Orlando Furioso Canto 21

Ludovico Ariosto

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Zerbino for Gabrina, who a heart
Of asp appears to bear, contends. O'erthrown,
The Fleming falls upon the other part,
Through cause of that despised and odious crone,
He wounded sore, and writhing with the smart,
The beldam's treason to the prince makes known,
Whose scorn and hatred hence derive new force.
Towards loud cries Zerbino spurs his horse.

No cord I well believe is wound so tight
Round chest, nor nails the plank so fastly hold,
As Faith enwraps an honourable sprite
In its secure, inextricable, fold;
Nor holy Faith, it seems, except in white
Was mantled over in the days of old;
So by the ancient limner ever painted,
As by one speck, one single blemish tainted.

Faith should be kept unbroken evermore,
With one or with a thousand men united;
As well if given in grot or forest hoar,
Remote from town and hamlet, as if plighted
Amid a crowd of witnesses, before
Tribunal, and in act and deed recited:
Nor needs the solemn sanction of an oath:
It is sufficient that we pledge our troth.

And this maintains as it maintained should be,
In each emprize the Scottish cavalier,
And gives good proof of his fidelity,
Quitting his road with that old crone to steer;
Although this breeds the youth such misery,
As 'twould to have Disease itself as near,
Or even Death; but with him heavier weighed
That his desire the promise he had made.

Of him I told who felt at heart such load,
Reflecting she beneath his charge must go,
He spake no word; and thus in silent mode
Both fared: so sullen was Zerbino's woe.
I said how vexed their silence, as they rode,
Was broke, when Sol his hindmost wheels did show,
By an adventurous errant cavalier,
Who in mid pathway met the crone and peer.

The hag, who the approaching warrior knew,
(Hermonides of Holland he was hight)
That bore upon a field of sable hue
A bar of vermeil tint, transversely dight,
Did humbly now to good Zerbino sue,
-- Her pride abased, and look of haught despite --
And him reminded of the promise made,
When her Marphisa to his care conveyed.

Because as foe to her and hers she knew
The knight they were encountering, who had slain
Her only brother and her father true;
And was advised, the traitor would be fain
By her, the remnant of her race, to do
What he had perpetrated on the twain.
"Woman, while guarded by my arm (he said)
I will not thou shouldst any danger dread."

As nearer now, the stranger knight espied
That face, which was so hateful in his sight,
With menacing and savage voice he cried,
"Either with me prepare thyself to fight,
Or arm thee not on that old woman's side,
Who by my hand shall perish, as is right.
If thou contendest for her, thou art slain;
For such their portion is who wrong maintain."

Him young Zerbino answered courteously,
Twas sign of evil and ungenerous will,
And corresponded not with chivalry,
That he a woman should desire to kill;
Yet if the knight persists, he will not flee --
But bids him well consider first how ill
'Twould sound, that he, a gentle knight and good,
Should wish to dip his hand in woman's blood.

This and yet more he vainly says; nor stand
They idle long; from word they pass to deed;
And having compassed on the level land
Enough of ground, encounter on the mead.
Not fired in some rejoicing, from the hand
Discharged, so fast the whistling rockets speed,
As the two coursers bear the cavaliers
To hurtle in mid space with rested spears.

Hermonides of Holland levelled low,
And for the youth's left flank the stroke intended;
But his weak lance was shivered by the blow,
And little the opposing Scot offended:
But vain was not the spear-thrust of his foe,
Who bored his opposite's good shield, and rended
His shoulder, by the lance pierced through and through,
And good Hermonides on earth o'erthrew.

Thinking him slain who only lay amazed,
By pity prest, Zerbino leapt to ground,
And from his deathlike face the vizor raised;
And he, as wakened out of sleep profound,
In silence, hard upon Zerbino gazed;
Then cried, "It does not me, in truth, confound,
To think that I am overthrown by thee,
Who seem'st the flower of errant chivalry.

"But it with reason grieves me this is done
Upon account of a false woman's spite;
Whose wicked cause I know not why you own,
An office ill according with your might:
And when to you the occasion shall be known
Which urges me her wickedness to quite,
Whene'er you think on it, you will repent
How she by you was saved, and I was shent.

"And if enough of breath, although I fear
The contrary, is left me to expound
Her evil actions, I shall make appear
She in all guilt transgresses every bound.
I had a brother once: the youthful peer
Set out from Holland's isle, our natal ground,
To serve Heraclius, 'mid his knights arrayed,
Who then the Grecian empire's sceptre swayed.

"Brother in arms and bosom-friend installed
Here was he by a baron of that court,
Who, in a pleasant site, and strongly walled,
On Servia's distant frontier had a fort.
Argaeus he of whom I tell was called,
Husband of that ill hag, whom in such sort
He loved, as passed all mean, and misbecame
One of his worth and honourable fame.

"But she, more volatile than leaf, when breeze
Of autumn most its natural moisture dries,
And strips the fluttering foliage from the trees,
Which, blown about, before its fury flies,
Changes her humour, and her husband sees,
Whom she some time had loved, with other eyes,
And in her every wish and every thought
Schemes how my brother's love may best be bought.

"But not Acroceraunus fronts the brine,
-- Ill-famed -- against whose base the billow heaves,
Nor against Boreas stands the mountain pine,
That has a hundred times renewed its leaves,
And towering high on Alp or Apennine,
With its fast root the rock as deeply cleaves,
So firmly as the youth resists the will
Of that foul woman, sink of every ill.

"Now, as it oft befalls a cavalier
Who seeks and finds adventure, high and low,
It happened that my gentle brother near
His comrade's fort was wounded by a foe;
Where often, uninvited by the peer,
He guested, was his host with him or no;
And thither he resorted from the field,
There to repose until his wounds were healed.

"While there he wounded lay, upon some need
It chanced Argaeus was compelled to ride.
Quickly that wanton, from his presence freed,
As was her use, my brother's fealty tried.
But he, as one unstained in thought and deed,
So fell a goad no longer would abide;
And to preserve his faith, as lures increased,
Of many evils chose what seemed the least.

"To break communion with the cavalier,
To him -- of many -- seemed the lightest ill,
And go so far, that wanton should not hear
More of his name: this purpose to fulfil
Was honester (though quitting one so dear
Was hard) than to content her evil will,
Of her foul wishes to her lord impart,
Who cherished her as fondly as his heart.

"And though yet smarting with his wounds and pined,
He dons his arms, and from the tower departs;
And wanders thence with firm and constant mind,
Ne'er to return again into those parts.
But nought availed the purpose he designed;
His projects Fortune baffled with new arts.
This while, behold! the castellain returned,
And bathed in bitter tears the wife discerned.

"And with flushed face, and hair in disarray,
He asks of her what had disturbed her mood;
Who, ere she in reply a word will say,
Is vainly more than once to answer wooed;
And all the while is thinking in what way
The knight can best with vengeance be pursued.
And well it suited with her fickle vein,
Lightly to change her love into disdain.

" `Ah! why should I conceal (in fine she cried)
The fault committed while you were away?
For though I it from all the world should hide,
This would my conscience to myself bewray.
The soul, which is with secret evil dyed,
Does with such penitence its fault appay,
As every corporal sufferance exceeds
That thou couldst deal me for my evil deeds;

" `If evil be the deed, when done parforce.
But, be it what it may, the mischief know;
Then, with my sword from this polluted corse,
Delivered, let my spotless spirit go;
And quench these wretched eyes, which in remorse,
I, if I lived, on earth must ever throw,
As the least penance of so foul a blame,
And, look on whom they may, must blush for shame.

" `My honour has been ruined by thy mate,
Who to this body violence has done,
And fearing lest I all to thee relate,
Without farewell the graceless churl is gone.'
She by this story made her husband hate
The youth, than whom before was dearer none.
Argaeus credits all, without delay
Arms him, and, breathing vengeance, posts away.

"In knowledge of that country not to seek,
He overtook the knight in little space;
For my poor brother, yet diseased and weak,
Rode, unsuspicious, at an easy pace;
Argaeus, eager his revenge to wreak,
Assailed him straight in a sequestered place.
My brother would excuse him if he might,
But his indignant host insists on fight.

"This one was sound and full of new disdain,
That weak and friendly, as aye wont to be:
My brother was ill fitted to sustain
His altered comrade's new-born enmity.
Philander, then unmeriting such pain,
(So was the stripling named, described by me)
Not gifted with the power to undergo
Such fierce assault, was taken by the foe.

" `Forbid it, Heaven! I should be led astray
So by just wrath and thy iniquity,
(To him Argaeus cried) as thee to slay,
Who loved thee once, and certes thou lovedst me,
Though in the end thou ill didst this display,
I yet desire this ample world may see
That, measured by my deeds, I rank above
Thyself in hate as highly as in love.

" `In other mode shall I chastise the deed,
Than spilling more of thine ill blood.' The peer,
This said, commands his followers, on a steed,
Of verdant boughs composed to place a bier,
And with the knight half-lifeless homeward speed,
And in a tower enclose the cavalier;
There dooms the guiltless stripling to remain,
And suffer prisonment's perpetual pain.

"Yet nothing but his former liberty
Thence to depart was wanting to the knight;
In all the rest, as one at large and free,
He ordered, and was still obeyed aright.
But that ill dame her former phantasy
Pursuing ever with unwearied sprite,
Having the keys, repaired nigh every day
To the close turret where the prisoner lay.

"And evermore my brother she assailed,
And with more boldness prest her former suit.
`Mark what to thee fidelity availed!'
(She cries) `which all mere perfidy repute.
With what triumphant joy shalt thou be hailed!
What noble spoils are thine, what happy fruit!
Oh what a worthy guerdon is thy meed!
Branded by all men for a traitor's deed!

" `How well thou mightst have given, and without stain
Of thine own honour, what I sought of thee!
Now of so rigorous mood the worthy gain
Have and enjoy. In close captivity
Thou art; nor ever hope to break thy chain,
Unless thou soften thy obduracy.
But, if compliant, I a mean can frame
To render thee thy liberty and fame.'

" `No, no; have thou no hope,' (replied the knight,)
`That my true faith shall ever change, although
It thus should happen that, against all right,
I should so hard a sentence undergo.
Let the world blame. Enough that in HIS sight
-- Who sees and judges every thing below,
And in HIS grace divine my fame can clear --
My innocence unsullied shall appear.

" `Does not Argaeus deem enough to sty
Me in his prison, let him take away
This noisome life. Nor yet may Heaven deny
Its meed, though ill the world my work appay.
And yet he who condemns me may, when I
Am parted from this tenement of clay,
Perceive that he has wronged me in the end,
And shall bewail when dead his faithful friend.'

"Thus oftentimes that shameless woman prest
The good Philander, but obtained no fruit.
Nursing her blind desires, which knew not rest
In seeking what her wicked love may boot,
She her old vices, in her inmost breast,
Ransacks for what may best the occasion suit,
And sifts them all: then, having overrun
A thousand evil thoughts, resolved on one.

"Six months she waited ere again she sought
The prisoner's tower, as she was wont before:
From which the sad Philander hoped and thought
That love to him the dame no longer bore.
Lo! Fortune for her an occasion wrought,
(To evil deed propitious evermore)
To give effect, with memorable ill,
To her irrational and evil will.

"The husband had an ancient feud with one
Who was by name Morando hight the fair;
Who even within the fort would often run
In its lord's absence; but the knight's repair
At the wide distance of ten miles would shun,
Was he assured the castellain was there:
Who now, to lure him thither, bruited how
He for Jerusalem was bound by vow.

"Said he would go; and went. Thus each who spies
His outset, of his journey spreads the fame:
Nor he, who only on his wife relies,
Trusts any with his purpose but the dame,
And home returned when dusky waxed the skies;
Nor ever, save at evening, thither came;
And with changed ensigns, at the dawn of day,
Unseen of any, always went his way.

"He now on this side, now on the other side,
Roved round his castle but to ascertain
If credulous Morando, who to ride
Thither was wonted, would return again.
All day he in the forest used to hide,
And, when he saw the sun beneath the main,
Came to the tower, and, through a secret gate,
Was there admitted by his faithless mate.

"Thus every one, except his consort ill,
Argaeus many miles away suppose:
She, when 'tis time her errand to fulfil,
Hatching new mischief, to my brother goes.
Of tears she has a ready shower at will,
Which from her eyes into her bosom flows,
` -- Where shall I succour find, now needed most,
So that my honour be not wholly lost,

" `And, with my own, my wedded lord's?' (she cries
`I should feel no alarm, if he were here.
Thou knowst Morando, know if deities
Or men he in Argaeus' absence fear.
He at this time tries all extremities;
Nor servant have I but by threat or prayer
He him to further his desire has swayed;
Nor know I whither to recur for aid.

" `Of my lord's absence hearing the report,
And that he would not quickly homeward fare,
He had the insolence within my court,
Upon no other pretext to repair;
Who, were my absent lord within his fort,
So bold a deer not only would not dare,
But would not deem himself secure withal,
By Heaven! at three miles' distance from his wall.

" `And what he erst by messenger had sought,
From me to-day has sued for face to face;
And in such manner that long time I thought
Dishonour must have followed and disgrace;
And if I had not humbly him besought,
And feigned to yield to him with ready grace,
He haply would have ravished that by force,
Which he expects to win by milder course.

" `I promise, not designing to comply,
For void is contract made in fear; alone
From his ill purpose would I put him by,
And what he then parforce would else have done.
So stands the case: the single remedy
Lies in yourself: my honour else is gone,
And that of my Argaeus; which as dear,
Or more so, than your own you vowed whilere.

" `If you refuse me, I shall say, you show
That you have not the faith which you pretended,
But that in cruelty you said me no,
When vainly were my tears on you expended,
And no wise for Argaeus' sake, although
With this pretext you have yourself defended.
Our loves bad been concealed and free from blame;
But here I stand exposed to certain shame.'

" `To me such preface needs not (said anew
The good Philander), bound by amity
To my Argaeus still; thy pleasure shew:
I what I ever was will be, and I,
Although from him I bear such ill undue,
Accuse him not; for him would I defy
Even death itself; and let the world, allied
With my ill destiny, against me side!'

"The impious woman answered, ` 'Tis my will
Thou slay him who would do us foul despite;
Nor apprehend to encounter any ill:
For I the certain mean will tell aright.
He will return, his purpose to fulfil,
At the third hour, when darkest is the night;
And, at a preconcerted signal made,
Be without noise by me within conveyed.

" `Let it not irk thee to await the peer
Within my chamber, where no light will be;
Till I shall make him doff his warlike gear,
And, almost naked, yield him up to thee.'
So did his wife into that quicksand steer
Her hapless husband (it appears to me)
If wife she rightly could be called; more fell
And cruel than a fury sprung from hell.

"She drew my brother forth, that guilty night,
With his good arms in hand, and him again
Secreted in the chamber without light,
Till thither came the wretched castellain.
As it was ordered, all fell out aright,
For seldom ill design is schemed in vain.
So fell Argaeus by Philander's sword,
Who for Morando took the castle's lord.

"One blow divided head and neck; for nought
Was there of helm, the warrior to defend.
Without a struggle was Argaeus brought
To his unhappy life's disastrous end,
And he who slew him never had such thought,
Nor this would have believed: to aid his friend
Intent, (strange chance!) he wrought him in that blow
The worst that could be done by mortal foe.

"When now, unknown, on earth Argaeus lay,
My brother to Gabrina gave the blade,
(So was she named) who lived but to betray.
She, who discovery had till then delayed,
Wills that Philander with a light survey
The man whom he on earth has lifeless laid,
And she, with the assistance of the light,
Shows him Argaeus in the murdered wight.

"And threatens, save he with desires comply
To which her bosom had been long a prey,
What he would be unable to deny
She to the assembled household will display,
And he like traitor and assassin die,
Upon her tale, in ignominious way:
And minds him fame is not to be despised,
Albeit so little life by him be prized.

"Philander stood oppressed with grief and fear,
When his mistake to him the woman showed,
And to have slain her in his wrath went near,
And long be doubted, so his choler glowed;
And, but that Reason whispered in his ear
That he was in an enemy's abode,
For lack of faulchion in his empty sheath,
He would have torn her piece-meal with his teeth.

"As sometimes vessel by two winds which blow
From different points is vext upon the main,
And now one speeds the bark an-end, and now
Another squall impels her back again;
Still on her poop assailed, or on her prow,
Till she before the strongest flies amain:
Philander, so distraught by two designs,
Takes what he pregnant with least ill opines.

"Reason demonstrates with what peril fraught
His case, not more with death than lasting stain,
If in the castle were that murder taught;
Nor any time has he to sift his brain.
Will he or nill he, in conclusion nought
Is left him but the bitter cup to drain.
Thus in his troubled heart prevailing more,
His fear his resolution overbore.

"The fear of shameful punishment's pursuit
Made him with many protestations swear
To grant in every thing Gabrina's suit,
If from the fortilage they safely fare.
So plucks that impious dame, parforce, the fruit
Of her desires, and thence retreat the pair.
Thus home again the young Philander came,
Leaving behind him a polluted name;

"And deeply graven in his bosom bore
The image of his friend so rashly slain;
By this to purchase, to his torment sore,
A Progne, a Medea; impious gain!
-- And but his knightly faith, and oaths he swore,
Were to his fury as a curbing rein,
From him when safe she would have met her fate;
But lived subjected to his bitterest hate.

"Thenceforth he nevermore was seen to smile:
All his discourse was sad, and still ensued
Sobs from his breast; afflicted in the style
Of vext Orestes, when he in his mood
Had slain his mother and Aegysthus vile;
By vengeful furies for the deed pursued.
Till broken by the ceaseless grief he fed,
He sickened and betook himself to bed.

"Now in the harlot, when she had discerned
This other set by her so little store,
The former amorous flame was quickly turned
Into despiteous rage and hatred sore;
Nor with less wrath she towards my brother burned
Than for Argaeus she had felt before;
And she disposed herself, in treasons versed,
To slay her second husband like the first.

"Of a deceitful leech she made assay,
Well fitted for the work she had in hand,
Who better knew what deadly poisons slay
Than he the force of healing syrup scanned;
And promised him his service to repay
With a reward exceeding his demand,
When he should, with some drink of deadly might,
Of her detested husband rid her sight.

"In presence of myself and more beside,
The wicked elder, with his deadly dole,
Approaching my unhappy brother, cried,
`It was a sovereign drink to make him whole.'
But here a new device Gabrina tried,
And, ere the sickly man could taste the bowl,
To rid her of accomplice in the deed,
Or to defraud him of his promised meed;

"Seized on his hand, the instant he presented
The poison to my brother. `Ill my fear,
(Exclaimed the dame) by you would be resented,
Excited for a spouse I hold so dear.
I, that the beverage has not been fermented
With evil drug and poisonous, will be clear;
Nor deem it meet that you to him convey
The proffered bowl, unless you take the say.'

"In what condition think you, sir, remained
The wretched elder by his fears opprest?
Thus by the woman's suddenness constrained,
He had no time for thinking what were best.
He, lest more doubt of him be entertained,
Tastes of the chalice, at Gabrina's hest;
And the sick man, emboldened so, drinks up
All the remainder of the poisoned cup.

"As the trained hawk of crooked talon who
Clutches the partridge, when about to eat,
Is by the dog, she deems her comrade true,
O'ertaken and defrauded of the meat;
So on ill gain intent, the leech, in lieu
Of the expected aid, received defeat.
Hear, thus, what sovereign wickedness will dare,
And be like fate each greedy miscreant's share!

"This past and done, the leech would homeward speed,
That he, to counteract the pest he bore
Within his bowels, in this fearful need,
Might use some secret of his cunning lore;
But this the wicked dame would not concede,
Forbidding him to issue thence before
His patient's stomach should the juice digest,
And its restoring power be manifest.

"No prayer will move, nor offered price will buy
The woman's leave to let him thence depart.
The desperate man who saw that death was nigh,
And sure to follow, quickly changed his part;
And told the story to the standers-by;
Nor could she cover it with all her art.
Thus what he wont to do by many a one,
That goodly doctor by himself has done;

"And follows with his soul my brother true,
That hence, already freed, was gone before.
We, the assistants, that the matter knew
From the old man who lingered little more,
Took that abominable monster, who
More cruel was than beast in forest hoar,
And, prisoned in a darksome place, reserved
To perish in the fire, as she deserved."

So said Hermonides, and had pursued
His tale, and told how she from prison fled;
But suffered from his wound a pang so shrewd,
He fell reversed upon his grassy bed.
Meanwhile two squires, who served him in the wood,
A rustic bier of sturdy branches spread.
Their master upon this the servants lay,
Who could not thence be borne in other way.

Zerbino, in excuse, assured the peer,
He grieved so good a knight to have offended;
But, as was still the use of cavalier,
Had guarded her who in his guidance wended;
Nor had he else preserved his honour clear:
For when the dame was to his care commended,
Her to defend his promise he had plight
From all men, to the utmost of his might.

He, if he might, is any thing beside,
Would readily assist him in his need.
-- His only wish, (the cavalier replied,)
Was, he might be from ill Gabrina freed,
Ere him some mighty mischief should betide,
Of future penitence the bitter seed.
Gabrina keeps on earth her downcast eye;
For ill the simple truth admits reply.

Zerbino thence, upon the promised way,
With the old woman in his escort, went,
And inly cursed her all the livelong day,
That in her cause that baron he had shent.
And having heard the knight her guilt display,
Who was instructed in her evil bent,
He -- if before he had her at despite --
So loathed her, she was poison to his sight.

Well read in young Zerbino's hate, the dame
Would not by him in malice be outdone,
Nor bated him an inch, but in that game
Of deadly hatred set him two for one.
Her face was with the venom in a flame
Wherewith her swelling bosom overrun.
'Twas thus in such concord as I say,
These through the ancient wood pursued their way.

When, lo! as it is now nigh eventide,
They a mixt sound of blows and outcries hear,
Which seem a sign of battle fiercely plied,
And (as the deafening noise demonstrates) near.
To mark what this might be, towards that side
Whence came the tumult, moved the Scottish peer;
Nor is in following him Gabrina slow:
What chanced in other canto you shall know.

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