James Brunton Stephens

(17 June 1835 – 29 June 1902 / Borrowstounness, on the Firth of Forth, Scotland;)

King Billy's Skull. - Poem by James Brunton Stephens

THE scene is the Southern Hemisphere;
The time — oh, any time of the year
Will do as well as another; say June,
Put it down likewise as the full of the moon,
And midnight to boot, when churchyards, they say,
Yawn in a most unmannerly way;
And restless ghosts in winding-sheets
Go forth and gibber about the streets,
And rehearse old crimes that were better hid
In the darkness beneath the coffin-lid.
Observe, that I merely say, on dit;
But though it never happened to me
To encounter, either in-doors or out,
A posthumous gentleman walking about,
In regulation sepulchral guise,
Or in shirt, Crimean or otherwise,
Or in hat and boots and usual wear,
Or, save for a cloud, unbecomingly bare,
Or in gaseous form, with the stars shining through him,
Beckoning me to interview him —
On mission of solemnest import bound,
Or merely a constitutional round,
Beginning at twelve as books declare,
And ending at first sniff of morning air; —
Though all such things, you will understand,
Have reached me only at second-hand,
Or third, or fourth, as the case may be,
Yet there really did occur to me
Something which I perforce must call
Ultra-super-natural; —
In fact trans-ultra-super-preter-
Natural suits both truth and metre.
There is an Island, I won't say where,
For some yet live who mightn't care
To have the address too widely known;
Suffice it to say: South Temperate Zone.
In that same Isle, thus precisely set down,
There's a certain township, and also a town —
(For, to ears colonial, I need not state
That the two do not always homologate). —
And in that same town there's a certain street;
And in that same street, the locals to complete,
There's a certain Surgery, trim and neat,
Kept by —— well, perhaps it were rash
To call him other than Doctor Dash.
At midnight, then, in the month of June
(And don't forget the full of the moon),
I sat in that Surgery, writhing with pain,
Having waited fully two hours in vain
For Doctor Dash, who, I understood,
Was engaged in the questionable good
Of adding one to the sum of woe
That includes all creatures here below, —
Especially those whose particular dolour,
As mine was then, is a rotten molar!
Have you noted that midnight's final stroke
Has a way of solemnizing folk?
Though, goodness knows, in my special case,
With a cheek that was quite a three-quarter face,
There needed no solemnizing power,
No eerie vibration of midnight hour,
Chilling through heart, and thrilling through limb,
To put me en rapport with all things grim,
With all things dreary and dismal and dim,
The whole Night side of Nature (see Crow — not Jim).
Hardly was tolled the day's decease
From the ormolu clock on the mantelpiece,
When a running fire of perplexing knocks
Seemed to proceed from a rosewood box,
That stood on a table whereon were laid
The horrible tools of the surgical trade.
Somewhat slowly the notes began
With minims, and then into crotchets ran, —
From crotchets to quavers, then faster they grew,
Galloping, galloping, thirty-two
Beats to the semibreve — doubling once more
To a semibreve split into sixty-four,
Till failing to follow so rapid a rate,
I gave in at a hundred and twenty-eight.
I was scared, I confess, but the wish to know
Was stronger than terror of ghostly foe;
And stealthily, stealthily nearing the knocks,
I pressed my ear on the rosewood box,
And fancied I could discern beneath
The peculiar rattle of chattering teeth;
Which, as need hardly be said or penned,
Set each particular hair on end,
Froze all my young blood in a moment of time,
And curdled my bile, and my chyle, and my chyme!
But though terror undoubtedly gained the day,
Yet curiosity too had its way,
And the first had no sooner sung out Avaunt!
When the second cried Stay! what the deuce do you want?
Often as I have told the tale,
This particular part is so 'like a whale,'
That I always feel an apology due
For insisting upon it as perfectly true,
This is what followed, — a grinding noise,
A friction of bones that grew to a voice;
And I heard these words (on my honour, I did),
'Hi! . . . Cooey! . . . You fella . . . Open 'm lid!'
Trembling all over from foot to head,
'How shall I open it, Spirit?' I said;
'Lies there, oh lies there no key about?
For how can I open the coffer without?'
A kind of an audible ossified grin,
A gnashing of laughter, came from within,
And little by little I understood,
'You fella. . . . new chum. . . . You no good;
White fella. . . . crawler. . . . you no go,
Key in 'm lock. . . . my word. . . . 'tis so.'
It was so indeed. I opened, and lo!
An afrit? A goblin? A bottle-imp?. . . . No;
Simply a Human Skull, enshrined
In rosewood, padded and velvet-lined, —
A low type of skull, as one could see
From the brutish depression where forehead should be;
Yet surely precious in some degree
To judge from the case, not to mention the key
And the lock by a well-known patentee.
All was still for three minutes at least;
Knocks and voices alike had ceased;
There lay the skull as silent and dumb
As Lot's wife's salted cranium.
Had it been all a gross mistake
In the frenzy begotten of molar-ache?
Was the whole affair but a fancy freak,
Forged in the heat of a throbbing cheek?
Was it all — but rather than wait the event,
I determined to make the experiment.
So summoning courage a query to frame,
I boldly inquired, 'You there, what name?'
Which, to supply explanation due,
Is the Lingua-Nigra for 'Who are you?'
This is what followed — a grinding noise,
A friction of bones that grew to a voice;
And a slight elevation I certainly saw
Of the skull as if raised on the under jaw;
And this time beyond the chance of mistake,
My senses about me, and wide-awake,
No victim of frenzy, no fancy's gull,
I heard the words — 'Me King Billy's Skull!'
Alas, poor Billy, I knew him well,
In his full corporeal personnel,
But a man might give his own father the go-by,
Were there only his brain-pan left to know by.
And this was Billy! the last of his race!
That sightless mask was his regal face!
How oft from the cavity within
Those fangs now set in ghastly grin,
Had I seen the curling smoke proceed
Of the eleemosynary weed —
A cavity even now displayed
Through a gap for his pipe expressly made!
Here, where the Kingly glance shot through,
Two eyeless sockets appal the view;
And where flourished the fibre of Cocoa-nut
Is an utterly towless occiput! —
But scant was the time to moralize,
For soon a light in the place of the eyes,
A wild-looking, diabolical spark,
Like the eye of an angry cat in the dark,
Came and went, and went and came —
The spirit of Billy, perhaps, aflame:
And deeming it such, 'What would you, pray?'
I asked in a stammering, tremulous way;
'What is your will, oh, William, say?
William, rex dei gratia!'
This is what followed, — a grinding noise,
A friction of bones that grew to a voice;
'You take me out. . . . go long o'street. . . .
You come place where three road meet. . . .
S'pos'n keep middle till come to bridge. . . .
Cross over creek, an' go up ridge. . . .
Up on 'im top lie down hollow tree. . . .
Lift up big sheet o' bark. . . . you see
Bones of brother belongin' to me. . . .
Take 'im up head. . . . put mine fella down. . . .
You fetch 'im brother head back to town. . . .
Put 'im in box. . . . lock 'im up like o' here. . . .
Dash no do me!. . . . my oath!. . . . No fear!'
What COULD it all mean? — Three days ago
I had seen this monarch in earth laid low:
How had his fleshless skull returned
From the grave where I saw him so 'quietly inurned?'
And what upon earth was the drift of the dark
Allusion to Dash in his closing remark?
And what could import a mission so strange —
This visit to death, this mysterious exchange?
And wherefore of all men should I be selected
To. . . . pending an answer I did as directed,
And in less than an hour the exchange was effected.
King Billy supplanted, the box closed once more,
And myself fleeing forth from the surgery door!
Time and the hour, as Shakespeare says,
Run through the very roughest of days: —
(Forgive misquotation — the letter kills;
The spirit, at all events, is Will's)
Time and the hour having run their race,
I found myself back in the self-same place,
Dash standing by with a smiling face,
Wiping his weapon with dainty grace,
Myself no longer a surgical case,
But relieved (to the tune of twenty bo,
With the molar transferred to my trouser fob.
I could now look around me; the box was there,
Done up in canvas, and labelled 'with care;'
And Dash, beholding my steadfast stare,
Said with Mephistophelian grin,
That looked like the very triumph of Sin,
'Bet you twenty to one in gold,
You never will guess what that box doth hold . . .
Not bet? . . . Well, listen while I unfold
A neat little tale of a neat little prank,
Played by myself upon Doctor Blank,
The Hospital Surgeon, who, as you know,
Is my open friend, but my secret foe,
Well, to begin ab initio,
King Billy, whom we saw laid low
In his mother earth some days ago,
The last of the Aborigines,
Had long been dying of lung disease.
The melancholy fact was known
To Doctor Blank and myself alone,
And each of us watched with wary eye,
Patiently waiting till Billy should die.'
(Here I ventured to ask him the reason why.)
'Why? Don't you see? this man, as the last
Of a great island race of the perished past —
(Save one old gin, from whom can be
No further scion, as all can see)
Is a wonderful curiosity:
And Blank and myself had sworn an oath,
Secret from each, yet known to both,
To achieve some scientific note
In catalogue or anecdote,
By the munificent presentation
Of King Billy's Skull to the British Nation!
Fancy the honour, the kudos, the fame!
A whole museum athrill with one's name.
Fancy the thousands all crowding to see
‘Skull of the last Aborigine,
Presented by Asterisk Dash, M.D.’!!
A couple of men not sufficing to fix
The numbers on all the umbrellas and sticks,
And every voice in the eager crowd
Pronouncing the name of Dash aloud!
Fancy the honour, the kudos, the fame!
But fancy the everlasting shame,
If in place of Dash the name should be Blank!
The Quack! the Charlatan! Mountebank!
'But to proceed. To daily view
Weaker and weaker His Majesty grew.
I tended him kindly, went out of my way
To see how he fared from day to day:
But all my kindness, in pill or potion,
Showed small by the side of Blank's devotion;
All my kindness in potion and pill
Only made Blank show kinder still.
Well, one dark day (which ill betide)
Returning home from a country ride,
I found, to my sore astonishment,
That Blank had had the patient sent
To the Hospital Nigger-ward — to die
Beneath my antagonist's very eye!
(Knew you ever such treachery?) —
I owe him one, to myself I said;
Let him have the body, I'll have the head,
By hook or by crook, let what will come —
By fair or by foul, I'll have my thumb
On that potentate's caput mortuum!
I bribed a wardsman to let me know
When the patient should be in articulo;
And, accordingly, one afternoon I got
A letter to say King Billy was not.
I suddenly found I had been remiss
In my social duties to Blank, and this
Induced me to write him to give us to tea
The pleasure of his company.
Blank took the bait, came, found — not me,
But himself alone with Mrs. D.,
Who very much regretted to say
How the Doctor was suddenly called away,
Much, to be sure, against his will,
But Mrs. . . a . . Harris was very ill: —
In an hour or so he would return: —
Edith, tell Mary to bring the urn.
'Ere Blank sat down with my woman-kind,
I had slit Billy's head above and behind.
When Blank was requested to say a grace,
There was no skull behind Billy's face.
When Blank was just about to begin,
One skull was out and another skull in.
Ere Blank had buttered a morsel of toast,
The job was three-quarters through almost.
Ere Blank had sipped of his second cup,
The flesh was spliced, and the head tied up:
And before he had drunk it to the dregs,
I had done him, as sure as eggs are eggs!
'And he knows it too; but, all the same,
He hasn't blown it as yet for shame.
Let him publish it now as soon as he may,
He will find himself rather late in the day,
For this very night the treasure will be
Severed from Blank by leagues of sea.
Think of it, Sir, and congratulate me —
‘Skull of the last Aborigine,
Presented by Asterisk Dash, M.D.’!!'
* * * * *
In a certain Museum, I won't say where,
But it's not very far from Russell Square,
Should the gentle Reader e'er happen to see
'Skull of the last Aborigine,' —
And find, perchance, some poetical gull
Crooning the theme of a Monarch's skull,
Tell him to lay his theme on a shelf,
On peril of being a numskull himself;
Or to modulate his Parnassian whim
To the tune of 'Brother belongin' to him'!!

Comments about King Billy's Skull. by James Brunton Stephens

  • Gold Star - 14,118 Points * Sunprincess * (6/30/2014 3:33:00 PM)

    ..............this is a very lengthy write with over three hundred lines....and amazingly it rhymes...
    ....took some time to read and understand....but I enjoyed this enchanting poem...my favourite lines
    ~ Froze all my young blood in a moment of time,
    And curdled my bile, and my chyle, and my chyme! ~ (Report) Reply

    0 person liked.
    0 person did not like.
  • Rookie - 59 Points Brian Jani (6/30/2014 2:59:00 PM)

    wow what a lengthy poem, i myself am not skilled enough to write such a long poem yet you make it look easy.e well done man (Report) Reply

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Poem Submitted: Friday, April 16, 2010

Poem Edited: Friday, May 6, 2011

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