by Eugene Lee-Hamilton

Eugene Lee-Hamilton

Thou priest that art behind the screen

Of this confessional, give ear:

I need God's help, for I have seen

What turns my vitals limp with fear.

O Christ, O Christ, I must have done

More mortal sin than any one

Who says his prayers in Venice here!

And yet by stealth I only tried

To kill my enemy, God knows;

And who on earth has yet denied

A man the right to kill his foes?

He won the race of the Gondoliers;

I hate him and the skin he wears;

I hate him and the shade he throws.

I hate him through each day and hour;

All ills that curse me seem his fault;

He makes my daily soup taste sour,

He makes my daily bread taste salt.

And so I hung upon his track

At dusk, to stab him in the back

In some lone street or archway vault.

But oh, give heed! — As I was stealing

Upon his heels, with knife grasped tight,

There crept across my soul a feeling

That I myself was kept in sight.

Each time I turned, dodge as I would,

A masked and unknown watcher stood,

Who baffled all my plans that night.

What mask is this, I thought and thought,

Who dogs me thus, when least I care?

His figure is nor tall nor short,

And yet has a familiar air.

But oh, despite this watcher's eye,

I'll reach my man yet, by-and-by,

And snuff his life out yet, elsewhere!

And though compelled to thus defer,

I schemed another project soon;

I armed my boat with a hidden spur,

To run him down in the lagoon.

At dusk I saw him row one day

Where lone and wide the waters lay,

Reflecting scarce the dim white moon.

No boat, as far as sight could strain,

Loomed on the solitary sea;

I saw my oar each minute gain

Upon my death-doomed enemy. . . .

When lo, a black-masked gondolier,

Silent and spectre-like, drew near,

And stepped between my deed and me.

He seemed to rise from out the flood,

And hovered near, to mar my game;

I knew him and his cursed hood,

His cursed mask: he was the same.

So, balked once more, enraged and cowed,

Back through the still lagoon I rowed

In mingled wonder, wrath, and shame.

Oh, were I not to come and pray

Thee for thy absolution here

In the confessional to-day,

My very ribs would burst with fear.

Leave not, good Father, in the lurch,

An honest son of Mother Church,

Whose faith is firm and soul sincere.

Behind St Luke's, as the dead men know,

A pale apothecary dwells,

Who deals in death both quick and slow,

And baleful philtres, withering spells.

He sells alike to rich and poor

Who know what knocks to give his door,

The yellow powder that rings the knells.

Well then, I went and knocked the knock

With cautious hand, as I'd been taught;

The door revolved with silent lock,

And I went in, suspecting naught.

But oh, the self-same form stood masked

Behind the counter, and unasked

In silence proffered what I sought.

My knees and hands like aspens shook:

I spilt the powder on the ground;

I dared not turn, I dared not look;

My palsied tongue would make no sound.

Then through the door I fled at last,

With feet that seemed more slow than fast,

And dared not even once turn round.

And yet I am an honest man,

Who only sought to kill his foe:

Could I sit down and see each plan

That I took up frustrated so?

God wot, as every scheme was balked,

And in the sun my man still walked,

I felt my hatred grow and grow.

I thought, " At dusk, with stealthy tread

I'll seek his dwelling, and I'll creep

Upstairs, and hide beneath his bed,

And in the night I'll strike him deep. "

And so I went; but at his door

The figure, masked just as before,

Sat on the step, as if asleep.

Bent, spite all fear, upon my task,

I tried to pass: there was no space.

Then rage prevailed; I snatched the mask

From off the baffling figure's face. . . .

And (oh, unutterable dread!)

The face was mine, — mine white and dead, —

Stiff with some frightful death's grimace.

What sins are mine, oh, luckless wight!

That fate should play me such a trick,

And make me see a sudden sight

That turns both soul and body sick?

Stretch out thy hands, thou Priest unseen,

That sittest there behind the screen,

And give me absolution quick!

O God, O God, his hands are dead!

His hands are mine, oh, monstrous spell!

I feel them clammy on my head:

Is he my own dead self as well?

Those hands are mine, — their scars, their shape:

O God, O God, there's no escape,

And seeking Heaven, I fall on Hell!

Last updated October 28, 2017