[Editor: This poem by Arthur H. Adams was published in The Bulletin Reciter, 1901.]
The dawn hangs heavy on the distant hill,
The darkness shudders slowly into light ;
And from the weary bosom of the night
The pent winds sigh, then sink with horror still.
Naked and grey, the guillotine stands square
Upon the hill, while from its base the crowd
Surges out far, and waits, to silence cowed,
Impatient for the thing to happen there.
Listen! The bells within the tower toll
Five naked notes; and down within his cell
The prisoner hears and mutters, “It is well,”
Though like that other knife each cuts his soul.
His sick nerves from the probing echoes shrink.
“This is the end,” he says; “let me be strong ;
Let me be brave till then — ’t is not for long :
I must not think of it — I must not think !”
See, through the courtyard, guarded, comes the slight
Thin figure of the anarchist. Amazed,
He sees the thousand faces swiftly raised —
The billows of the crowd break into white !
One narrow, alien glance below, and then
The scene fades dimly from his film-glazed eyes ;
And shuddering he sees his past arise —
The cycle of his life begins again.
And as misshapen memories crowd fast
Upon him, jostling in a sudden strife,
Athwart the dull, drab level of his life
Stand sharply out the blood-stains of his past :
His youth, before he knew he had it, lost ;
His father’s body by an accident
’Neath the rich man’s remorseless mill-wheels pent —
A corpse ; and sister, mother, brother tossed
Out to the mercy of the merciless.
His mother stricken next ; her humble niche
Was needed by the reckless and the rich,
And death was easier than life’s loneliness.
His sister, — she had fortune in her face,
And won it, too ; till Vice’s fingers tore
The freshness from her figure, and no more
In idleness she flaunted her disgrace.
He lost her, stifled in the world’s wide smother,
For years ; till one night on the street they met.
She seized him — he can feel that hot thrill yet ! —
She spoke him — knowing not he was her brother !
Wrong reeking of the rich incessantly !
Oppression and oppression o’er again !
Till from the smouldering hate within his brain
Mad fever fired the fuse of Anarchy.
Then plot and cunning, weak, futile and mean,
The maddened one against the many ; thus
He strove to strangle Order’s octopus —
And gained the goal at last — the guillotine !
It waits him grim and grey ; he sees it not,
Nor hears the rising murmur ripple out
To the crowd’s edge, and, turning, die in doubt.
The vague, uncertain future threatens — what?
So . . . shall he speak, fling out his last reply ?
Why waste the time in trivialities ?
One throbbing thought now holds him ; and there is
No room for sign or speech — he has to die.
Only a murmur wavers up and shakes
The sullen air, then hesitates and dies ;
And the grim hush of horror stifled lies,
Suspended like a billow ere it breaks.
One bitter prayer, half curse, he mutters when
The knife hangs high above, and the world waits ;
But ere it swoops an age it hesitates :
The word is given, breaths are drawn, and then . . .
With eyes and soul close shut — be swift, relief ! —
The prisoner waits the end that does not come.
For hark ! that heavy, low, tumultuous hum
That surges, surges till it shouts “Reprieve !”
“Reprieved and pardoned !” All his senses swim
In a rose-mist ! As Sleep’s soft hand that soothes
The tense, strained limbs of fevered Day and smoothes
Life’s knotted nerves — so comes relief to him. . . .
And when he woke again his soul, set free,
Had wandered far, within a moment’s space,
And seen the sadness of God’s silent face —
The mighty calm of immortality.
How like a triumph his home-coming ! Then
The glorious news that met him, — how that Right
Had routed Wrong, for ever faction’s fight
Was finished, and the world was one again !
Then swiftly through his swimming, mist-dimmed eyes
He sees the good and great uprise again ;
And Reason rings the knell of grief and pain :
The gladdened new world lapped in sunlight lies.
Long life was his, with honour. On Fame’s breath
His name was borne, until in perfect peace —
Glad like a mellow fruit to fall and cease —
His long life ripened richly into death. . . .
Yet none knew this but he. The crowd still waits ;
Shoots swift the lightning of the knife, and loud
Roars the hoarse thunder from the sated crowd,
And justice has been done. God compensates.
Arthur H. Adams.
A.G. Stephens (editor). The Bulletin Reciter: A Collection of Verses for Recitation from “The Bulletin” [1880-1901], The Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1902 [first published 1901], pages 128-132