In Debtors' Yard the stones are hard,
....And the dripping wall is high,
So it was there he took the air
....Beneath the leaden sky,
And by each side a Warder walked,
....For fear the man might die.
Or else he sat with those who watched
....His anguish night and day;
Who watched him when he rose to weep,
....And when he crouched to pray;
Who watched him lest himself should rob
....Their scaffold of its prey.
The Governor was strong upon
....The Regulations Act:
The Doctor said that Death was but
....A scientific fact:
And twice a day the Chaplain called,
....And left a little tract.
And twice a day he smoked his pipe,
....And drank his quart of beer:
His soul was resolute, and held
....No hiding-place for fear;
He often said that he was glad
....The hangman's hands were near.
But why he said so strange a thing
....No Warder dared to ask:
For he to whom a watcher's doom
....Is given as his task,
Must set a lock upon his lips,
....And make his face a mask.
Or else he might be moved, and try
....To comfort or console:
And what should Human Pity do
....Pent up in Murderers' Hole?
What word of grace in such a place
....Could help a brother's soul?
With slouch and swing around the ring
....We trod the Fools' Parade!
We did not care: we knew we were
....The Devil's Own Brigade:
And shaven head and feet of lead
....Make a merry masquerade.
We tore the tarry rope to shreds
....With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
....And cleaned the shining rails:
And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
....And clattered with the pails.
We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
....We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
....And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
....Terror was lying still.
So still it lay that every day
....Crawled like a weed-clogged wave:
And we forgot the bitter lot
....That waits for fool and knave,
Till once, as we tramped in from work,
....We passed an open grave.
With yawning mouth the yellow hole
....Gaped for a living thing;
The very mud cried out for blood
....To the thirsty asphalte ring:
And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair
....Some prisoner had to swing.
Right in we went, with soul intent
....On Death and Dread and Doom:
The hangman, with his little bag,
....Went shuffling through the gloom:
And each man trembled as he crept
....Into his numbered tomb.
That night the empty corridors
....Were full of forms of Fear,
And up and down the iron town
....Stole feet we could not hear,
And through the bars that hide the stars
....White faces seemed to peer.
He lay as one who lies and dreams
....In a pleasant meadow-land,
The watcher watched him as he slept,
....And could not understand
How one could sleep so sweet a sleep
....With a hangman close at hand.
But there is no sleep when men must weep
....Who never yet have wept:
So we " the fool, the fraud, the knave "
....That endless vigil kept,
And through each brain on hands of pain
....Another's terror crept.
Alas! it is a fearful thing
....To feel another's guilt!
For, right within, the sword of Sin
....Pierced to its poisoned hilt,
And as molten lead were the tears we shed
....For the blood we had not spilt.
The Warders with their shoes of felt
....Crept by each padlocked door,
And peeped and saw, with eyes of awe,
....Gray figures on the floor,
And wondered why men knelt to pray
....Who never prayed before.
All through the night we knelt and prayed,
....Mad mourners of a corse!
The troubled plumes of midnight were
....The plumes upon a hearse:
And bitter wine upon a sponge
...Was the savour of Remorse.
The gray cock crew, the red cock crew,
....But never came the day:
And crooked shapes of Terror crouched,
...In the corners where we lay:
And each evil sprite that walks by night
....Before us seemed to play.
They glided past, they glided fast,
....Like travellers through a mist:
They mocked the moon in a rigadoon
....Of delicate turn and twist,
And with formal pace and loathsome grace
....The phantoms kept their tryst.
With mop and mow we saw them go,
....Slim shadows hand in hand:
About, about, in ghostly rout
....They trod a saraband:
And the damned grotesques made arabesques,
....Like the wind upon the sand!
With the pirouettes of marionettes,
....They tripped on pointed tread:
But with flutes of Fear they filled the ear,
....As their grisly masque they led,
And loud they sang, and long they sang,
....For they sang to wake the dead.
Oho! they cried, The world is wide,
....But fettered limbs go lame!
And once, or twice, to throw the dice
....Is a gentlemanly game,
But he does not win who plays with Sin
....In the secret House of Shame;
No things of air these antics were,
....That frolicked with such glee:
To men whose lives were held in gyves,
....And whose feet might not go free,
Ah! wounds of Christ! they were living things,
....Most terrible to see.
Around, around, they waltzed and wound;
....Some wheeled in smirking pairs;
With the mincing step of demirep
....Some sidled up the stairs:
And with subtle sneer, and fawning leer,
....Each helped us at our prayers.
The morning wind began to moan,
....But still the night went on:
Through its giant loom the web of gloom
....Crept till each thread was spun:
And, as we prayed, we grew afraid
....Of the Justice of the Sun.
The moaning wind went wandering round
....The weeping prison-wall:
Till like a wheel of turning steel
....We felt the minutes crawl:
O moaning wind! what had we done
....To have such a seneschal?
At last I saw the shadowed bars
....Like a lattice wrought in lead,
Move right across the whitewashed wall
....That faced my three-plank bed,
And I knew that somewhere in the world
....God's dreadful dawn was red.
At six o'clock we cleaned our cells,
....At seven all was still,
But the sough and swing of a mighty wing
....The prison seemed to fill,
For the Lord of Death with icy breath
....Had entered in to kill.
He did not pass in purple pomp,
....Nor ride a moon-white steed.
Three yards of cord and a sliding board
....Are all the gallows' need:
So with rope of shame the Herald came
....To do the secret deed.
We were as men who through a fen
....Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
....Or give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
....And what was dead was Hope.
For Man's grim Justice goes its way,
....And will not swerve aside:
It slays the weak, it slays the strong,
....It has a deadly stride:
With iron heel it slays the strong,
....The monstrous parricide!
We waited for the stroke of eight:
....Each tongue was thick with thirst:
For the stroke of eight is the stroke of Fate
....That makes a man accursed,
And Fate will use a running noose
....For the best man and the worst.
We had no other thing to do,
....Save to wait for the sign to come:
So, like things of stone in a valley lone,
....Quiet we sat and dumb:
But each man's heart beat thick and quick,
....Like a madman on a drum!
With sudden shock the prison-clock
....Smote on the shivering air,
And from all the gaol rose up a wail
....Of impotent despair,
Like the sound that frightened marshes hear
....From a leper in his lair.
And as one sees most fearful things
....In the crystal of a dream,
We saw the greasy hempen rope
....Hooked to the blackened beam,
And heard the prayer the hangman's snare
....Strangled into a scream.
And all the woe that moved him so
....That he gave that bitter cry,
And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
....None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
....More deaths than one must die.