“Explain, dear lad, your young heart’s yearning
To so readily end your life,
When you have so many years for spending,
Chasing pleasures, both long and trite.
Tell why you choose of your own volition
Consignment to a bed that’s dank,
When all see your natural position
Is next to maidens, flank on flank.”
The assembled crowd nodded and murmured
Approval of the queried check,
Each one thinking the lad had blundered
In making a choice so abject.
Kriton, for his part, with poise and measure
Stepped forth, and with a gleam in eye,
Readied himself to contradict the censure
By raising an arm to the sky.
All gathered followed the indication
And to the heavens cast their gaze,
Out of the skylight above the reception
Wondering what the youth would say.
“My dear friends, I understand your confusion,
And your concern touches my heart.
But for the curious resolution
Exists above, among the stars.
For there you will find riding high on moonbeams,
Beyond the scope of mortal sight,
Gods and the penitent, who are now free
Of hate and fear, anger and spite.
The pious know that in order to join them
One must lead a loving life, till
Their hour is up and death casts upon them
A fate with which all men must deal.
So if this is true I can live forever,
Knowing that I’ve sealed the bargain,
By choosing to die for love, an endeavor
In the bed of our sovereign.”
The crowd was taken aback with this logic,
And the queen nodded her assent.
A man stepped forward and raised a digit,
Soon followed by a mass hell-bent.
They followed the example of Kriton,
Hoping to board his blessed ship,
And Cleopatra, with lust of a titan,
Watched women, children, and men trip.
They fought for the chance to enjoy her bounty,
To avoid years of repentance,
And it is easy to see why Antony
Loved her for her benevolence.
The improvisatore ended his recital and uncrossed his arms, taking a step back from the edge of the stage. Charsky stood agape,staring at this wondrous talent that had seemingly fallen from the sky. He suddenly remembered himself and closed his mouth, passing a hand over his forehead to clear away the sweat before anyone noticed. A vain gesture, to be sure, for as he turned to ascertain the reaction of the audience, he saw them all standing as he had, some of the women with tears in their eyes. The white-gloved hands were the first to come together, and soon the entire crowd joined the beautiful young lady in deafening applause. An odd smile broke out on the face of the Italian, spreading over his teeth to give him the appearance of a wolf at the gate of a stye. Charsky, seeing this, halted his hands a mere inch apart before clenching them together in a motion parallel to his tightening lips. The action went unnoticed amongst the roaring tumult, and for a moment Charsky was lost in thought. He saw the Italian, beaming like a debutante, and his initial distaste with the man’s obvious greed blossomed into full-blown disgust. He mentally chastised himself for lending his support, and though part of him felt exonerated by the audience’s delight, he found himself wondering whether it was genuine. Of course the recital had been astounding, but most of those present had no knowledge of the language it was presented in, and therefore possessed not an inkling of what it was they were clapping for. Charsky turned and saw himself surrounded not by savants, but by ignorant socialites, each leaping at the chance to be the first supporters of the newest fad. This was not art, it was fashion, and the Italian was hardly as much a craftsman as he was a provocateur.
The paleness of the Italian’s skin blushed crimson, matching the color lent to his eyes by the lingering fire of inspiration. He bowed several times to the throng, coming up after each to toss kisses upon their worshipful heads. With this the ladies stood and the men stepped forward, redoubling their gestures of appreciation. Charsky turned to leave, wishing for nothing more than to return to his study and ponder over this man who so soon had revealed his contemptible nature.
He was halted by a shout that rose above the din.
“Ho, Charsky, leaving so soon?” said a man whose numerous medals gave the impression of some golden-teated cow. “Why not stay for the encore?”
Charsky managed a constricted grin and waved a hand in a gesture of declination before turning again for the entrance. Just as he was about to motion for the gendarmes to allow him passage, another voice arose from the crowd.
“Encore? Why not a competition? One great poet against another!”
The crowded salon erupted anew as everyone turned towards Charsky, laughing and voicing their approval. Charsky blanched and looked towards the Italian, who had begun to shake with excitement from the proposal. Their eyes met and he was taken aback by the strange gleam in those of improvisatore, one that seemed to preclude a malignant intent. The audience began to clap in unison, chanting their desire and forgetting their propriety. The Italian raised his arms in a gesture for quiet. The noise subsided to a murmur.
“A splendid idea, don’t you think, friend?” he said in his broken French, still holding Charsky’s gaze. “A perfect opportunity to remind Petersburg of the talent of her native son.”
Charsky’s eyes narrowed in reponse to the man’s audacity. What had happened to that unsure, stuttering creature that had accosted him in his study? What had brought forth this newfound bragaddacio, this cutthroat desire for dominance? Perhaps it was the untold amount of time spent in rags. Charsky realized then that any highminded ideals the Italian may have once nurtured had been smothered beneath the weight of poverty. All that mattered to him now was material success. He saw the light at the end of the tunnel and was rushing towards it madly, willing to vault off the shoulders of anyone in his path in order to gain an extra step or two. If they fell down in a heap, no matter, for the shadows of guilt would be instantly banished by the preminent radiance of a glaring sun.
The men in the crowd began to call out Charsky’s name, some of them even chanting it in a ridiculous pantomime of patriotism. The women, too, chimed in, their natural reservations sublimated in the face of a demanding consensus. The encouragement grew louder and louder, and the Italian was forced to yell in order to egg Charsky on.
“I must admit I’m a bit fearful of your talents!” he cried, each word somehow managing to maintain the subtleties of biting sarcasm. “The audience may well forget their appreciation for me when I pale in comparison to you, beloved poet!”
Charsky’s left eye twitched imperceptibly at the second mention of that accursed label. The damned Italian was falling deeper and deeper into his bad graces, encouraging as he did this ridiculous appeal. Charsky was a nobleman, not some trained bear meant to dance onstage for the amusement of his compatriots. He had no choice, though. The chanting grew in intensity, drowning out all thought, reaching a fevered pitch not heard since the time of gladiators and plebeians. Charsky was trapped, cornered like a fox by a group of bloodthirsty hounds. He swallowed, his tongue sticking momentarily to the back of his throat, and after waiting a moment for the cries to abate, addressed the Italian in a voice belying his outrage.
“Alright, I accept.”
The audience cheered in triumph. The Italian began to quiver with glee. Charsky started to make his way to the stage with slow, measured steps. The improvisatore impatiently brushed away the hair that had fallen into his eyes and once again addressed the assembled.
“He accepts! Truly we are all indeed lucky! How should we go about this? Perhaps a sort of versical duel!” The crowd voiced their approval with laughter and clapping. “I will allow dear Charsky to go first, according to the honor due to him, and will give him a topic from which he must compose a few lines! The audience here may decide the victor!”
Charsky climbed onto the stage with his back to the crowd, which was preoccupied in voicing its agreement to the terms. He nodded his assent, wishing only to end this farce as soon as possible and mentally swearing to himself that the next time a vagabond Italian showed up at his door, he would have his servants throw him out into the street.
He took his place next to his newfound rival, trying hard to mask his disgust. The Italian turned to face him, closing his eyes in thought. The crowd fell into an anticipatory silence, all waiting with baited breath. A few moments passed, and Charsky was unable to resist the temptation to tap one foot impatiently. Suddenly the lids of the ambitous wandered snapped open and he turned to address his audience.
“I apologize, but I find myself unable to come up with anything worthy of my esteemed opponent.” He paused a moment for effect. Charsly bit his lip to hold back an irritated sigh. The improvisatore continued. “I think instead, in the spirit of fairness, that we draw from the suggestions already proferred by our glorious attendees!”
The people were delighted with this proposition, exicted as a group by having another chance to participate in the game. The Italian picked up the urn that had been placed near the edge of the stage and looked towards the white-gloved beauty who had drew for the original performance.
“Would you be so kind?” He asked, giving her his impression of a charming smile. The young lady smiled and nodded, proud to again be the center of attention. As the Italian held out the urn it suddenly slipped from his hands and fell to the ground, clattering loudly and causing the women to collectively jump.
“My apologies! I am such a clumsy fool,” he stammered, stealing a glance at Charksy who was eyeing him suspiciously. The Italian bent down to collect the scraps and closed his fist around them. He placed his hand into the urn and withdrew it a second later, still clenched. Smiling embarassedly, he gave the urn an obligatory shake and again held it out to the woman, who this time reached a bit more tentatively, lest it should fall again and land upon her daintly slippered toes. After a moment she withdrew a roll of paper and handed it to the Italian, turning in response to the audience’s congratulations to make a small bow.
The Italian waited for her to be seated and turned to Charsky.
“Are you ready, friend?”
Charsky said nothing, uncaring of the obvious nature of his rudeness. The improvisatore gave him a toothy grin and unrolled the paper, turning to address the watchers.
“The topic chosen is . . . L’ultimo giorno di Pompeia!”
Charsky held back a scathing protest, seeing exactly what the Italian was trying to do. His desire to see the situation finished outweighed the wish to brook an argument. The people in the crowd clamored as they did at the reading of the first roll of paper, thinking it delightful. The Italian motioned towards the musicians to begin playing in order to allow Charsky a moment to think. The music started and Charsky plunged into thought, ignoring the whispers of the audience and the heavy breathing of the Italian. A minute passed and beads of sweat began to form upon his head. His mind was a blank, anger and frustration at the situation killing all of his creative faculties. The Italian stood silently, assuming the air of a vulture awaiting the verification that its chosen meal was indeed dead. The audience sat, a few turning to whisper to their companions while watching the squirming Charsky. Another minute passed, and still nothing. Charsky racked his brain, cursing his weakness, hating himself for allowing this charlatan to fluster him so. The musicians slowed their playing, turning to ascertain the delay. The audience began to murmur, each passing moment serving to exasperate them further. Charsky began to sweat torrents, his lips peeling back in a grimace.
“Well?” said the Italian.
Charsky looked him dead in the eye, every fiber of his being struggling to resist the urge to strangle him then and there, and without another word he stepped down from the stage and hurried towards the doors, his face hot with humilation, the uncomprehending stares of all in attendance assaulting his back like hot needles. He made his exit and stumbled into the street, the doors closing behind him but failing to drown out the eruption of laughter that was quickly followed by the first few lines of the Italian’s brilliant rendition.