The Golden Madness

By the road-side there sat an aged man,
Who all day long from dawn into the night
Counted with weary fingers heaps of stones.
His red eyes dropped with rheum, his yellow hands
Trembled with palsy, his pale sunken cheeks
Were marked with deep and venerable seams,
His flat bald brow was ever bent to earth,
His few grey hairs waved to the passing winds,
His straggling teeth, blackened and carious,
Rattled and tumbled from his bloodless gums.
I spoke him kindly, saying, " Why this toil
At task like this, cracking thy rotten bones,
To gain nor health, nor recompense, nor thanks?"
He made no answer, but went counting on,
Mumbling and muttering slowly to himself,
Chinking the stones with melancholy sound,
Piece after piece; looking nor right, nor left,
Nor upwards, but aye down upon the heap.
I asked again, " What is it that thou dost,
Wasting the remnant of thy days in toil,
Without fruition to thyself or kind,
As earnestly as if these stones were gold,
And all thine own to spend and to enjoy?"
He looked upon me with a vacant eye,
And stopped not in his task. " Gold! didst thou say?
They are gold — precious, ready coined, and pure,
And all mine own to spend and to enjoy,
When I have counted them. So, get thee gone,
Unless thou art a borrower or a thief,
When I shall summon aid to make thee go,
And scourge thee for thy pains." And aye he chinked
The flints, and pebbles, and small chips of slate,
One after one, muttering their numbers o'er,
At every hundred stopping for awhile
To rub his withered palms, and eye the heap
With idiot happiness, ere he resumed.

There came a stranger by the way. I asked
If he knew aught of this forlorn old man.
" Right well," he said; " the creature is insane,
And hath been ever since he had a beard.
He first went mad for greediness of gold."
" Know ye his story?" " Perfectly," said he.
" Look how he counts his miserable flints
And bits of slate. Twelve mortal hours each day
He sits at work, summer and winter both.
'Mid storm or sunshine, heat or nipping frost,
He counts and counts; and since his limbs were young,
Till now that he is crooked and stiffened old,
He hath not missed a day. The silly wretch
Believes each stone a lump of shining gold,
And that he made a bargain with the fiend,
That if he'd count one thousand million coins
Of minted gold, audibly, one by one,
The gold should be his own the very hour
When he had told the thousand millionth piece;
Provided always, as such bargains go,
The fiend should have his soul in recompense.
" Unskilled in figures but brimful of greed,
He chuckled at his bargain, and began;
And for a year reckoned with hopeful heart.
At last a glimpse of light broke on his sense,
And showed the fool that millions — quickly said —
Were not so quickly counted as he thought.
But still he plies his melancholy task,
Dreaming of boundless wealth and curbless power,
And slavish worship from his fellow-men.
" If he could reckon fifty thousand stones
Daily, and miss no day in all the year,
'T would take him five-and-fifty years of life
To reach the awful millions he desires.
He has been fifty of these years or more
Feeding his coward soul with this conceit.
Exposed to every blast, starved, wretched, old,
Toothless, and clothed with rags and squalidness,
He eyes his fancied treasure with delight,
And thinks to cheat the devil at the last.
Look at his drivelling lips, his bloodshot eyes,
His trembling hands, his loose and yellow skin,
His flimsy rottenness, and own with me
That this man's madness, though a piteous thing,
Deserves no pity, for the avarice
So mean and filthy that was cause of it."
. . . . .
I gazed once more upon his wrinkled face,
Vacant with idiotcy, and went my way
Filled with disgust and sorrow, for I deemed
That his great lunacy was but a type
Of many a smaller madness as abject,
That daily takes possession of men's hearts
And blinds them to the uses of their life.
Poor fool! he gathers stones — they gather gold
With toil and moil, thick sweat and grovelling thought;
He has his flints, and they acquire their coin.
And who's the wiser? Neither he nor they.
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