The Phantoms of St. Sepulchre

" Didst ever see a hanging?" " No, not one;
Nor ever wish to see such scandal done.
But once I saw a wretch condemned to die:
A lean-faced, bright-eyed youth; who made me sigh
At the recital of a dream he had.
He was not sane — and yet he was not mad;
Fit subject for a mesmerist he seemed;
For when he slept, he saw; and when he dreamed,
His visions were as palpable to him
As facts to us. My memory is dim
Upon his story, but I'll ne'er forget
The dream he told me, for it haunts me yet,
Impressed upon me by his earnest faith
That 'twas no vision, but a sight which Death
Opened his eyes to see, — an actual glimpse
Into the world of spectres and of imps,
Vouchsafed to him on threshold of the grave —
List! and I'll give it, in the words he gave: —

" Ay, you may think that I am crazed,
But what I saw, that did I see.
These walls are thick, my brain was sick,
And yet mine eyes saw lucidly.
Through the joists and through the stones
I could look as through a glass;
And from this dungeon, damp and cold,
I watched the motley people pass.
All day long, rapid and strong,
Rolled to and fro the living stream;
But in the night, I saw a sight —
I cannot think it was a dream.

" Old St. Sepulchre's bell will toll
At eight to-morrow, for my soul;
And thousands, not much better than I,
Will throng around to see me die;
And many will bless their happy fate,
That they ne'er fell from their high estate,
Or did such deed as I have done;
Though, from the rise to the set of sun,
They cheat their neighbors all their days,
And gather gold in slimy ways.
But my soul feels strong, and my sight grows clear,
As my death-hour approaches near,
And in its presence I will tell
The very truth, as it befell.

" The snow lies on the house-tops cold,
Shrill, and keen the March winds blow;
The rank grass of the churchyard mould
Is covered o'er with drifted snow;
The graves in old St. Sepulchre's yard
Were white last night, when I looked forth,
And the sharp clear stars seemed to dance in the sky,
Rocked by the fierce winds of the north.

" The houses dull seemed numb with frost,
The streets seemed wider than of yore,
And the straggling passengers trod, like ghosts,
Silently on the pathway frore,
When I look'd through that churchyard rail,
And thought of the bell that should ring my doom,
And saw three women, sad and pale,
Sitting together on a tomb.

" A fearful sight it was to see,
As up they rose and looked at me:
Sunken were their cheeks and eyes,
Blue-cold were their feet, and bare;
Lean and yellow were their hands,
Long and scanty was their hair;
And round their necks I saw the ropes
Deftly knotted, tightly drawn;
And knew they were not things of earth,
Or creatures that could face the dawn.

" Seen dimly in th" uncertain light,
They multiplied upon my sight;
And things like men and women sprung —
Shapes of those who had been hung —
From the rank and clammy ground.
I counted them — I knew them all,
Each with its rope around its neck,
Marshalled by the churchyard wall.

" The stiff policeman, passing along,
Saw them not, nor made delay;
A reeling bacchanal, shouting a song,
Looked at the clock, and went his way;
A troop of girls, with painted cheeks,
Laughing and yelling in drunken glee,
Passed like a gust, and never looked
At the sight so palpable to me.
I saw them — heard them — felt their breath
Musty and raw and damp as death.

" These women three, these fearful shapes,
Looked at me through Newgate stone,
And raised their fingers, skinny and lank,
Whispering low in under tone: —
" His hour draws near, — he's one of us, —
His gibbet is built, — his noose is tied;
They have put his name on his coffin lid:
The law of blood shall be satisfied.
He shall rest with us, and his name shall be
A by-word and a mockery. "

" I whispered to one, " What hadst thou done? "
She answered, whispering, and I heard —
Although a chime rang at the time —
Every sentence, every word,
Clear, above the pealing bells: —
" I was mad, and slew my child;
Better than life, God knows, I loved it;
But pain and hunger drove me wild.
Scorn and hunger, and grief and care,
And I slew it in my despair.
And for this deed they raised the gibbet;
For this deed the noose they tied;
And I hung and swung in the sight of men,
And the law of blood was satisfied. "

" I said to the second, " What didst thou? "
Her keen eyes flashed unearthly shine.
" I married a youth when I was young,
And thought all happiness was mine;
But they stole him from me, to fight the French;
And I was left in the world alone,
To beg or steal — to live or die,
Robbed of my stay, my all, my own.
England stole my lord from me, —
I stole a ribbon, was caught and tried;
And I hung and swung in the sight of men,
And the law of blood was satisfied. "

" I said to the third, " What crime was thine? "
" Crime! " she answered, in accents meek,
" The babe that sucks at its mother's breast,
And smiles with its little dimpled cheek,
Is not more innocent than I.
But truth was feeble, — error was strong;
And guiltless of a deed of shame,
Men's justice did me cruel wrong.
They would not hear my truthful words;
They thought me filled with stubborn pride.
And I hung and swung in the sight of men,
And the law of blood was satisfied. "

" Then one and all, by that churchyard wall,
Raised their skinny hands at me;
Their voices mingling like the sound
Of rustling leaves in a withering tree:
" His hour has come, he's one of us;
His gibbet is built, his noose is tied;
His knell shall ring, and his corpse shall swing,
And the law of blood shall be satisfied. "

" They vanished! I saw them, one by one,
With their bare blue feet on the drifted snow,
Sink like a thaw, when the sun is up,
To their wormy solitudes below.
Though you may deem this was a dream,
My facts are tangible facts to me;
For the sight grows clear as death draws near,
And looks into futurity."
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