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The Dead Chase - Poem by Albert Pike


A morning of early June,—
The wind slept cradled in leaves,
And the throstles were singing a soft low tune,
In the ivy under the eaves.

The silver brooklets murmured
Sweet music in the grass;
As the faint tones of an organ
Swell at the evening mass.

The velvet sward, like a smooth, green sea,
Glittered and flashed incessantly,
With dewy diamonds of the dawn,
Through which went springing the spotted fawn;
And the snake lay idly across the path,
That wound amid the vibrating swath.

Within the deep-green heavy glooms,
Were beds of orange and crimson blooms,
Whose sweet perfume and odor stole
To the inmost crypts of the grateful soul,
Like harmonies faintly heard, that seem
The sweet, sad memories of a dream.

The lily grew in the shade,
And the dew-drop lay in its blossom,
Like a rosy diamond, laid
On a virgin's snowy bosom:

The heart of the crimson rose was blushing
At the kisses of the sun;
Like the cheek of a timid maiden, flushing
After her heart is won.

A wall of cliffs half ringed the dell
That sheltered by it slept;
In one gray crag a hollowed cell
Near which a leaping torrent fell,
And a Hermit his vigils kept.

A snowy mountain, close behind,
Shot upward like a flame,
From which with a roar like a mighty wind
The headlong river came.

A man once proud and stately,
Now haggard with despair;
Whose scared eyes, straining, seem to see
Par off some great calamity;
Some terror, darkening all the air,
And armed with nameless agony.

The woodlark, from her low nest, toward
The sky shot, like a dart,
Gladly carolling as she soared
Into the sky's blue heart.

He neither heeds, nor hears, nor sees,
Nature to him is dumb,
And all her charming coquetries
Have odious become.

His face grows dark; no longer now
His soul its dread obeys;
His eyes that full of anguish were,
Like a hunted tiger's blaze.

A sound came clashing past,
On the wings of the startled air,
Like the sound of hoofs that far and fast
A reckless rider bear.

The eagle rose from the trackless snows,
Where he sat like a king on his throne;
And high he flew, where the sunlight through
His dark gray plumage shone;
Unfolded his heart in a wild scream there,
And fanned with his wings the morning air.

A great steed came, like a mighty rain,
Down the steep mountain's side;
Thick as a storm his flowing mane,—
A horse for a Prince to ride.
He stopped before the Hermit's cell,
Like a statue of stone, immovable.

And near this courser stood
A black hound, with fresh blood
About his feet and upon his jaws;
His teeth were long, and sharp, and white,
Left by his curling lips in sight;
His strong feet fanged with claws.

He bayed not, and he made no moan,
But beside the steed he sat like stone,
And looked in the Hermit's eye:
What want they with the Hermit,
That on him thus they stare,—
That hound so fiery-eyed, that steed,
A stern and silent pair?

The Hermit shuddered at the sight,
But never a word he said;
Only his lips became as white
As the marble lips of the dead.

Slowly he comes to the steed that waits,
As men walk in their sleep;
As birds that a serpent fascinates
Into their jaws do creep.

Now springs he upon the courser's back,
Saddle and bridle none;
The hound has risen, and, baying loud,
Down the green slope has gone.

Uprose the sun; the steed sped on;
His hoofs the green sward tore;
Over stream and hill, through brake and dell,
While the hound bayed on before.

He came to a river broad and deep;
Its waves ran high, its banks were steep;
He made nor stop nor stay,
But plunging in, through the loud din
Of its rapids stretched away.

Over sharp rocks and hillsides bald,
Where the spotted adder sleeps,—
Through forests as green as emerald,—
As the tyrannous tempest sweeps,

All day, all day, he stretched away,
And the tramp of his hoofs was heard,
Like an earthquake's foot, when his fiery heart
In his adamant eaves is stirred.

All day, all day, he stretched away,
Till the gentle moon uprose,
And her soft, pale rays kissed Night's sweet face,
The firs and the mountain-snows.

And then he was heard careering up
That mountain's rocky side;
The eternal ice-crags crowned its top,
And the streams that poured from the Giant's cup,
Rushed foaming down his side.

And now he follows the black sleuth-hound,
On a glacier's frozen sea,
Grinding to snow with his iron hoof
Its still, green waves' transparent woof,
That since God gave the world its form,
Defies the lightning and the storm.

Midnight ! midnight! The horse has stopped;
The moon stands still, likewise;
Without a mist, without a cloud,
The stars have shut their eyes.

The black hound circles round the steed:
Loud baying,—long and loud;
The Hermit sits as pale as Death:
But his eye is hard and proud.

A spectre comes athwart the moon;
Her light gleams through its bones
A cold wind rushes swiftly by,
All eddying with groans.

The mist of its long yellow hair
Floats like a ragged cloud;
What does the skeleton, without
A winding-sheet or shroud?

Out-springs the great black hound again;
Once more the scent is won;
Leap after leap, bay after bay:
He and the horse stretch far away; —
They chase the skeleton!

Day comes at last. The night is past,
But still the hunt holds on;
On hound and horse and spectre shine
The red rays of the sun.

Slow, slow as Death, Time draws his breath;
'Tis a weary space to noon;
And high and high the sun's red eye
Shines, shadowy, like the moon.

A desert stretches every way;
Dawn's crimson and dusk Evening's gray
Rest upon either edge;
The wind above it sighs alway;
Like the sighing of thin sedge.

In the middle of the desert
The horse and hound have stopped;
The hunted skeleton, likewise:
Upon the earth has dropped.

The hound lies panting by its side:
With his red nostrils open wide;
His eyes like torches glare:
The rider too has left his steed:
And sitteth speechless there.

Through his long hair the sharp wind moans:
But all beside is still;
He cannot choose but gaze upon
The green bones of the skeleton;
Through which the breezes thrill.

All day they sat in the desert:
Till the sun slid down the sky:
And in the west his lids of mist
Were folded over his eye.

Then in the west a shape appeared:
Between them and the sun;
Nearer and nearer yet it drew:
Until an armed man it grew:
A mail-clad destrier on.

'What dost thou here with hound and horse:
'Without a shield or spear?
'And why dost watch that skeleton:
'So mossy, green, and sere?

'What dost thou here? Twilight draws near:
'The weary Day recedes;
'Night's pilots her dark galley steer
'Among the trembling stars; while here
'Thou tellest over thy beads:—

'What dost thou here?' 'Alight and learn:
''Tis long to mirk midnight:
'Another sun will set, before
'Thou seest thy lady bright.

'Alight! I have a tale to tell:
'It will profit thee to hear:—
'That will vibrate in thy memory
'For many a long, long year.'

The Knight has leaped from his destrier,
And sits by the Hermit's side,
And listens to a strange, wild tale,
There in the desert wide.

'A chase was held, long years ago,
'On a sunny day of June,'
'Where a hundred noble horsemen rode,
'From morning till high noon,

'With wanton glee and revelry,
'While the hounds before them ran;
'For, clad in steel, on strong, fleet steeds,
'They chased an outlawed man.

'For many an hour we chased the game;
'Hound after hound fell back,
'Till, man by man, I passed them all,
'And my strong hound led the pack.

'All night led on the deep-mouthed hound;
'And all night followed I;
'The wayward moon went slowly down,
'The white stars left the sky.

'Uprose the sun; my hound kept on,
'My good horse faltered not;
'And when the sun was in the south,
'I reached this desert spot.

'The Heretic lay here. Ah, God!
'That I that sight should see!
'His dead, dead eyes were opened wide,
'And sadly gazed at me.

'His flesh was torn, his bones were bare,
'All mangled was his head,
'And by his side my gaunt sleuth-hound
'Lay, with his jaws blood-red.

'I sate down by the dead man's side;
'I had no power to go;
'Methought that Time also was dead,
'His feet went by so slow.

'My good hound fawned upon my breast,
'And kindly too I him caressed;
'My tears did freely flow;
'I thought he was my only friend,
'And God Himself my foe.

'Alas! that weary afternoon!
'Nor sight nor sound came by;
'Only the lonesome wind, that through
'The dead man's hair did sigh.

'The moon uprist, swathed in gray mist,
'And up the heaven stole,
'While from the dead man's eyes, her light
'Pierced to my inmost soul.

'The cold wind swept across the plain,
'And savored of the sea;
'It came from my dear, sunny home,
'Lost like a dream to me.

'The corpse's pale lips then unclosed,
'His teeth in the moonlight shone,
'I sat and wept and beat my breast,
'Till close upon night's noon.

'Out of the chalice of the east,
'Dark clouds began to rise,
'Mass upon mass, and broad and fast,
'Red currents crossed the skies;

'And a moaning sound grew up afar,
'Like music in the air;
'It circled round and round the dead,
'And wailed and murmured there;

'A star slid down from heaven's roof,
'And nestled by his head;
'I knew it was his spirit, come
'With me to watch the Dead.

'And by its light,— oh, sad, sad sight!
'Two shadows I could see;
'One sate on either side, both gazed
'By turns on him and me.

'A soft light from their snowy hair
'Fell on his dead, pale face;
'They were his mother and his sire,
'Come from their heavenly place,
'To watch their dead, dead, mangled son,
'The last of all their race.

'Ah, God! those eyes did search my soul,
'So calm and sad they were;
'They were a conscience unto me,
'And yet I could not stir.

'The dark clouds folded over the moon,
'Like a wild rushing river,
'The lightning in the stormy east
'From bank to bank did quiver.

'Peal upon peal the thunder spoke,—
'My soul it did rejoice;
'Me from that death in life it woke,
'Like an old schoolmate's voice.

'That star still shone, in light or gloom,
'Like light in a dead man's eye;
'Those white-haired shadows never stirred,
'But still sat calmly by.

'Again I had the power to move,
'And I turned away mine eye;
'Between me and the clouds I saw
'A troop come hurrying by.

'With eager course they, man and horse,
'Like the wind of a tempest pressed;
'The lightning glittered through their shapes,
'As it glitters through the mist.

'This shadowy army of the dead,
'Rushed by me like the wind,
'Before, the thunder-hounds did bay,
'And a tempest howled behind.

'And, as they swept by me, I knew
'Each wan and ghastly face;
'Oh, God! how changed, since I and they
'Began that awful chase!

'The corse's spirit-star was quenched,
'As they came hurtling past,
'And he uprose as if alive,
'And before the troop fled fast.

'My hound sprang forward on the track
'Of the dead, bay after bay,
'My horse, too, joined the spectral host,
'And madly dashed away.

'All night the fierce storm roared around,
'And the thunder's constant roll;
'But still the gray-haired shadow's voice,
'Was heard above the tempest's noise,
'Like moans within the soul.

'And every year, this very night,
'That chase is held again:
'Again the skeleton flits fast
'Before that phantom-train.

'And every year, the very day
'When we began the chase,
'No matter where my weary heart
'Has found a resting-place;

'No matter where I dwell, my horse
'And hound come back to me;
'I cannot choose but mount, and thus
'The horrid hunt have we.

'And here, yea, even here, the chase
'Fails never to be stopped;
'And here, this day, these mouldering bones,
'Moss-grown and green, have dropped.

'I am a wretched, lonely man,
'No friend, no home, no God;
'Who many a year, through many a clime,
'My weary way have trod,—
'Alas! I would that I could lay
'My head beneath the sod!

'The white hair of those parents lies
'Like a shadow on my soul;
'In dreams his sightless eyeballs burn
'My worn heart like a coal.

'I pray to Heaven by night and day,
'My tears flow like the rain;
'And yet my useless cries procure
'No peace: I pray in vain.

'I dream that I was once a child,
'No bird more blithe and gay,
'My young heart, like a honey-bee,
'That hums the live-long day:
'But now it is a maimed bird,
'That mourns its life away.'

'God help thee, man! Thy crime was great,
'But in the eye of Heaven,
'Repentance may atone for all,—
'Thy great sin be forgiven.

'So we must dig a grave, and lay
'These mouldering bones therein,—
'Perhaps they there may rest, until
'The great assize begin.

'And we must pray to God ou high
'And his beloved Son,
'To shed their gentle, genial rain
'Of love thy heart upon.

'So shall thy great sin be atoned,
'The murdered so forgive;
'And like the dead man touched by Christ,
'Thou shalt arise and live.'

With sword and battle-axe, the twain
Full earnestly did work,
While round them from the eastern caves
Night gathered, thick and mirk.

The moon arose, the gentle stars
Opened their lustrous eyes;
The spirit-star sate near the dead,
The shadows came likewise.

Before the moon fared overhead,
The grave was hollowed deep,
And earnestly they cried to Heaven,
To pardon and to keep
The soul whose sin had been so great,
And its remorse so deep.

The Hermit kneeled by the skeleton,
His thick tears wet. the bones,
Like echoes from his inmost soul,
He uttered earnest moans.

His tears fell on the spirit-star,
And it blazed like a shaft of fire;
While music stole from the shadows' lips
Like the murmuring of a lyre.

They laid the bones within the grave,
They piled the sods thereon,
And many a fervent prayer they prayed,
After this toil was done.

The white star circled thrice around
The sodded grave above,
And the Hermit felt a load of woe
From his anguished heart remove;
For the light of the shadows' glittering hair
Sank into his soul and nestled there,
Like a dream of gentle love.

The moon that stood right overhead,
Was quenched as 'twere a lamp,
And a cold wind woke, and flitted by,
Its dark wings chill and damp.

Afar upon the east rang out,
A wild, fierce, startling bay,
And through the misty fields of foam,
Careered the wild array.

Till, near the grave, like a rushing wave,
The spectral huntsmen halt,
And circling round, each shadowy hound
Bays loudly, as at fault.

The star, arising from the grave,
Slowly towards Heaven soared,
And from it a great snowy light
Upon the Hermit poured.

Faint music from the pale, sad lips
Of the gray-haired shadows stole,
And filled the mute, delighted air,
And soothed the Hermit's soul.

Shrill cries were heard, the air was stirred,
As if wings rustled there,
And the spectral huntsmen melted, like
Thin shadows, into air.

Then through the lonely desert rung
The Ӕolian harps of Heaven
And angel-voices sweetly sung,
'The guilty is forgiven;
'Calm, calm thy troubled soul to peace!
'Thy chains of woe are riven.'

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