Ponte Dell’ Angelo, Venice

Stop rowing! This one of our bye-canals
O’er a certain bridge you have to cross
That’s named, “Of the Angel:” listen why!
The name “Of the Devil” too much appalls
Venetian acquaintance, so—his the loss,
While the gain goes . . . look on high!
An angel visibly guards yon house:
Above each scutcheon—a pair—stands he,
Enfolds them with droop of either wing:
The family’s fortune were perilous
Did he thence depart—you will soon agree,
If I hitch into verse the thing.
For, once on a time, this house belonged
To a lawyer of note, with law and to spare,
But also with overmuch lust of gain:
In the matter of law you were nowise wronged,
But alas for the lucre! He picked you bare
To the bone. Did folk complain?
“I exact,” growled he, “work’s rightful due:
’Tis folk seek me, not I seek them.
Advice at its price! They succeed or fail,
Get law in each case—and a lesson too:
Keep clear of the Courts—is advice ad rem:
They’ll remember, I’ll be bail!”
So, he pocketed fee without a qualm.
What reason for squeamishness? Labor done,
To play he betook him with lightened heart,
Ate, drank, and made merry with song or Psalm,
Since the yoke of the Church is an easy one—
Fits neck nor causes smart.
Brief: never was such an extortionate
Rascal—the word has escaped my teeth!
And yet—(all’s down in a book no ass
Indited, believe me!)—this reprobate
Was punctual at prayer-time: gold lurked beneath
Alloy of the rankest brass.
For, play the extortioner as he might,
Fleece folk each day and all day long,
There was this redeeming circumstance:
He never lay down to sleep at night
But he put up a prayer first, brief yet strong,
“Our Lady avert mischance!”
Now it happened at close of a fructuous week
“I must ask,” quoth he, “some Saint to dine:
I want that widow well out of my ears
With her ailing and wailing. Who bade her seek
Redress at my hands? ‘She was wronged!’ Folk whine
If to Law wrong right appears.
“Matteo da Bascio—he’s my man!
No less than Chief of the Capucins:
His presence will surely suffumigate
My house—fools think lies under a ban
If somebody loses what somebody wins.
Hark, there he knocks at the grate!
“Come in, thou blessed of Mother Church!
I go and prepare—to bid, that is,
My trusty and diligent servitor
Get all things in readiness. Vain the search
Through Venice for one to compare with this.
My model of ministrants: for—
“For—once again, nay, three times over.
My helpmate’s an ape! so intelligent,
I train him to drudge at household work:
He toils and he moils, I live in clover:
Oh, you shall see! There’s a goodly scent—
From his cooking, or I’m a Turk!
“Scarce need to descend and supervise:
I’ll do it, however: wait here awhile!”
So, down to the kitchen gayly scuttles
Our host, nor notes the alarmed surmise
Of the holy man. “O depth of guile!
He blindly guzzles and guttles,
“While—who is it dresses the food and pour,
The liquor? Some fiend—I make no doubt—
In likeness of—which of the loathly brutes
An ape! Where hides he? No bull that gores
No bear that hugs—’t is the mock and flow
Of an ape, fiend’s face that suits.
“So—out with thee, creature, wherever thou hidest!
I charge thee, by virtue of . . . right do I judge!
There skulks he perdue, crouching under the bed.
Well done! What, forsooth, in beast’s shape thou confidest?
I know and would name thee but that I begrudge
Breath spent on such carrion. Instead—
“I adjure thee by——” “Stay!” laughed the portent that rose
From floor up to ceiling: “No need to adjure!
See Satan in person, late ape by command
Of Him thou adjurest in vain. A saint’s nose
Scents brimstone though incense be burned for a lure.
Yet, hence! for I’m safe, understand!
“‘Tis my charge to convey to fit punishment’s place
This lawyer, my liegeman, for cruelty wrought
On his clients, the widow and orphan, poor souls
He has plagued by exactions which proved law’s disgrace,
Made equity void and to nothingness brought
God’s pity. Fiends, on with fresh coals!”
“Stay!” nowise confounded, withstands Hell its match:
“How comes it, were truth in this story of thine,
God’s punishment suffered a minute’s delay?
Weeks, months have elapsed since thou squattedst at watch
For a spring on thy victim: what caused thee decline
Advantage till challenged to-day?”
“That challenge I meet with contempt,” quoth the fiend.
“Thus much I acknowledge: the man’s armed in mail:
I wait till a joint’s loose, then quick ply my claws.
Thy friend’s one good custom—he knows not—has screened
His flesh hitherto from what else would assail:
At ‘Save me, Madonna!’ I pause.
“That prayer did the losel but once pretermit,
My pounce were upon him. I keep me attent:
He’s in safety but till he’s caught napping. Enough!”
“Ay, enough!” smiles the Saint—“for the biter is bit,
The spy caught in somnolence. Vanish! I’m sent
To smooth up what fiends do in rough.”
“I Vanish? Through wall or through roof?” the ripost
Grinned gayly. “My orders were—‘Leave not unharmed
The abode of this lawyer! Do damage to prove
’T was for something thou quittedst the land of the lost—
To add to their number this unit!’ Though charmed
From descent there, on earth that’s above
“I may haply amerce him.” “So do, and begone,
I command thee! For, look! Though there’s doorway behind
And window before thee, go straight through the wall,
Leave a breach in the brickwork, a gap in the stone
For who passes to stare at!” “Spare speech! I’m resigned:
Here goes!” roared the goblin, as all—
Wide bat-wings, spread arms and legs, tail out a-stream,
Crash obstacles went, right and left, as he soared
Or else sank, was clean gone through the hole anyhow.
The Saint returned thanks: then a satisfied gleam
On the bald polished pate showed that triumph was scored.
“To dinner with appetite now!”
Down he trips. “In good time!” smirks the host. “Didst thou scent
Rich savor of roast meat? Where hides he, my ape?
Look alive, be alert! He’s away to wash plates.
Sit down, Saint! What’s here? Dost examine a rent
In the napkin thou twistest and twirlest?” Agape . . .
Ha, blood is it drips nor abates
“From thy wringing a cloth, late was lavendered fair?
What means such a marvel?” “Just this does it mean:
I convince and convict thee of sin!” answers straight
The Saint, wringing on, wringing ever—oh, rare!—
Blood—blood from a napery snow not more clean.
“A miracle shows thee thy state!
“See—blood thy extortions have wrung from the flesh
Of thy clients who, sheep-like, arrived to be shorn,
And left thee—or fleeced to the quick or so flayed
That, behold, their blood gurgles and grumbles afresh
To accuse thee! Ay, down on thy knees, get up sworn
To restore! Restitution once made,
“Sin no more! Dost thou promise? Absolved, then, arise!
Upstairs follow me! Art amazed at yon breach?
Who battered and shattered and scattered, escape
From thy purlieus obtaining? That Father of Lies
Thou wast wont to extol for his feats, all and each
The Devil’s disguised as thine ape!”
Be sure that our lawyer was torn by remorse,
Shed tears in a flood, vowed and swore so to alter
His ways that how else could our Saint but declare
He was cleansed of past sin? “For sin future—fare worse
Thou undoubtedly wilt,” warned the Saint, “shouldst thou falter
One whit!” “Oh, for that have no care!
“I am firm in my purposed amendment. But, prithee,
Must ever affront and affright me yon gap?
Who made it for exit may find it of use
For entrance as easy. If, down in his smithy
He forges me fetters—when heated, mayhap,
He’ll up with an armful! Broke loose—
How bar him out henceforth?” “Judiciously urged!”
Was the good man’s reply. “How to balk him is plain.
There’s nothing the Devil objects to so much,
So speedily flies from, as one of those purged
Of his presence, the angels who erst formed his train—
His, their emperor. Choose one of such!
“Get fashioned his likeness and set him on high
At back of the breach thus adroitly filled up:
Display him as guard of two scutcheons, thy arms:
I warrant no devil attempts to get by
And disturb thee so guarded. Eat, drink, dine, and sup,
In thy rectitude, safe from alarms!”
So said and so done. See, the angel has place
Where the Devil has passage! All’s down in a book.
Gainsay me? Consult it! Still faithless? Trust me?
Trust Father Boverio who gave me the case
In his Annals—gets of it, by hook or by crook,
Two confirmative witnesses: three
Are surely enough to establish an act:
And thereby we learn—would we ascertain truth—
To trust wise tradition which took, at the time,
Note that served till slow history ventured on fact,
Though folk have their fling at tradition forsooth!
Row, boys, fore and aft, rhyme and chime!
Other works by Robert Browning...