The Sacrilegious Gamesters

A STRANGER journeyed through the town,
One dark and wintry night;
And, as he passed the ivied church,
He marked a flitting light.

It shed a restless waving gleam
Through the Gothic window pane
And now it vanished for a space,
And now it came again.

He stood, and thought it wondrous strange
That such a scene should be;
He stood, and now the pale red beam
Shone strong and steadily.

He looked around; all else was dark,
Not e'en a star was left;
The townsmen slumbered, and he thought
Of sacrilege and theft.

He roused two sleepers from their beds,
And told what he had seen;
And they, like him, were curious
To know what it should mean.

They hied together to the church,
And heard strange sounds within
Of undistinguishable words,
And laughter's noisy din!

The window's high; a ladder, quick,
Is placed with stealthy care,
And one ascends — he looks below;
Oh! what a sight is there!

The white communion-cloth is spread
With cards, and dice, and wine;
The flaming wax-lights glare around,
The gilded sconces shine.

And three of earthly form have made
The altar-rail their seat,
With the Bible and the books of prayer
As footstools for their feet.

Three men, with flashing bloodshot eyes
And burning fevered brows,
Have met within those holy walls
To gambol and carouse.

But the darkest work is not yet told:
Another guest is there,
With the earth-worm trailing o'er his cheek
To hide in his matted hair!

He lifted not the foaming cup,
He moved not in his place;
There was slime upon his livid lips,
And dust upon his face.

The foldings of a winding-sheet
His body wrapped around,
And many a stain the vestment bore
Of the clay from the charnel ground.

A rent appeared, where his withered hands
Fell out on the sacred board;
And between those hands a goblet stood,
In which bright wine was poured.

Oh! he was not like the other three,
But ghastly, foul, and cold;
He was seated there a stiffened corpse
All horrid to behold.

He had been their mate for many a year,
Their partner many a game;
He had shared alike their ill-got gold
And their deeply tarnished fame.

He had died in the midst of his career,
As the sinful ever die,
Without one prayer from a good man's heart,
One tear from a good man's eye!

He had died a guilty one, unblessed,
Unwept, unmourned by all;
And scarce a footstep ever bent
To his grave by the old church wall.

The other three had met that night,
And revelled in drunken glee,
And talked of him who a month ago
Formed one of their company.

They quaffed another brimming glass,
And a bitter oath they swore
That he who had joined their game so oft
Should join their game once more.

And away they strode to the old church wall,
Treading o'er skull and tomb,
And dragged him out triumphantly,
In the midnight murky gloom.

They carry him down the chancel porch,
And through the fretted aisle,
And many a heartless, fiendish laugh
Is heard to ring the while.

They place him at the hallowed shrine,
They call upon his name,
They bid him wake to life again,
And play his olden game.

They deal the cards: — the ribald jest
And pealing laugh ring on.
A stroke — a start — the echoing clock
Proclaims the hour of one!

And two of the three laugh louder still,
But the third stares wildly round:
He drops the cards, as if his hand
Were palsied at the sound!

His cheeks have lost their deepened flush,
His lips are of paler hue,
And fear hath fallen on the heart
Of the youngest of that crew!

His soul is not yet firmly bound
In the fetters of reckless sin!
Depravity hath not yet wrought
Its total work within!

The strong potation of the night
Drowned all that might remain
Of feeling; and his hand shrunk not
While madness fired his brain!

But now the charm hath lost its spell,
The heated fumes have passed;
And banished reason to her throne,
Usurped, advances fast.

He rises — staggers — looks again
Upon the shrouded dead!
A shudder steals upon his frame:
His vaunted strength is fled!

He doubts — he dreams — can, can it be?
A mist is o'er his eyes;
He stands aghast. — " Oh! what is this?
Where? where? " — he wildly cries.

" Where am I? — see the altar-piece —
The holy Bible: say —
Is this the place where I was brought
A tiny boy to pray?

" The church — the church-yard too — I know
I have been there to-night;
For what? Ha! mercy! see that corpse!
Oh, hide me from the light!

" I have been deemed a profligate,
A gamester, and a knave,
But ne'er was known to scoff at God
Or violate the grave!

" I've long been what man should not be,
But not what I am now.
Oh help me! help! My tongue is parched!
There's fire upon my brow!

" Oh save me! hide me from myself!
I feel my pulses start:
The horror of this drunken crime
Hath fixed upon my heart!

" Again! I feel the rushing blood!
I die! — the unforgiven!
Again, it comes; all — all is dark —
I choke — Oh! mercy, Heaven! "

One struggling groan — he reels — he falls —
On the altar-steps he lies;
And the others gasp with fear, for now
Two corpses meet their eyes!

But, hark! swift footsteps echo round:
Encircled now they stand:
Surprised, detected, they are seized
By many a grappling hand.

And soon the dreadful tale is spread,
And many a finger raised
To point them out; while the listening one
Looks fearfully amazed.

They are shunned by all; the son, the sire,
The heedless and the gay;
Their old associates leave their side,
And turn another way.

Hate, shame, and scorn, have set a mark
Upon them. One by one,
Of all they knew, forsakes their path,
Till they are left alone.

And they have sought another land,
And breathe another clime;
Where men may deem them fellow-men,
Nor hear their blasting crime!

And gossips, in their native town,
Even now are heard to tell
Of the sacrilegious crew that turned
The old church to a hell.
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