance and shrink not — lift that sacred veil — 
If thou art guiltless, on her ice-cold breast
Lay thy firm hand and swear it! Kneel! behold!

[The bier unveiled discovers Paulowna’s body]

3d. Inq. Mark how his stiffen’d locks uplift themselves
While his shrunk eyeballs in their caverns hid
Turn inwards their dire light — he reels — sustain him — 
Sinner, awake!

2d. Inq.  Nature cries out against thee — 
Ev’n thy own life-blood of its source asham’d,
Curdles and chills thy heart. Thou are the murd’rer.

1st. Inq. He faints — remove him — let the axe prepare
To close his doom. Now, Menzikoff, approach!
If thou has wrong’d the dead, behold and tremble.

Menz. Beat yet awhile, my spirit! Oaths are vain
When cowards swear — I mock not heav’n with words
A brave man’s eye is his heart’s orator — 
thus to the test I bow — 

[As he kneels beside the bier, Paulowna rises]

3d. Inq.  Are angels busy?
What miracle is this?

Paul.  They shall not part us — 
He was — he is my husband. No, I dream
It is my noble brother!

2d. Inq.  Tell, fond woman,
Who lur’d thee from thy cloister’s sainted shade
To the grim forest-dell where, mocking death,
Or sunk my baleful drugs in stubborn slumber,
Our holy brethren found thee?

Paul.  My own hand
Prepar’d the opiate-cup — my own heart crav’d it
A balsam for its pangs — Oh he is innocent!
Most innocent, most wretched! my lost brother,
Pardon the desperate deed!

1st. Inq.  Avoid the hall — 
We must confer in secret

[Ext. Assistants except one monk]

He who dares to tread the charnel-house of guilt
And hold communion with its habitants
In his own bosom shall receive the pest
And feel the death-worm cling. Thou has been leagued
With slaves and traitors till the hue of vice
Ev’n on thy virtue creeps — and virtue doubted
Partake’s Sin’s penalty — Thy doom is fix’d — 
Here is submissive!

Menz.  Sister, spare thy tears.
I left thy tender youth unfenc’d to wreck,
And well deserve to want that pity here
My sternness once denied — if bigot-rage
Leaves thy heart human, priest, preserve this ring
For her ye tore from me tonight, and tell
The monk Ladvanus to take the ring
No, I forget, thy hard touch would pollute it — 
Sister, receive this pledge — thou has lov’d once,
And with a softer hand may veil the faults
Of a lost brother when his grave is clos’d:
Then say he loved Sophia — say he knew
To love her was ambition, but her smile
Made the sin holy.

1st. Inq.  Menzikoff!
Know’st thou me not?

Menz. Thou are the faithless monk
Whose face no man hath seen — whose wither’d hand
Lurks ever unreveal’d. None know thy name
But fiends may call thee brother.

1st. Inq.  View me now!
Monks name me holy Lawrence — a fond sister
Calls me imperial Ivan! I am he
Whose birthright was a throne — a churchman’s cowl
Sits lighter on my forehead than a crown
Beset with traitor’s stings. Men deem me dead
And thy proud empress triumphs on my grave
While I behold her crumbling throne and smile.
Thou had’st a precious hostage once and I
Owe thee a bright reward. Receive it, Menzikoff
Receive it with a brother’s blessing rich
Such as thyself would give — Love sometimes steals
A cowl and wears it thus — [Sophia drops her cowl]

Menz.  Sophia! Heav’n
Has now no gift to add.

Ivan.  Go, blessed ones!
My pow’r, the awful pow’r which empires fear,
Has smooth’d your path to freedom, and this shrine
Shall sanctify your love: the bridal lamp
Burns brightest in the hall where Justice dwells
While blushing guilt departs to meet is doom.
Virtue itself may softer beauty win
From the long shadows of repented sin
As the returning sun gives richer dyes
To clouds dissolving, than to spotless skies.