Selection from _City of the Plague_ by John Wilson

John Wilson, from City of the Plague


A great square in the city.--A multitude of miserable men and women crowding round a person of a wild and savage appearance, dressed in a fantastical garb, with an hour-glass in his hand.

Astrologer. The sun is going down, and when he sets,
You know my accursed gift of prophecy
Departeth from me, and I then become
Blind as my wretched brethren. Then the Plague
Riots in darkness 'mid his unknown victims,
Nor can I read the names within his roll
Now register'd in characters of blood.
Come to me all ye wearied who would rest,
Who would exchange the fever's burning pillow
For the refreshing coolness of the grave!
Come hither all ye orphans of a day,
And I will tell you when your heads shall rest
Upon your parents' bosoms. Yearn ye not
To clasp their shroudless bodies, and to lie
In the dark pit by love made beautiful!
Where are ye veiled widows? in the tomb
The marriage-lamp doth burn unquenchably.
Dry up your tears, fair virgins! to the grave
Betrothed in your pure simplicity!
Still is one countenance beautiful in death,
And it will lean to-night upon a breast
White with the snows of perfect innocence.
--I Call upon the wicked! let him shew
His face among the crowd, and I will tell him
His dreams of horror and his works of sin.

[A man of a fierce and ferocious aspect advances from the crowd.]

Stranger. I ask thee not, thou juggling driveller,
Whether the Plague hath fix'd his eyes on me,
Determin'd to destroy. Let them who fear
Death and his pit, with pale beseeching hands
Buy with their monies the awards of fate,
And die in poverty. Thou speak'st of guilt,
And know'st forsooth each secret deed of sin
Done in the dark hour. Tell me, driveller!
Where I, who lay no claim to honesty,
Come by this gold. I'll give thee half of it
If thou speak'st truly. Was there robbery?

Astrologer. Flee murderer I from my sight! I touch thy gold!
'Twould stain my fingers! See the blood-gouts on it.
Hither thou com'st in savage hardihood,
Yet with a beating heart. I saw thee murder him;
What were his silver hairs, his tremulous voice,
His old blind eyes to thee!--Ha! shrinking off,
Aw'd by a driveller! Seize the murderer!
You will find the bloody knife---

[The man rushes off, and all make way for him.]

Astrologer.     Mine eyes at once
Did read the murderer's soul.

Voices from the crowd.     Guilt nor disease
Are hidden from his ken--he knows them all.

[The women advance eagerly from the crowd.]

1st Woman. Listen to me before that woman speaks.
I went this morning to my lover's house,
Mine own betrothed husband, who had come
From sea two days ago. The house was empty;
As the cold grave that longeth for its coffin
'Twas damp and empty; and I shriek'd in vain
On him who would not hear. Tell me his fate,
Say that he lives, or say that he is dead--
But tell me,--tell me, lest I curse my God,
Some tidings of him; should'st thou see him lying
Even in yon dreadful pit. Do you hear? speak, speak!
O God!--no words can be so terrible
As that mute face whose blackness murders hope,
And freezes my sick soul. Heaven's curse light on thee,
For that dumb mockery of a broken heart!

Astrologer. I see him not, some cloud envelopes him!

Woman. He hath left the city then, and gone on shipboard?

Astrologer. I see him not, some cloud envelopes him!

Woman.What! hast thou not a wond'rous glass that shews
Things past, or yet to come? give me one look,
That I may see his face so beautiful,
Where'er it be; or in that ghastly pit,
Or smiling 'mid his comrades on the deck,
While favouring breezes waft his blessed ship
Far from the plague, to regions of delight
Where he may live for ever.

Astrologer.      Is your lover
A tall thin youth, with thickly-clustering locks,
Sable and glossy as the raven's wing?

Woman. Yes! he is tall--I think that he is tall,
His hair it is dark-brown--yes, almost black--
Many call it black--you see him? Does he live?

Astrologer. That pit containeth many beautiful:
But thy sailor in his warlike garb doth lie
Distinguish'd o'er the multitude of dead!
And all the crowd, when the sad cart was emptied,
Did weep and sob for that young mariner;
Such corpse, they thought, should have been buried
Deep in the ocean's heart, and a proud peal
Of thunder roll'd above his sinking coffin.

Woman, (distractedly.) Must l believe him? off, off to the pit!
One look into that ghastliness,--one plunge:
None ever lov'd me but my gentle sailor,
And his sweet lips are cold--I will leap down.

     [She rushes madly away.]

Voice from the crowd. Aye, she intends to look before she leaps;
Well--life is life--I would not part with it
For all the girls in Christendom. Forsooth!

2d Woman. Say! will my child recover from the Plague?

Astrologer. Child! foolish woman! now thou hast no child.
Hast thou not been from home these two long hours,
Here listening unto that which touch'd thee not,
And left'st thou not thy little dying child,
Sitting by the fire, upon a madman's knee?
Go home! and ask thy husband for thy child!
The fire was burning fierce and wrathfully,
Its father knew not that the thing he held
Upon his knee had life--and when it shriek'd,
Amid the flames, he sat and look'd at it,
With fixed eyeballs, and a stony heart.
Unnatural mother! worse than idiocy
To leave a baby in a madman's lap,
And yet no fetters from infanticide
To save his murderous hands.

Woman, (rushing away.)    O God! O God!

Astrologer. Come forward thou with that most ghostlike face,
Fit for a winding-sheet! and if those lips
So blue and quivering still can utter sounds,
What would'st thou say? The motions of thine eyes
Betoken some wild wish within thy heart.

[A man comes forward, and lays down money before the Astrologer.]

Man. I trust my hour is near. I am alone
In this dark world, and I desire to die.

Astrologer. Thou shalt be kept alive by misery.
A tree doth live, long after rottenness
Hath eat away its heart: the sap of life
Moves through its wither'd rind and it lives on;
'Mid the green woods a rueful spectacle
Of mockery and decay.

Man.     I feel 'tis so.
Thus have I been since first the Plague burst out,
A term methinks of many hundred years!
As if this world were hell, and I condemn'd
To walk through woe to all eternity.
I will do suicide.

Astrologer.   Thou can'st not fool!
Thou lovest life with all its agonies:
Buy poison, and 'twill lie for years untouch'd
Beneath thy pillow, when thy midnight horrors
Are at their worst. Coward! thou can'st not die

Man. He sees thy soul; a blast as if from hell
Drives me back from the grave--I dare not die.

[He disappears among the crowd, and a young and beautiful lady approaches the Astrologer.]

O man of fate! my lovely babes are dead!
My sweet twin-babes! and at the very hour
Thy voice predicted, did my infants lie.
My husband saw them both die in my arms,
And never shed a tear. Yet did he love them
Even as the wretch who bore them in her womb.
He will not speak to me, but ever sits
In horrid silence, with his glazed eyes
Full on my face, as if he lov'd me not--
O God! as if he hated me! I lean
My head upon his knees and say my prayers,
But no kind word, or look, or touch is mine.
Then will he rise and pace through all the rooms,
Like to a troubled ghost, or pale-fac'd man
Walking in his sleep. O tell me! hath the Plague
E'er these wild symptoms? Must my husband perish
Without the sense of his immortal soul?
Or,--bless me for ever with the heavenly words,--I
Say he will yet recover, and behold
His loving wife with answering looks of love.

Astrologer. Where are the gold, the diamonds and the pearls,
That erewhile, in thy days of vanity,
Did sparkle, star-like, through the hanging clouds
That shaded thy bright neck, that raven hair?
Give them to me; for many are the poor,
Nor shalt thou, Lady! ever need again
This mortal being's frivolous ornaments.
Give me the gold you promis'd; holiest alms
Add not a moment to our number'd days,
But the death of open-handed charity
Is on a bed of down. Hast thou the gold?

Lady. All that I have is here. My husband gave me
This simple necklace on my marriage-day.
Take it! Here is a picture set in gold.
The picture I may keep. O! that his face
Were smiling so serenely beautiful,
So like an angel's now!--O sacred ring!
Which I did hope to wear within the tomb,
I give thee to the poor. So may their prayers
Save him from death for whose delightful sake
With bliss I wore it, and with hope resign.
Here, take them all, thou steward of the poor;
Stern as thou art, thou art a holy man!
I do believe thou art a holy man.

Astrologer. Lady, thou need'st this wedding-ring no more!
Death with his lean and bony hand hath loosen'd
The bauble from thy finger, and even now
Thy husband is a corpse. O! might I say
Thy beauty were immortal! But a ghost,
In all the loveliness on earth it wore,
Walks through the moonlight of the cemetery,
And I know the shadow of the mortal creature
Now weeping at my side.

Enter FRANKFORT and WILMOT close to the Astrologer.

Frank.      Amelia!

Lady. Ah me! whose soft kind voice is that I hear?

Frank. Frankfort! the playmate of thy infancy,
The brother of thy womanhood, the friend
Of thy dear husband, and the godfather
Of thy sweet twins, heaven shield their innocence!

Lady. My babes are with their Saviour, and my husband
Has gone with them to heaven. Lead, lead me hence!
For the seer's stern and scowling countenance
Is more than I can bear.

Frank.     O grief! to think
That one so dear to heaven, by Christ belov'd
For a still life of perfect sinlessness,
Should, in such sad delusion, court the ban
Of this most savage liar, sporting thus
With the broken spirit of humanity.

Astrologer. Welcome to London, storm-beat mariners!
The city is in masquerade to-day,
And, in good truth, the Plague doth celebrate
A daily festival, with many a dance
Fantastic, and unusual melody,
That may not suit your ears accustom'd long
To the glad sea-breeze, and the rousing airs
Of martial music on your armed decks.

Frank. to Wil. Is this some wild enthusiast whom the times
Have sent unto the light, deluding others
By his own strong delusions, or some fiend
Thirsting for gold even in the very grave?

Wil. With what a cruel face he looks at us!

Frank. If an impostor in the shadow of death
Endangering thus thy soul, vile wretch! come down
From thy tribunal built upon the fears
Of agony, lest in thy seat of guile
The Pest may smite thee! Lean on me, Amelia!

Astrologer. Scoff not at God's own delegate, Harry Frankfort!
What though the burning fever of the west
Hath spar'd thy bronzed face and stately form,
A mightier Power is here; and he may smile,
Ere the sun go down, upon thy bloated corpse.
Not thus the maiden whom her sailor loves
Despis'd me and my prophecies. Magdalene
In snow-white raiment, like a maid that walk'd
At the funeral of a maiden, she stood there,
Even on the very stones beneath your feet,
And ask'd of me her doom; but on this earth
Thy Magdalene's beauty must be seen no more.

Frank. to Wil. The maid of whom he speaks lives far remote.
In her father's cottage, near a silent lake
Among the hills of Westmoreland, she breathes
Happy and well her own sweet mountain air.
Methinks I know his face. That harden'd eye
Gleams through the dimness of my memory,
I know not when nor where. Amelia, come
And I will lead thee home. I hear the crowd
Saying that thy husband is alive: may heaven
For many a year preserve you to each other.
Say, is my mother living?

Lady. God forgive me
As I hope for my friend's forgiveness!
I know not if she lives; for, oh! this Plague
Hath spread an universal selfishness,
And each house in its own calamity
Stands single, shut from human fellowship
By sullen misery and heart-withering fear.

Voice from the crowd. Look at the sorcerer! how his countenance
Is fallen!--'tis distorted horribly!
A shadow comes across it, like a squall
Dark'ning the sea.

Another voice. Even thus I saw a man
This very morning, stricken by the Plague,
And in three hours he was a ghost. Disperse
All ye who prize your lives! soon will the air
Be foul with his dead body. Let us away!

[The crowd disperse.]

Astrologer. God's hand is on me. In my cruel guilt
I perish. Frankfort, I have never seen
Magdalene, the maid thou lovest. Look at me;
Dost not remember Francis Bannerman
On board the Thunderer?

Frank.     Pardon to thy soul!
Thou mad abuser of the gifts of heaven.

Astrologer. Oh! I am sick to death: my soul hath sunk
At once into despair.

Wil.      What dreadful groans!--
O fatal is the blast of misery,
When it hath forc'd its way into the soul
Of harden'd cruelty! As when a storm
Hath burst the gates of a thick-ribbed hold,
And all its gloomy dungeons, in one moment,
Are roaring like a hundred cataracts.

Astrologer. I have shed blood. Roll, roll ye mountain waves,
Above that merciless ghost that walks the sea
After our ship for ever! Shut thine eyes,
Those glaring, bloodshot, those avenging eyes,
And I will bear to feel thy skeleton-arms
Twin'd round my heart, so that those eyes be shut!
A ghost's wild eyes, that nothing can behold
But the frighten'd aspect of its murderer!
Unconscious they of ocean, air, and Heaven,
But fix'd eternally, like hideous stars,
On a shrieking soul whom guilt hath doom'd to Hell!

Frank. to Wil. The mutineer is raving of his crime.

Astrologer. Ha! ha! 'tis set within the ebb of flood
Fifty feet high; and the iron'd criminal
With a frantic face stands dumb upon the scaffold.
The priest is singing psalms!--Curst be the eyes
That see such idle shew--'tis all gone by!
I fear not Hell, if that eternal Shape
Meet me not there! Pray, pray not for me Frankfort,
For I am deliver'd over to despair,
And holy words are nought but mockery
To him who knows that he must dwell for ever
In regions darken'd by the wrath of God.

Lady. Let us leave this horrid scene!

Astrologer.      O might I hear
That sweet voice breathing of forgiveness!
Hush! hush! a voice once breath'd upon this earth
That would have pleaded not in vain to Heaven,
Even for a fiend like me. Thou art in Heaven,
And knowest all thy husband's wickedness;
So hide thy pitying eyes, and let me sink
Without thy intercession to the depths
Of unimagin'd woe!---O Christ! I die.

Frank. Most miserable end! an evil man
Prostrating by a savage eloquence
The spirits of the wretched--so that he
Might riot on the bare necessities
Of man's expiring nature--on the spoil
Of the unburied dead! Most atheist-like!
I know not how I can implore the grace
Of God unto my soul!

Astrologer.       Eternal doom!
The realms of Hell are gleaming fiery bright.
What ghastly faces!--Christ, have mercy on me!

Lady. Wilt thou not lead me away, for I am blind!
O Frankfort come With me--the Plague hath struck
My husband into madness--and I fear him!
O God! I fear the man whom I do love!

Frank. All--all are wretched--guilty--dead or dying;
And all the wild and direful images
That crowd, and wail, and blacken round my soul
Have reconcil'd me to the misery
Sent from my mother's grave. An hour of respite
Is granted me while I conduct thee home:
Then will I seek that grave, and 'mid the tumult
Of this perturbed city sit and listen
To a voice that in my noiseless memory
Sings like an angel.

Lady. She is yet alive!

Frank. Thy voice is like the voice of Hope--Sweet friend,
Be cheer'd, nor tremble so--for God is with us.