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The Last Court Poet

Our king was lazy — lazy and just as indifferent as his forefathers had been — and he couldn't bring himself to sign the proper forms, so the old court poet who wrote odes for solemn court occasions could be retired, and have a decent pension. And the poet was stubborn, and would not retire himself.

When there was a birth or a death in the royal family, when a new ambassador arrived from a foreign land, when a new alliance was arranged with another neighboring state, there would first be the usual ceremonies and then the entire court would gather in the throne room and the sullen poet — forever annoyed about something — would begin to read. His archaic language, decrepit words and old-fashioned phrases, was sonorously strange; his old-style powdered wig was pitiful, in that crowd of heads adorned with irreproachable English haircuts and majestically shining bald skulls. The applause that they gave the poet, when his reading was done, was also prescribed by ancient court etiquette; they clapped only with the ends of their gloved fingers, but the noise produced was considered sufficient for the encouragement of poetry.

The poet would make a deep bow, but his face remained gloomy and his eyes sad, even when the king's own hands would reward him with the usual ring, set with a precious stone, or with a gold snuffbox.

And then, when they sat down to the festive dinner, he would take off his powdered wig and sit there, among the old and honorable, the noble and the royal, and talk just as they talked, about railroad concessions, or about the latest theft in the Minister of Foreign Affairs’ scandalous office, or he would be vitally interested in some project for a salt tax.

And afterwards, as court etiquette also provided, he would exchange his royal present at the Treasury, and receive a large sum of money, and go back to the large, uncomfortable old house which he had inherited from his father, who had also been court poet. (The late king had made the post hereditary, so that — once and for all — no upstart would ever come to hold it.)

Like its owner’s soul, the house was gloomy, dark. The only room that was lit, at night, was his study — lined not with bookcases, but with glass showcases filled with rare antique snuffboxes. The old poet was a passionate collector.

He had been married, once long long ago, and silk dresses had rustled in this dark old house, and slender hands had lovingly turned the pages of beautifully bound books, and the fine old French tapestries, hanging and very secret labor took place, there in the court poet’s study. He was learning from his younger brothers, he was sitting at his desk and reupholstering his style.

But at court everything was peaceful; no one suspected what was being prepared for them in the dark house at the edge of town. The courtiers fell in love, and quarrelled, and grovelled, and did noble deeds, and believed as they had always believed that poetry — well, poetry — I mean, poetry, well, that was just a fossil, left over from die old days, it was just too silly, too solemn for words. And then the day came. A princess of the blood was to be married, roses and ices and verses were sent for. And the court poet was ready. He came right on time, as always, and just as gloomy and unpleasant as ever — and only a really keen observer could have noticed something different, something new about the light, wryly malicious smile quivering faintly at the corners of his mouth, or about the particular, rather unusual nervousness with which he clutched at his verses. But what did anyone care about him, or how he felt, how he had changed? He was too old for the young courtiers; the older and more exalted noblemen, courteous and gracious though they surely were, could not seriously take him as their equal.

The wedding ceremony began. A stately priest went through the ritual quickly, elegantly; the ambassadors came to kiss the new bride’s hand; and the court poet, pale, but very determined, began to read. A vague whisper ran through die court. Even the youngest maids of honor, always busily in love with someone or other, raised their pretty heads, astonished, and listened.

What ? What ? Where are the invocations to the wind-god, the prayer to the eagle, to the wonder-struck earth — all the blossoms of stale old eloquence, where are they? This poetry he was reading, it was new, completely modern, it might even be beautiful — but etiquette had no place for it This was like the poetry of the “city” poets, whom the court detested, but it was far more brilliant, infinitely more fascinating. It was as if the court poet’s talent, so long held in check, so long and so stubbornly renounced, had suddenly created everything of which it was capable. The lines ran out, breathlessly, running over one another. The rhymes met with the sound of bronze on bronze. Beautiful images soared up like forgotten ghosts from the depths of unknown abysses. The old poet’s eyes gleamed like the eyes of an eagle floating high in the sky, and his voice, too, was like an eagle’s cry.

What a scandal! In the presence of the entire court, in the very presence of the king himself, to dare to read good poetry. No one had the courage to applaud. The gentlemen-in-waiting, their faces stern, whispered to one another; the young gentlemen of the Royal Bedchamber lolled back, in an attempt to look unusually sedate, very unusually composed and sedate; and all the shocked ladies raised their thin-pencilled eyebrows with indignant surprise. And the king himself, with a gesture of displeasure, put down the ring he had already taken into his hand, to bestow on the poet.

Quite solitary — as if infected with the plague — the court poet walked out, when his verses were read, and did not bother to wait for the end of the celebration. He could hear the great chancellor ordering the secretary to prepare a decree, at once, for that court poet to be retired, for good.

Ah, but how sweet it was to walk home and to be there alone, truly, completely alone. He walked down the rows of dark halls, proud, sometimes reciting his new poem in a loud voice, sometimes, with a sly, senile, ironical laugh, glancing at the city poets’ books. He knew that he had not only matched them, he had even beaten them. And finally, needing to share his happiness with someone, he wrote a letter to his wife — the first since she had left him. Totally triumphant, he reported to her that, at long last, they had not applauded him. He told her that he had now been retired, attached a copy of the poem he’d read, and ended the letter by declaring, with fully understandable pride, “Do you see? That is the kind of person you walked out on!”

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