The City of the Dreadful Night

In The Room


James Thomson

“ Ceste insigne fable et tragicque comedie.”—RABELAIS.


THE SUN was down, and twilight grey
    Filled half the air; but in the room,
Whose curtain had been drawn all day,
    The twilight was a dusky gloom:
Which seemed at first as still as death,
    And void; but was indeed all rife
With subtle thrills, the pulse and breath
    Of multitudinous lower life.



In their abrupt and headlong way
    Bewildered flies for light had dashed
Against the curtain all the day,
    And now slept wintrily abashed;
And nimble mice slept, wearied out
    With such a double night’s uproar;
But solid beetles crawled about
    The chilly hearth and naked floor.



And so throughout the twilight hour
    That vaguely murmurous hush and rest
There brooded; and beneath its power
    Life throbbing held its throbs supprest:
Until the thin-voiced mirror sighed,
    I am all blurred with dust and damp,
So long ago the clear day died,
    So long has gleamed nor fire nor lamp.



Whereon the curtain murmured back,
    Some change is on us, good or ill;
Behind me and before is black
    As when those human things lie still:
But I have seen the darkness grow
    As grows the daylight every morn;
Have felt out there long shine and glow,
    In here long chilly dusk forlorn.



The cupboard grumbled with a groan,
    Each new day worse starvation brings
Since he came here I have not known
    Or sweets or cates or wholesome things:
But now! a pinch of meal, a crust,
    Throughout the week is all I get.
I am so empty; it is just
    As when they said we were to let.



What is become, then, of our Man?
    The petulant old glass exclaimed;
If all this time he slumber can,
    He really ought to be ashamed.
I wish we had our Girl again,
    So gay and busy, bright and fair:
The girls are better than these men,
    Who only for their dull selves care.



It is so many hours ago—
    The lamp and fire were both alight—
I saw him pacing to and fro,
    Perturbing restlessly the night.
His face was pale to give one fear,
    His eyes when lifted looked too bright;
He muttered; what, I could not hear:
    Bad words though; something was not right.



The table said, He wrote so long
    That I grew weary of his weight;
The pen kept up a cricket song,
    It ran and ran at such a rate:
And in the longer pauses he
    With both his folded arms downpressed,
And stared as one who does not see,
    Or sank his head upon his breast.



The fire-grate said, I am as cold
    As if I never had a blaze;
The few dead cinders here I hold,
    I held unburned for days and days.
Last night he made them flare; but still
    What good did all his writing do?
Among my ashes curl and thrill
    Thin ghosts of all those papers too.



The table answered, Not quite all;
    He saved and folded up one sheet,
And sealed it fast, and let it fall;
    And here it lies now white and neat.
Whereon the letter’s whisper came,
    My writing is dosed up too well;
Outside there’s not a single name,
    And who should read me I can’t tell.



The mirror sneered with scornful spite,
    (That ancient crack which spoiled her looks
Had marred her temper), Write and write!
    And read those stupid, worn-out books!
That’s all he does, read, write, and read,
    And smoke that nasty pipe which stinks:
He never takes the slightest heed
    How any of us feels or thinks.



But Lucy fifty times a day
    Would come and smile here in my face,
Adjust a tress that curled astray,
    Or tie a ribbon with more grace:
She looked so young and fresh and fair,
    She blushed with such a charming bloom,
It did one good to see her there,
    And brightened all things in the room.



She did not sit hours stark and dumb
    As pale as moonshine by the lamp;
To lie in bed when day was come,
    And leave us curtained chill and damp.
She slept away the dreary dark,
    And rose to greet the pleasant morn;
And sang as gaily as a lark
    While busy as the flies sun-born.



And how she loved us every one;
    And dusted this and mended that,
With trills and laughs and freaks of fun,
    And tender scoldings in her chat!
And then her bird, that sang as shrill
    As she sang sweet; her darling flowers
That grew there in the window-sill,
    Where she would sit at work for hours.



It was not much she ever wrote;
    Her fingers had good work to do;
Say, once a week a pretty note;
    And very long it took her too.
And little more she read, I wis;
    Just now and then a pictured sheet,
Besides those letters she would kiss
    And croon for hours, they were so sweet.



She had her friends too, blithe young girls,
    Who whispered, babbled, laughed, caressed,
And romped and danced with dancing curls,
    And gave our life a joyous zest.
But with this dullard, glum and sour,
    Not one of all his fellow-men
Has ever passed a social hour;
    We might be in some wild beast’s den.



This long tirade aroused the bed,
    Who spoke in deep and ponderous bass,
Befitting that calm life he led,
    As if firm-rooted in his place:
In broad majestic bulk alone,
    As in thrice venerable age,
He stood at once the royal throne,
    The monarch, the experienced sage:



I know what is and what has been;
    Not anything to me comes strange,
Who in so many years have seen
    And lived through every kind of change.
I know when men are good or bad,
    When well or ill, he slowly said;
When sad or glad, when sane or mad,
    And when they sleep alive or dead.



At this last word of solemn lore
    A tremor circled through the gloom,
As if a crash upon the floor
    Had jarred and shaken all the room:
For nearly all the listening things
    Were old and worn, and knew what curse
Of violent change death often brings,
    From good to bad, from bad to worse;



They get to know each other well,
    To feel at home and settled down;
Death bursts among them like a shell,
    And strews them over all the town.
The bed went on, This man who lies
    Upon me now is stark and cold;
He will not any more arise,
    And do the things he did of old.



But we shall have short peace or rest;
    For soon up here will come a rout,
And nail him in a queer long chest,
    And carry him like luggage out
They will be muffled all in black,
    And whisper much, and sigh and weep:
But he will never more come back,
    And some one else in me must sleep.



Thereon a little phial shrilled,
    Here empty on the chair I lie:
I heard one say, as I was filled,
    With half of this a man would die.
The man there drank me with slow breath,
    And murmured, Thus ends barren strife:
O sweeter, thou cold wine of death,
    Than ever sweet warm wine of life.



One of my cousins long ago,
    A little thing, the mirror said,
Was carried to a couch to show,
    Whether a man was really dead.
Two great improvements marked the case:
    He did not blur her with his breath,
His many-wrinkled, twitching face
    Was smooth old ivory: verdict, Death.—



It lay, the lowest thing there, lulled
    Sweet-sleep-like in corruption’s truce;
The form whose purpose was annulled,
    While all the other shapes meant use.
It lay, the he become now it,
    Unconscious of the deep disgrace,
Unanxious how its parts might flit
    Through what new forms in time and space.



It lay and preached, as dumb things do,
    More powerfully than tongues can prate;
Though life be torture through and through,
    Man is but weak to plain of fate:
The drear path crawls on drearier still
    To wounded feet and hopeless breast?
Well, he can lie down where he will,
    And straight all ends in endless rest.



And while the black night nothing saw,
    And till the cold morn came at last,
That old bed held the room in awe
    With tales of its experience vast.
It thrilled the gloom; it told such tales
    Of human sorrows and delights,
Of fever moans and infant wails,
    Of births and deaths and bridal nights.

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