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A Handbook to the Works of Browning (6th ed.)

But Norbert will not be prompted

"IN A BALCONY" is a dramatic fragment, equivalent to the third or fourth act, of what might prove a tragedy or a drama, as the author designed. The personages are "Norbert" and "Constance," a young man and woman; and the "Queen," a woman of a certain age. Constance is a relation and protegee of the Queen--as we imagine, a poor one. She is loved by Norbert; and he has entered the Queen's service, for the opportunity of wooing and winning her. His diplomatic exertions have been strenuous. They have secured to his royal mistress the possession of a double crown. The "Balcony" echoes with the sound of festivities which are intended to mark the event.

Constance returns Norbert's affection. He thinks the moment come for pleading his and her cause with their sovereign. But Constance entreats him to temporize: either to defer the proposal for her hand, or to make it in so indirect a manner, that the Queen may only see in it a tribute to herself. He has allowed her to think that he served her for her own sake; she must not be undeceived too roughly. Her heart has starved amidst the show of devotion: its hunger must not be roused by the touch of a living love in which she has no part. A shock of this kind would be painful to her--dangerous to themselves.

Norbert is an honest man, possessed of all the courage of his love: and he finds it hard to believe that the straightforward course would not be the best; but he yields

to the dictates of feminine wisdom; and having consented to play a part, plays it with fatal success. The Queen is a more unselfish woman than her young cousin suspects. She has guessed Norbert's love for Constance, and is prepared to sanction it; but her own nature is still only too capable of responding to the faintest touch of affection: and at the seeming declaration that that love is her's, her joy carries all before it. She is married; but as she declares she will dissolve her marriage, merely formal as it has always been; she will cast convention to the winds, and become Norbert's wife. She opens her heart to Constance; tells her how she has yearned for love, and how she will repay it. Constance knows, as she never knew, what a mystery of pain and passion has been that outwardly frozen life; and in a sudden impulse of pity and compunction, she determines that if possible its new happiness shall be permanent--its delusions converted into truth.

She meets Norbert again; makes him talk of his future; discovers that he only dreams of it as bound up with the political career he has already entered upon; and though she sees that every vision of this future begins and ends in her, she sees, as justly, that its making or marring is in the Queen's hands. Here is a second motive for self-sacrifice. Norbert has no suspicion of what he has done. The Queen appears before Constance has had time to inform him of it; and the latter has now no choice but to let him learn it from the Queen's own lips. She draws her on, accordingly, under plea of Norbert's diffidence, to speak of what she believes him to have asked of her, and what she knows to be already granted. She tries to prompt his reply.

But Norbert will not be prompted. He is slow to understand what is expected of him, very indignant when he does so; and in terror lest he should still be misunderstood--in unconsciousness of the torture he is inflicting--he asserts and re-asserts his respect for the one woman, his absorbing passion for the other. The Queen goes out. Her looks and silence have been ominous. The shadow of a great dread falls upon the scene. The dance-music stops. Heavy footsteps are heard approaching. Norbert and Constance stand awaiting their doom. But they are united as they have never yet been, and they can defy it; for her love has shown itself as capable of all sacrifice--his as above temptation.

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