Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 2, February 1836, 2:197-201


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[page 198:]

BULWER’S RIENZI.

Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes. By the Author of “Eugene Aram,” “Last Days of Pompeii,” &c. &c. Two Volumes in one. Philadelphia: Republished by E. L. Carey and A. Hart.

We have long learned to reverence the fine intellect of Bulwer. We take up any production of his pen with a positive certainty that, in reading it, the wildest passions of our nature, the most profound of our thoughts, the brightest visions of our fancy, and the most ennobling and lofty of our aspirations will, in due turn, be enkindled within us. We feel sure of rising from the perusal a wiser if not a better man. In no instance are we deceived. From the brief Tale — from the “Monos and Daimonos” of the author — to his most ponderous and labored novels — all is richly, and glowingly intellectual — all is energetic, or astute, or brilliant, or profound. There may be men now living who possess the power of Bulwer — but it is quite evident that very few have made that power so palpably manifest. Indeed we know of none. Viewing him as a novelist — point of view exceedingly unfavorable (if we hold to the common acceptation of” the novel”) for a proper contemplation of his genius — he is unsurpassed by any writer living or dead. Why should we hesitate to say this, feeling, as we do, thoroughly persuaded of its truth. Scott has excelled him in many points, and “The Bride of Lammormuir” is a better book than any individual work by the author of Pelham — “Ivanhoe” is, perhaps, equal to any. Descending to particulars, D’Israeli has a more brilliant, a more lofty, and a more delicate (we do not say a wilder) imagination. Lady Dacre has written Ellen Wareham, a more forcible tale of Passion. In some species of wit Theodore Hook rivals, and in broad humor our own Paulding surpasses him. The writer of “Godolphin” equals him in energy. Banim is a better sketcher of character. Hope is a richer colorist. Captain Trelawney is as original — Moore is as fanciful, and Horace Smith is as learned. But who is [column 2:] there uniting in one person the imagination, the passion, the humor, the energy, the knowledge of the heart, the artist-like eye, the originality, the fancy and the learning of Edward Lytton Bulwer? In a vivid wit — in profundity and a Gothic massiveness of thought — in style — in a calm certainty and definitiveness of purpose — in industry — and above all in the power of controlling and regulating by volition his illimitable faculties of mind, he is unequalled — he is unapproached.

As Rienzi is the last, so it is the best novel of Bulwer. In the Preface we are informed that the work was commenced two years ago at Rome, but abandoned upon the author’s removing to Naples, for the “Last days of Pompeii” — a subject requiring, more than Rienzi, the advantage of a personal residence within reach of the scenes described. The idea of the present work, how ever, was never dismissed from the writer’s mind, and soon after the publication of “Pompeii” he resumed his original undertaking. We are told that having had occasion to look into the original authorities whence are derived all the accounts of modern historians touching Rienzi, Mr. B. was induced to believe that no just picture of the Life or Times of that most remarkable man was at present in the hands of the people. Under this impression the novelist had at first meditated a work of History rather than of Fiction. We doubt, however, whether the spirit of the author’s intention is not better fulfilled as it is. He has adhered with scrupulous fidelity to all the main events in the public life of his hero; and by means of the relief afforded through the personages of pure romance which form the filling in of the picture, he has been enabled more fully to develop the private character of the noble Roman. The reader may indeed be startled at the vast difference between the Rienzi of Mr. Bulwer, and the Rienzi of Sismondi, of Gibbon, and of Miss Mitford. But by neither of the two latter are we disposed to swear — and of Sismondi’s impartiality we can at no moment be certain. Mr. B., moreover, very justly observes that as, in the work before us, all the acts are given from which is derived his interpretation of the principal agent, the public, having sufficient data for its own judgment, may fashion an opinion for itself.

Generally, the true chronology of Rienzi’s life is preserved. In regard to the story — or that chain of fictitious incident usually binding up together the constituent parts of a Romance — there is very little of it in the book. This follows necessarily from the character of the composition — which is essentially Epic rather than Dramatic. The author’s apology seems to us therefore supererogative when he says that a work which takes for its subject the crimes and errors of a nation and which ventures to seek the actual and the real in the highest stage of action or passion can rarely adopt with advantage the melo-dramatic effects produced by a vulgar mystery. In his pictures of the Roman populace, and in those of the Roman nobles of the fourteenth century — pictures full at all times of an enthralling interest — Mr. B. professes to have followed literally the descriptions left to us.

Miss Mitford’s Rienzi will of course be remembered in reading that of Bulwer. There is however but one point of coincidence — a love-intrigue between a relative of the hero and one of the party of the nobles. This, it will be recollected, forms the basis of the plot of Miss [page 197:] M. In the Rienzi of Bulwer, it is an Episode not affecting in any manner either the story itself, or the destinies of the Tribune.

It is by no means our intention to give an analysis of the volume before us. Every person who reads at all will read Rienzi, and indeed the book is already in the hands of many millions of people. Any thing, therefore, like our usual custom of a digest of the narrative would be superfluous. The principal characters who figure in the novel are Rienzi himself — his brother, whose slaughter by a noble at the commencement of the story, is the immediate cause of Rienzi’s change of temper and consequent exaltation — Adrian di Castello, a young noble of the family of Colonna but attached to the cause of the people — Martino di Porto the chief of the house of the Orsini — Stephen Colonna, the chief of the house of the Colonna — Walter de Montreal, a gentleman of Provence, a knight of St. John, and one of the formidable freebooters who at the head of large “Companies” invaded states and pillaged towns at the period of Rienzi’s Revolution — Pandulfo di Guido a student, whom, under the appellation of Pandolficcio di Guido, Gibbon styles “the most virtuous citizen of Rome” — Cecco del Vecchio a smith — Giles D’Albornoz of the royal race of Arragon — Petrarch the poet, and the friend of Rienzi — Angelo Villani — Irene, the sister of the Tribune and betrothed to Adrian di Castello — Nina, Rienzi’s wife — and Adeline, the mistress of Walter de Montreal.

But as was said before, we should err radically if we regard Rienzi altogether in the light of Romance. Undoubtedly as such — as a fiction, and coming under the title of a novel, it is a glorious, a wonderful conception, and not the less wonderfully and gloriously carried out. What else could we say of a book over which the mind so delightedly lingers in perusal? In its delineations of passion and character — in the fine blending and contrasting of its incidents — in the rich and brilliant tints of its feudal paintings — in a pervading air of chivalry, and grace, and sentiment — in all that can throw a charm over the pages of Romance, the last novel of Bulwer is equal, if not superior, to any of his former productions. Still we should look at the work in a different point of view. It is History. We hesitate not to say that it is History in its truest — in its only true, proper, and philosophical garb. Sismondi’s works — were not. There is no greater error than dignifying with the name of History a tissue of dates and details, though the dates be ordinarily correct, and the details indisputably true. Not even with the aid of acute comment will such a tissue satisfy our individual notions of History. To the effect let us look — to the impression rather than to the seal. And how very seldom is any definite impression left upon the mind of the historical reader! How few bear away — even from the pages of Gibbon — Rome and the Romans. Vastly different eras the genius of Niebuhr — than whom no man possessed a more discriminative understanding of the uses and the purposes of the pen of the historiographer. But we digress. Bearing in mind that “to contemplate” — xxxxx [Greek text]* — should and must be allowed a more noble and [column 2:] a more expansive acceptation than has been usually given it, we shall often discover in Fiction the essential spirit and vitality of Historic Truth — while Truth itself, in many a dull and lumbering Archive, shall be found guilty of all the inefficiency of Fiction.

* History, from xxxxxxx [Greek text], to contemplate, seems, among the Greeks, to have embraced not only the knowledge of past events, but also Mythology, Esopian, and Milesian fables, Romance, Tragedy and Comedy. But our business is with things, not words. [This footnote appears at the bottom of page 198, column 1.]

 

Rienzi, then, is History. But there are other aspects in which it may be regarded with advantage. Let us survey it as a profound and lucid exposition of the morale of Government — of the Philosophies of Rule and Misrule — of the absolute incompatibility of Freedom and Ignorance — Tyranny in the few and Virtue in the many. Let us consider it as something akin to direct evidence that a people is not a mob, nor a mob a people, nor a mob’s idol the idol of a people — that in a nation’s self is the only security for a nation — and that it is absolutely necessary to model upon the character of the governed, the machinery, whether simple or complex, of the governmental legislation.

It is proper — we are persuaded — that Rienzi should be held up in these many different points of view, if we desire fully to appreciate its own merits and the talents of Mr. Bulwer. But regard it as we will, it is an extraordinary work — and one which leaves nothing farther to accomplish in its own particular region. It is vastly superior to the “Last Days of Pompeii” — more rich — more glowing, and more vigorous. With all and more than all the distinguishing merits of its noble predecessor, it has none of its chilliness — none of that platitude which (it would not be difficult to say why) is the inevitable result of every attempt at infusing warmth among the marble wildernesses, and vitality into the statue-like existences, of the too-distantly antique.

We will conclude our notice of Rienzi with an Extract. We choose it not with any view of commending it above others — for the book has many equally good and some better — but to give our readers — such of them as have not yet seen the novel, an opportunity of comparing the passage with some similar things in Boccaccio. We may as well say that in all which constitutes good writing the Englishman is infinitely the superior. What we select is Chapter V, of the sixth Book. Irene, the betrothed of the noble Roman Adrian di Castello, being in Florence during the time of the Great Plague, is sought by her lover at the peril of his life. Overpowered by a fever he meets with Irene — but his delirium prevents a recognition. She conveys him to one of the deserted mansions, and officiates as his nurse. Having thrown aside her mantle, under the impression that it retained the infection of the Pestilence, it is found and worn by another.

THE ERROR.

For three days, the three fatal days, did Adrian remain bereft of strength and sense. But he was not smitten by the scourge which his devoted and generous nurse had anticipated. It was a fierce and dangerous fever, brought on by the great fatigue, restlessness, and terrible agitation he had undergone.

No professional mediciner could be found to attend him but a good friar, better perhaps skilled in the healing art than many who claimed its monopoly, visited him daily. And in the long and frequent absences to which his other and numerous duties compelled the monk, there was one ever at hand to smooth the pillow, to wipe the brow, to listen to the moan, to watch the sleep. And even in that dismal office, when, in the frenzy of the sufferer, her name, coupled with terms of passionate endearment, broke from his lips, a thrill of [page 199:] strange pleasure crossed the heart of the betrothed, which she chid as if it were a crime. But even the most unearthly love is selfish in the rapture of being loved! Words cannot tell, heart cannot divine, the mingled emotions that broke over her when, in some of those incoherent ravings, she dimly understood that for her the city had been sought, the death dared, the danger incurred. And as then bending passionately to kiss that burning brow, her tears fell fast over the idol of her youth, the fountains from which they gushed were those, fathomless and countless, which a life could not weep away. Not an impulse of the human and the woman heart that was not stirred; the adoring gratitude, the meek wonder thus to be loved, while deeming it so simple a merit thus to love; — as if all sacrifice in her were a thing of course, — to her, a virtue nature could not paragon, worlds could not repay! And there he lay, the victim to his own fearless faith, helpless — dependent upon her — a thing between life and death, to thank, to serve — to be proud of, yet to protect — to compassionate, yet revere — the saver, to be saved! Never seemed one object to demand at once from a single heart so many and so profound emotions; the romantic enthusiasm of the girl! — the fond idolatry of the bride — the watchful providence of the mother over her child.

And strange to say, with all the excitement of that lonely watch, scarcely stirring from his side, taking food only that her strength might not fail her, — unable to close her eyes — though, from the same cause, she would fain have taken rest, when slumber fell upon her charge — with all such wear and tear of frame and heart, she — seemed wonderfully supported. And the holy man marvelled, in each visit, to see the cheek of the nurse still fresh, and her eye still bright. In her own superstition she thought and felt that Heaven gifted her with a preternatural power to be true to so sacred a charge: and in this fancy she did not wholly err; — for Heaven did gift her with that diviner power, when it planted in so soft a heart the enduring might and energy of Affection! The friar had visited the sick man, late on the third night, and administered to him a strong sedative “This night,” said he to Irene, “will be the crisis should he awaken, as I trust he may, with a returning consciousness, and a calm pulse, he will live — if not, young daughter, prepare for the worst. But should you note any turn in the disease, that may excite alarm, or require my attendance, this scroll will inform you where I am if God spare me still, at each hour of the night and morning.”

The monk retired and Irene resumed her watch.

The sleep of Adrian was at first broken and interrupted — his features, his exclamations, his gestures, all evinced great agony whether mental or bodily — it seemed, as perhaps it was, a fierce and doubtful struggle between life and death for the conquest of the sleeper. Patient, silent, breathing but by long-drawn gasps, Irene sate at the bed-head. The lamp was removed to the further end of the chamber, and its ray, shaded by the draperies, did not suffice to give to her gaze more than the outline of the countenance she watched. In that awful suspense, all the thoughts that hitherto had stirred her mind lay hushed and mute. She was only sensible to that unutterable fear which few of us have been happy enough not to know. That crushing weight under which we can scarcely breathe or move, the avalanche over us, freezing and suspended, which we cannot escape from, with which, every moment, we may be buried and overwhelmed. The whole destiny of life was in the chances of that single night! It was just as Adrian at last seemed to glide into a deeper and serener slumber, that the bells of the death-cart broke with their boding knell the palpable silence of the streets. Now hushed, now revived, as the cart stopped for its gloomy passengers, and coming nearer and nearer after every pause. At length she heard the heavy wheels stop under the very casement, and a voice deep and muffled calling aloud “Bring out the dead!” She rose, and with a noiseless step, passed to secure the door, when [column 2:] the dull lamp gleamed upon the dark and shrouded forms of the Becchini.

“You have not marked the door, nor set out the body,” said one gruffly, “but this is the third night! He is ready for us!”

“Hush, he sleeps — away, quick, it is not the Plague that seized him.”

“Not the Plague,” growled the Becchino in a disappointed tone, “I thought no other illness dared encroach upon the rights of the gavocciolo!”

“Go, here’s money, leave us.”

And the grisly carrier sullenly withdrew. The cart moved on, the bell renewed its summons, till slowly and faintly the dreadful larum died in the distance.

Shading the lamp with her hand, Irene stole to the lied — side, fearful that the sound and the intrusion had disturbed the slumberer. But his face was still locked, as in a vice, with that iron sleep. He stirred not — his breath scarcely passed his lips — she felt his pulse, as the wand lay on the coverlid — there was a slight heat — she was contented — removed the light, and, retiring to a corner of the room, placed the little cross suspended round her neck upon the table, and prayed — in her intense suffering — to Him who had known death, and who — Son of Heaven though he was, and Sovereign of the Seraphim — had also prayed, in his earthly travail, that the cup might pass away.

The morning broke, not, as in the north, slowly and through shadow, but with the sudden glory with which in those climates Day leaps upon earth-like a giant from his sleep. A sudden smile — a burnished glow — and night had vanished. Adrian still slept; not a muscle seemed to have stirred; the sleep was even heavier than before; the silence became a burthen upon the air. Now, in that exceeding torpor so like unto death, the solitary watcher became alarmed and terrified. Time passed — morning glided to noon — still not a sound nor motion. The sun was mid-way in heaven — the friar came not. And now again touching Adrian’s pulse, she felt no flutter — she gazed on him, appalled and con founded; surely nought living could be so still and pale. “Was it indeed sleep, might it not be — .” She turned away, sick and frozen; her tongue clove to her lips. Why did the father tarry — she would go to him — she would learn the worst — she could forbear no longer. She glanced over the scroll the monk had left her: “From sunrise, it said, “I shall be at the Convent of the Dominicans. Death has stricken many of the brethren.” The Convent was at some distance, but she knew the spot, and fear would wing her steps. She gave one wistful look at the sleeper, and rushed from the house. “I shall see thee again presently,” she murmured. Alas! what hope can calculate beyond the moment. And who shall claim the tenure of “The Again!

It was not many minutes after Irene had left the room, ere, with a long sigh, Adrian opened his eyes — an altered and another man; the fever was gone, the reviving pulse beat low indeed, but calm. His mind was once more master of his body, and, though weak and feeble, the danger was past, and life and intellect regained.

“I have slept long,” he muttered — ” and oh such dreams — and rethought I saw Irene, but could not speak to her; and while I attempted to grasp her, her face changed, her form dilated, and I was in the clutch of the foul grave-digger. It is late — the sun is high — I must be up and stirring. Irene is in Lombardy. No, no; that was a lie, a wicked lie — she is at Florence — I must renew my search.”

As this duty came to his remembrance, he rose from the bed — he was amazed at his own debility; at first he could not stand without support from the wall — by degrees, however, he so far regained the mastery of his limbs, as to walk, though with effort and pain. A ravening hunger preyed upon him; he found some scanty and light food in the chamber, which he devoured eagerly. And with scarce less eagerness laved his [page 200:] enfeebled form and haggard face with the water that stood at hand. He now felt refreshed and invigorated, and began to indue his garments, which he found thrown on a heap beside the bed. He gazed with surprise and a kind of self-compassion upon his emaciated hands and shrunken limbs, and began now to comprehend that he must have had some severe but unconscious illness. “Alone too,” thought he, “no one near to tend me! Nature my only nurse! But alas! alas! how long a time may thus have been wasted, and my adored Irene quick, quick, not a moment more will I lose.”

He soon found himself in the open street; the air revived him; and that morning, the first known for weeks, had sprung up the blessed breeze. He wandered on very slowly and feebly till he came to a broad square, from which, in the vista, might be seen one of the principal gates of Florence, and the fig-trees and olive-groves beyond. It was then that a pilgrim of tall stature approached towards him as from the gate; his hood was thrown back, and gave to view a countenance of great but sad command; a face, in whose high features, massive brow, and proud, unshrinking gaze, shaded by an expression of melancholy more stern than soft, Nature seemed to have written majesty, and Fate disaster. As in that silent and dreary place, these two, the only tenants of the street, now encountered, Adrian stopped abruptly, and said in a startled and doubting voice: “Do I dream still, or do I behold Rienzi?”

The pilgrim paused also, as he heard the name, and gazing long on the attenuated features of the young lord, said: “I am he that was Rienzi! and you, pale shadow, is it in this grave of Italy that I meet with the gay and high Colonna? Alas, young friend,” he added in a more relaxed and kindly voice, “ hath the Plague not spared the flower of the Roman nobles? Come, I, the cruel and the harsh tribune, I will be thy nurse: he who might have been my brother, shall yet claim from me a brother’s care.”

With these words, he wound his arm tenderly round Adrian; and the young noble, touched by his compassion, and agitated by the surprize, leant upon Rienzi’s breast in silence.

“Poor youth,” resumed the Tribune, for so since rather fallen than deposed he may yet be called, “I ever loved the young; (my brother died young!) and you more than most. What fatality brought thee hither?”

“Irene!” replied Adrian falteringly.

“Is it so, really? Art thou a Colonna, and yet prize the fallen? The same duty has brought me also to the City of Death. From the farthest south — over the mountains of the robber — through the fastnesses of my foes — through towns in which the herald proclaimed in my ear the price of my head — I have passed hither, on foot and alone, safe under the wings of the Almighty One. Young man, thou shouldst have left this task to one who bears a wizard’s life, and whom Heaven and Earth yet reserve for an appointed end!”

The Tribune said this in a deep and inward voice and in his raised eye and solemn brow might be seen how much his reverses had deepened his fanaticism, and added even to the sanguineness of his hopes.

“But,” asked Adrian, withdrawing gently from Rienzi’s arm, “thou knowest, then, where Irene is to be found, let us go together. Lose not a moment in this talk — time is of inestimable value, and a moment in this city is often but the border to eternity.”

“Right,” said Rienzi, awakening to his object. “But fear not; I have dreamt that I shall save her, the gem and darling of my house. Fear not — I have no fear.’

“Know you where to seek,” said Adrian, impatiently; “the convent holds far other guests.”

“Ha! so said my dream!”

“Talk not now of dreams,” said the lover, “but if you have no other guide, let us part at once in quest of her I will take yonder street, you take the opposite, and a sunset let us meet in the same spot.” [column 2:]

“Rash man,” said the Tribune, with great solemnity, “scoff not at the visions which Heaven makes a parable to its Chosen. Thou seekest counsel of thy human wisdom; I, less presumptuous, follow the hand of the mysterious Providence, moving even now before my gaze as a pillar of light, through the wilderness of dread. Ay, meet we here at sunset, and prove whose guide is the most unerring. If my dream tell me true, I shall see my sister living, ere the sun reach yonder hill, and by a church dedicated to St. Mark.”

The grave earnestness with which Rienzi spoke, impressed Adrian with a hope his reason would not acknowledge. He saw him depart with that proud and stately step to which his sweeping garments gave a yet more imposing dignity, and then passed up the street to the right hand. He had not got half way when he felt himself pulled by the mantle. He turned and saw the shapeless mask of a Becchino.

“I feared you were sped, and that another had cheat ed me of my office,” said the grave-digger, “seeing that you returned not to the old prince’s palace. You don’t know me from the rest of us, I see, but I am the one you told to seek — “

“Irene!”

“Yes, Irene di Gabrini, you promised ample reward.”

“You shall have it.”

“Follow me.”

The Becchino strode on, and soon arrived at a mansion. He knocked twice at the porter’s entrance; an old woman cautiously opened the door. “Fear not, good aunt,” said the grave-digger, “this is the young lord I spoke to thee of. Thou sayest thou hadst two ladies in the palace, who alone survived of all the lodgers, and their names were Bianca di Medici, and what was the other?”

“Irene di Gabrini, a Roman lady. But I told thee this was the fourth day they left the house, terrified by the deaths within it.”

“Thou didst so — and was there any thing remarkable in the dress of the Signora di Gabrini?”

“Yes, I have told thee, a blue mantle, such as I have rarely seen, wrought with silver.”

“Was the broidery that of stars, silver stars,” exclaimed Adrian, “with a sun in the centre.”

“It was!”

“Alas! alas! the arms of the Tribune’s family! I remember how I praised the mantle the first day she wore it — the day on which we were betrothed!” And the lover at once conjectured the secret sentiment which had induced Irene to retain so carefully a robe so en deared by association.

“You know no more of your lodgers?”

“Nothing.”

“And is this all you have learnt, knave?” cried Adrian.

“Patience. I must bring you from proof to proof, and link to link, in order to win my reward. Follow, Signor.”

The Becchino then passing through the several lanes and streets, arrived at another house of less magnificent size and architecture. Again he tapped thrice at the parlor door, and this time came forth a man withered, old, and palsied, whom death seemed to disdain to strike.

“Signor Astuccio,” said the Becchino,” pardon me; but I told thee I might trouble thee again. This is the gentleman who wants to know, what is often best un known — but that’s not my affair. Did a lady — young and beautiful — with dark hair, and of a slender form, enter this house, stricken with the first symptom of the “plague, three days since?”

“Ay, thou knowest that well enough — and thou knowest still better — that she has departed these two days; it was quick work with her, quicker than with u most!”

“Did she wear any thing remarkable?”

“Yes, troublesome man, a blue cloak with stars of silver.” [page 201:]

“Couldst thou guess aught of her previous circumstances?”

“No, save that she raved much about the nunnery of Santa Maria dei Pazza, and bravos, and sacrilege.”

“Are you satisfied, Signor?” asked the grave-digger, with an air of triumph, turning to Adrian. “But no, I will satisfy thee better, if thou hast courage. Wilt thou follow?”

“I comprehend thee; lead on. Courage! what is there on earth now to fear?”

Muttering to himself — “Ay, leave me alone. I have a head worth something; I ask no gentleman to go by my word; I will make his own eyes the judge of what my trouble is worth.” The grave-digger now led the way through one of the gates a little out of the city. And here under a shed sat six of his ghastly and illomened brethren, with spades and pick-axes at their feet. His guide now turned round to Adrian, whose face was set and resolute in despair.

“Fair Signor,” said he, with some touch of lingering compassion, “wouldst thou really convince thine own eyes and heart; the sight may appal, the contagion may destroy thee, — if, indeed, as it seems to me, Death has not already written ‘mine’ upon thee.”

“Raven of bode and woe,” answered Adrian, “seest thou not that all I shrink from is thy voice and aspect? Show me her I seek, living or dead.”

“I will show her to you, then,” said the Becchino, sullenly, “such as two nights since she was committed to my charge. Line and lineament may already be swept away, for the Plague hath a rapid besom; but I have left that upon her by which you will know the Becchino is no liar. Bring hither the torches, comrades, and lift the door. Never stare; it’s the gentleman’s whim, and he’ll pay it well.”

Turning to the right, while Adrian mechanically followed his conductors, — a spectacle whose dire philosophy crushes as with a wheel all the pride of mortal man — the spectacle of that vault in which earth hides all that on earth flourished, rejoiced, exulted — awaited his eye!

The Becchino lifted a ponderous grate, lowered their torches (scarcely needed, for through the aperture rush ed, with a hideous glare, the light of the burning sun,) and motioned to Adrian to advance. He stood upon the summit of the abyss and gazed below.

* * * * * *

* * * * * *

It was a large, deep and circular space, like the bottom of an exhausted well. In niches cut into the walls of earth around, lay, duly confined, those who had been the earliest victims of the plague, when the Becchino’s market was not yet glutted, and priest followed, and friend mourned, the dead. But on the floor below, there was the loathsome horror! Huddled and matted together, — some naked, some in shrouds already black and rotten, — lay the later guests, the unshriven and unblest! The torches, the sun, streamed broad and red over corruption in all its stages, from the pale blue tint and swollen shape, to the moistened undistinguishable mass, or the riddled bones, where yet clung, in strips and tatters, the black and mangled flesh. In many the face remained almost perfect, while the rest of the body was but bone; the long hair, the human face, surmounting the grisly skeleton. There, was the infant, still on the mother’s breast; there, was the lover stretched across the dainty limbs of his adored! The rats (for they clustered in numbers to that feast,) disturbed, not scared, sate up from their horrid meal as the light glimmered over them, and thousands of them lay round, stark and dead, poisoned by that they fed on! There, too, the wild satire of the grave-diggers had cast, though stripped of their gold and jewels, the emblems that spoke of departed rank — the broken wand of the Councillor; the General’s baton; the Priestly Mitre! The foul and livid exhalations gathered like flesh itself, fungous and putrid, upon the walls, and the ———

* * * * * *

* * * * * *

But who shall detail the ineffable and unimaginable horrors that reigned over the Palace where the Great King received the prisoners whom the sword of the Pestilence had subdued.

But through all that crowded court-crowded with beauty and with birth, with the strength of the young and the honors of the old, and the valor of the brave, and the wisdom of the learned, and the wit of the scorner, and the piety of the faithful — one only figure attracted Adrian’s eye. Apart from the rest, a late comer — the long locks streaming far and dark over arm and breast — lay a female, the face turned partially aside, the little seen not recognisable even by the mother of the dead, — but wrapped round in that fatal mantle, on which, though blackened and tarnished, was yet visible the starry heraldry assumed by those who claimed the name of the proud Tribune of Rome. Adrian saw no more — he fell back in the arms of the grave diggers: when he recovered, he was still without the gates of Florence — reclined upon a green mound — his guide stood beside him — holding his steed by the bridle as it grazed patiently on the neglected grass. The other brethren of the axe had resumed their seat under the shed.

“So you have revived; ah! 1 thought it was only the effluvia; few stand it as we do. And so, as your search is over, deeming you would not be quitting Florence if you have any sense left to you, I went for your good horse. I have fed him since your departure from the palace. Indeed I fancied he would be my perquisite, but there are plenty as good. Come, young Sir, mount. 1 feel a pity for you, I know not why, except that you are the only one I have met for weeks who seem to care for another more than for yourself. I hope you are satisfied now that I showed some brains, eh! in your service, and as I have kept my promise, you’ll keep yours.”

“Friend,” said Adrian, “here is gold enough to make thee rich; here too is a jewel that merchants will tell thee princes might vie to purchase. Thou seemest honest, despite thy calling, or thou mightest have robbed and murdered me long since. Do me one favor more.”

“By my poor mother’s soul, yes.”

“Take yon — yon clay from that fearful place. Inter it in some quiet and remote spot — apart — alone! You promise me — you swear it — it is well. And now help me on my horse.”

“Farewell Italy, and if I die not with this stroke, may I die as befits at once honor and despair — with trumpet and banner round me — in a well-fought field against a worthy foe! — save a knightly death nothing is left to live for!”

Here, in many incidents of extraordinary force — in the call of the Becchini on the third night — in the most agonizing circumstance of Irene’s abandonment of Adrian — in the bodily weakness and mental prostration of that young nobleman — in the desolation of the streets — in the meeting with Rienzi — in the colossal dignity of the words, “I am he that was Rienzi!” — in the affectionate attention of the fallen hero — and lastly, in the appalling horror of the vault and its details — may be seen and will be felt much, but not all, of the exceeding power of the “Last of the Tribunes.”

 


Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - SLM, 1836] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Criticial Notices (February 1836)