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- The Visions of the Sleeping Bard - 10/21 -


other's throats; I do not come near them; I know nothing of their scandal, or business, or accursed secrets--they must not charge me with their evils, but their own corrupt brains."

Hereupon a little Death, one of the King's secretaries, asked me my name, and bade Master Sleep carry me at once into the King's presence. I had to go, though most unwilling, by reason of the power that took me up like a whirlwind, 'twixt high and low, thousands of miles back on our left, till we came, a second time, in sight of the boundary wall, and in an enclosed corner we could see a vast palace, roofless and in ruins, extending to the wall wherein were the countless doors, all of which led to this terrible court. Its walls were built of human skulls with hideous, grinning teeth; the clay was black with mingled tears and sweat, the lime ruddy with gore. On the summit of each tower stood a Deathling, with a quivering heart on the point of his shaft. Around the court were a few trees--a poisonous yew or twain, or a deadly cypress, and in these owls, ravens, vampires and the like, make their nests, and cry unceasingly for flesh, although the whole place is but one vast, putrid shamble. The pillars of the hall were made of thighbones, and those of the parlour of shinbones, while the floors were formed of layer upon layer of all manner of charnel.

I had not to wait a longwhile ere I came in view of a tremendous altar, where we could see the King of Terrors devouring human flesh and blood, while a thousand impish deaths, from every hole, were continually feeding him with warm, fresh meat. "Here is a rogue," said the Death that led me thither, "whom I found in the midst of the land of Oblivion, having approached so light-footed that your majesty never tasted a bite of him," "How can that be?" demanded the king, opening his jaws, wide as a chasm, to swallow me. Whereupon I turned trembling to Sleep. "It was I who brought him hither," said he. "Well then, for my brother Sleep's sake," said the awful and lanky monarch, "you can retrace your steps for the nonce; but beware of me the next time." Having been for some time cramming his gluttonous maw with carrion, he caused his subjects to be called together, and moved from the altar to a very lofty and dreadful throne, to adjudge newly-arrived prisoners. In an instant, lo! the dead in countless multitudes paid homage to the king, and took their places in wonderful array. King Death was in his regal robe of brilliant scarlet, whereon depicted were wives and children weeping and husbands sighing; on his head a dark-red, three-cornered cap, a gift his cousin Lucifer had sent him, on the corners of which were written Grief, Sorrow, and Woe. Above his head were a myriad pictures of battles on land and sea, of towns aflame, of the earth yawning, and of the waters of the deluge; the ground beneath his feet was nought else than the crowns and sceptres of all the kings he had ever conquered. At his right hand sat Fate with a morose and scowling visage, reading an enormous tome that lay before him; at his left, was an old man called Time, warping innumerable threads of gold, silver, copper, and many of iron--some threads were growing better towards the end, a myriad worse; along the threads were marked hours, days and years, and Fate, at his book, cut the thread of life and opened the doors in the boundary wall between the two worlds.

I had not been looking about me long, when I heard four fiddlers, just dead, summoned to the bar. "How is it," asked the King of Terrors, "that ye, who are so found of joy, did not stay on yonder side of the chasm? For on this side joy never existed." "We have done no man ever any hurt," said one of the minstrels, "but on the contrary have made them merry, and quietly took whatever was given us for our pains." "Have ye caused no one," said Death, "to lose time from his work, or to absent himself from church, eh?" "No," replied another, "unless we were some Sundays after service in an inn till the morrow, or in summer time on the village green, and indeed we had a better and more beloved congregation than the parson." "Away, with them to the land of Oblivion," cried the terrible king, "bind the four, back to back, and pitch them to their partners, to dance barefoot on glowing hearths, and scrape their fiddles for ever without praise or pay."

The next to come to the bar was a king from near Rome. "Raise thy hand, caitiff," bade one of the officers. "I hope," said he, "ye have somewhat better manners and favor for a king." "Sirrah, you too," said Death, "ought to have kept on the other side of the gulf where everybody is king; but know that, on this side, there are none besides myself and another, who dwelleth down below, and you shall see that that king and myself will set no value upon the degree of your greatness, but rather upon the degree of your wickedness, and so make your punishment proportionate to your crimes; therefore give answer to the questions." "Sir, allow me to tell you that you have no authority to arrest and examine me," said he, "I hold a pardon under the Pope's own hand for all my sins. Because I served him faithfully, he gave me a dispensation to go straight to Paradise, without a moment's stay in Purgatory." At that the king, and all the lean jaws, gave a dismal grin in imitation of laughter, and the other, angered at their laughing, ordered them to show him the way. "Silence, lost fool!" cried Death, "Purgatory lies behind thee, on the other side of the wall, for it was in life thou hadst ought to have purified thyself, and Paradise is on the right, beyond that chasm. Now there is no way of escape for thee, neither across this abyss to Paradise, nor through the boundary wall back to earth; for wert thou to give thy kingdom--though thou hast not a ha'penny to give--the warder of those doors would not let thee look once, even through the keyhole. This is called the irremeable wall, for once it is passed there is no hope of return. But since you are so high in the Pope's favor, {54a} you shall go and get his bed ready with his predecessor, and there you may kiss his toe for ever, and he, the toe of Lucifer." At the word, four death-imps raised him up, now trembling like an aspen leaf, and snatched him away out of sight, with the speed of lightning.

Next after him, came a man and woman; he had been a boon companion, and she a kind and lavish maid, but there they were called by their plain, unvarnished names, a drunkard and a harlot. "I hope," said the drunkard, "I may obtain some favor in your eyes, for I despatched hither on a flood of good ale many a fatted prey, and when I failed to slay others, I willingly came myself to feed you." "By the court's leave," said the minion, "not half so many as I have despatched to you as a burnt offering ready for table." "Ha, ha," exclaimed Death, "it was to feed your own accursed lusts, and not me, that all this was done. Let them be bound together and hurled into the land of darkness." And so they too were hurried away headlong.

Next to them came seven recorders, who, on being bidden to raise their hands {55a} to the bar, pretended not to hear the command, for their palms were so thickly greased. One of them, bolder than the rest, began to argue, "We ought to have had fair citation, in order to prepare our reply, instead of being attacked unawares." "Oh, we are not bound to give you any particular notice," said Death, "because ye have, everywhere, and everywhile throughout your lives, warning of my advent. How many sermons on the mortality of man have ye heard? How many books, how many graves, knells and fevers, how many messages and signs, have ye seen? What is your Sleep but my brother? Your heads but my image? Your daily food but dead creatures? Seek not to lay the blame of your ill hap on my shoulders--ye would not hear of the summons, although ye had it an hundred times." "Pray what have you against us?" asked one ruddy recorder. "What indeed?" exclaimed Death, "the drinking the sweat and blood of the poor, and the doubling your fees." "Here is an honest man," he said, pointing to a wrangler behind them, "who knows I never did aught but what was fair, and it is not fair in you to detain us here, seeing you have no specific charge to prove against us." "Ha, ha!" cried Death, "ye shall bring proof against yourselves; place them on the verge of the precipice before the throne of Justice; there they will obtain justice, though they practised it not."

There were yet seven other prisoners, who kept up such commotion and clamour--some blandishing, gnashing the teeth and uttering threats, others giving advice and so on. Scarcely had they been summoned to the bar than the whole court darkened sevenfold more hideously than before, a murmuring and great confusion arose around the throne, and Death became more livid than ever. Upon enquiry it seemed that one of Lucifer's envoys had arrived, bearing a letter to Death, concerning these seven prisoners; and shortly, Fate called for silence to read the letter which, as far as I can recollect, was as follows:-

"LUCIFER, King of the Kings of Earth, Prince of Perdition and Archruler of the Deep, To our natural son, mightiest and most terrible King Death, greeting, wishing you supremacy and booty without end:

"Whereas some of our swift messengers, who are always out espying, have informed us that there lately came into your royal court seven prisoners of the seven most worthless and dangerous species in the world, and that you are about to hurl them over the precipice into my realm: our advice is, that you endeavour, by every possible way, to let them return to the earth; there they will be more serviceable--to you, in the matter of food, to me, for supplying better company. We had too much trouble with their partners in days gone by, and our kingdom is, even now, unsettled. Wherefore, turn them back or retain them yourself; for, by the infernal crown, if thou cast them hither, I will undermine the foundations of thy kingdom, until it fall and become one with mine own great realm.

"From our Court, on the miry Swamp in the glowing Evildom, in the year of our reign, 5425."

King Death, his visage green and livid, stood for a time undecided. But while he was meditating, Fate turned upon him such a grim frown that he trembled. "Sire," said Fate, "consider well what you are about to do. I dare not allow anyone to repass the bounds of Eternity--the insurmountable ramparts, nor deign you harbour any here, wherefore, send them on to their doom, spite of the great Evil One. He has been able to array in a moment many a haul of a thousand or ten thousand souls, and allot each one his place, and what difficulty will he have with these seven now, however dangerous they may be? Whatever happen, even if they overturn the infernal government, send them thither instantly, lest I be commanded to crush thee to untimely nothingness. As for his menaces, they are false, and although thy doom, and that of yon ancient (looking at Time), are not many pages hence, yet, thou need have no fear of sinking down to Lucifer, for however glad everybody there would be to have thee, they never will; for the eternal rocks of steel and adamant, which roof Hell, are somewhat too firm to be shattered." Whereupon Death, in great agitation, called for someone to indite thus his reply:-

"DEATH, King of Terrors, Conqueror of Conquerors, To our most revered kinsman and neighbour, Lucifer, Monarch of the Endless Night, and Emperor of the Sheer Vortex, Salutation:

"After giving earnest thought to this your royal wish, it seemeth to us more advantageous, not only to our state, but also to your vast realm, that these prisoners be sent to the furthest point possible from the portals of the impervious wall, left their putrid odour should so terrify the entire City pf Destruction that no one would ever enter Eternity from that side of the gulf, and I, in consequence, would be unable to cool my sting, and you should have no commerce betwixt earth and hell. But I leave you to judge them, and to cast them into the cells you deem most secure and befitting.

"From our Lower Court in the Great Tollgate of Destruction: from the year of the restoration of my Kingdom, 1670."


The Visions of the Sleeping Bard - 10/21

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