The Dance of Death

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(1838)

* * * * *

"Many words for few things!"
"Death ends all; judgment comes to all."

* * * * *

[This work may be called a prose poem. It is impregnated with the
spirit of romanticism, which at the time of writing had a
temporary but powerful hold on the mind of Gustave Flaubert.]

* * * * *


DEATH SPEAKS

At night, in winter, when the snow-flakes fall slowly from heaven
like great white tears, I raise my voice; its resonance thrills
the cypress trees and makes them bud anew.

I pause an instant in my swift course over earth; throw myself
down among cold tombs; and, while dark-plumaged birds rise
suddenly in terror from my side, while the dead slumber
peacefully, while cypress branches droop low o'er my head, while
all around me weeps or lies in deep repose, my burning eyes rest
on the great white clouds, gigantic winding-sheets, unrolling
their slow length across the face of heaven.

How many nights, and years, and ages have I journeyed thus! A
witness of the universal birth and of a like decay; Innumerable
are the generations I have garnered with my scythe. Like God, I am
eternal! The nurse of Earth, I cradle it each night upon a bed
both soft and warm. The same recurring feasts; the same unending
toil! Each morning I depart, each evening I return, bearing within
my mantle's ample folds all that my scythe has gathered. And then
I scatter them to the four winds of Heaven!

* * * * *

When the high billows run, when the heavens weep, and shrieking
winds lash ocean into madness, then in the turmoil and the tumult
do I fling myself upon the surging waves, and lo! the tempest
softly cradles me, as in her hammock sways a queen. The foaming
waters cool my weary feet, burning from bathing in the falling
tears of countless generations that have clung to them in vain
endeavour to arrest my steps.

Then, when the storm has ceased, after its roar has calmed me like
a lullaby, I bow my head: the hurricane, raging in fury but a
moment earlier dies instantly. No longer does it live, but neither
do the men, the ships, the navies that lately sailed upon the
bosom of the waters.

'Mid all that I have seen and known,--peoples and thrones, loves,
glories, sorrows, virtues--what have I ever loved? Nothing--except
the mantling shroud that covers me!

My horse! ah, yes! my horse! I love thee too! How thou rushest
o'er the world! thy hoofs of steel resounding on the heads bruised
by thy speeding feet. Thy tail is straight and crisp, thine eyes
dart flames, the mane upon thy neck flies in the wind, as on we
dash upon our maddened course. Never art thou weary! Never do we
rest! Never do we sleep! Thy neighing portends war; thy smoking
nostrils spread a pestilence that, mist-like, hovers over earth.
Where'er my arrows fly, thou overturnest pyramids and empires,
trampling crowns beneath thy hoofs; All men respect thee; nay,
adore thee! To invoke thy favour, popes offer thee their triple
crowns, and kings their sceptres; peoples, their secret sorrows;
poets, their renown. All cringe and kneel before thee, yet thou
rushest on over their prostrate forms.

Ah, noble steed! Sole gift from heaven! Thy tendons are of iron,
thy head is of bronze. Thou canst pursue thy course for centuries
as swiftly as if borne up by eagle's wings; and when, once in a
thousand years, resistless hunger comes, thy food is human flesh,
thy drink, men's tears. My steed! I love thee as Pale Death alone
can love!

* * * * *

Ah! I have lived so long! How many things I know! How many
mysteries of the universe are shut within my breast!

Sometimes, after I have hurled a myriad of darts, and, after
coursing o'er the world on my pale horse, have gathered many
lives, a weariness assails me, and I long to rest.

But on my work must go; my path I must pursue; it leads through
infinite space and all the worlds. I sweep away men's plans
together with their triumphs, their loves together with their
crimes, their very all.

I rend my winding-sheet; a frightful craving tortures me
incessantly, as if some serpent stung continually within.

I throw a backward glance, and see the smoke of fiery ruins left
behind; the darkness of the night; the agony of the world. I see
the graves that are the work of these, my hands; I see the
background of the past--'tis nothingness! My weary body, heavy
head, and tired feet, sink, seeking rest. My eyes turn towards a
glowing horizon, boundless, immense, seeming to grow increasingly
in height and depth. I shall devour it, as I have devoured all
else.

When, O God! shall I sleep in my turn? When wilt Thou cease
creating? When may I, digging my own grave, stretch myself out
within my tomb, and, swinging thus upon the world, list the last
breath, the death-gasp, of expiring nature?

When that time comes, away my darts and shroud I'll hurl. Then
shall I free my horse, and he shall graze upon the grass that
grows upon the Pyramids, sleep in the palaces of emperors, drink
the last drop of water from the sea, and snuff the odour of the
last slow drop of blood! By day, by night, through the countless
ages, he shall roam through fields eternal as the fancy takes him;
shall leap with one great bound from Atlas to the Himalayas; shall
course, in his insolent pride, from heaven to earth; disport
himself by caracoling in the dust of crumbled empires; shall speed
across the beds of dried-up oceans; shall bound o'er ruins of
enormous cities; inhale the void with swelling chest, and roll and
stretch at ease.

Then haply, faithful one, weary as I, thou finally shalt seek some
precipice from which to cast thyself; shalt halt, panting before
the mysterious ocean of infinity; and then, with foaming mouth,
dilated nostrils, and extended neck turned towards the horizon,
thou shalt, as I, pray for eternal sleep; for repose for thy fiery
feet; for a bed of green leaves, whereon reclining thou canst
close thy burning eyes forever. There, waiting motionless upon the
brink, thou shalt desire a power stronger than thyself to kill
thee at a single blow--shalt pray for union with the dying storm,
the faded flower, the shrunken corpse. Thou shalt seek sleep,
because eternal life is torture, and the tomb is peace.

Why are we here? What hurricane has hurled us into this abyss?
What tempest soon shall bear us away towards the forgotten planets
whence we came?

Till then, my glorious steed, thou shalt run thy course; thou
mayst please thine ear with the crunching of the heads crushed
under thy feet. Thy course is long, but courage! Long time hast
thou carried me: but longer time still must elapse, and yet we
shall not age.

Stars may be quenched, the mountains crumble, the earth finally
wear away its diamond axis; but we two, we alone are immortal, for
the impalpable lives forever!

But to-day them canst lie at my feet, and polish thy teeth against
the moss-grown tombs, for Satan has abandoned me, and a power
unknown compels me to obey his will. Lo! the dead seek to rise
from their graves.

* * * * *

Satan, I love thee! Thou alone canst comprehend my joys and my
deliriums. But, more fortunate than I, thou wilt some day, when
earth shall be no more, recline and sleep within the realms of
space.

But I, who have lived so long, have worked so ceaselessly, with
only virtuous loves and solemn thoughts,--I must endure
immortality. Man has his tomb, and glory its oblivion; the day
dies into night but I--!

And I am doomed to lasting solitude upon my way, strewn with the
bones of men and marked by ruins. Angels have fellow-angels;
demons their companions of darkness; but I hear only sounds of a
clanking scythe, my whistling arrows, and my speeding horse.
Always the echo of the surging billows that sweep over and engulf
mankind!

SATAN.

Dost thou complain,--thou, the most fortunate creature under
heaven? The only, splendid, great, unchangeable, eternal one--like
God, who is the only Being that equals thee! Dost thou repine, who
some day in thy turn shalt disappear forever, after thou hast
crushed the universe beneath thy horse's feet?

When God's work of creating has ceased; when the heavens have
disappeared and the stars are quenched; when spirits rise from
their retreats and wander in the depths with sighs and groans;
then, what unpicturable delight for thee! Then shalt thou sit on
the eternal thrones of heaven and of hell--shalt overthrow the
planets, stars, and worlds--shalt loose thy steed in fields of
emeralds and diamonds--shalt make his litter of the wings torn
from the angels,--shalt cover him with the robe of righteousness!
Thy saddle shall be broidered with the stars of the empyrean,--and
then thou wilt destroy it! After thou hast annihilated everything,
--when naught remains but empty space,--thy coffin shattered and
thine arrows broken, then make thyself a crown of stone from
heaven's highest mount, and cast thyself into the abyss of oblivion.
Thy fall may last a million aeons, but thou shalt die at last.
Because the world must end; all, all must die,--except Satan!
Immortal more than God! I live to bring chaos into other worlds!

DEATH.

But thou hast not, as I, this vista of eternal nothingness before
thee; thou dost not suffer with this death-like cold, as I.

SATAN.

Nay, but I quiver under fierce and unrelaxing hearts of molten
lava, which burn the doomed and which e'en I cannot escape.

For thou, at least, hast only to destroy. But I bring birth and I
give life. I direct empires and govern the affairs of States and
of hearts.

I must be everywhere. The precious metals flow, the diamonds
glitter, and men's names resound at my command. I whisper in the
ears of women, of poets, and of statesmen, words of love, of
glory, of ambition. With Messalina and Nero, at Paris and at
Babylon, within the self-same moment do I dwell. Let a new island
be discovered, I fly to it ere man can set foot there; though it
be but a rock encircled by the sea, I am there in advance of men
who will dispute for its possession. I lounge, at the same
instant, on a courtesan's couch and on the perfumed beds of
emperors. Hatred and envy, pride and wrath, pour from my lips in
simultaneous utterance. By night and day I work. While men ate
burning Christians, I luxuriate voluptuously in baths perfumed
with roses; I race in chariots; yield to deep despair; or boast
aloud in pride.

At times I have believed that I embodied the whole world, and all
that I have seen took place, in verity, within my being.

Sometimes I weary, lose my reason, and indulge in such mad follies
that the most worthless of my minions ridicule me while they pity
me.

No creature cares for me; nowhere am I loved,--neither in heaven,
of which I am a son, nor yet in hell, where I am lord, nor upon
earth, where men deem me a god. Naught do I see but paroxysms of
rage, rivers of blood, or maddened frenzy. Ne'er shall my eyelids
close in slumber, never my spirit find repose, whilst thou, at
least, canst rest thy head upon the cool, green freshness of the
grave. Yea, I must ever dwell amid the glare of palaces, must
listen to the curses of the starving, or inhale the stench of
crimes that cry aloud to heaven.

God, whom I hate, has punished me indeed! But my soul is greater
even than His wrath; in one deep sigh I could the whole world draw
into my breast, where it would burn eternally, even as I.

When, Lord, shall thy great trumpet sound? Then a great harmony
shall hover over sea and hill. Ah! would that I could suffer with
humanity; their cries and sobs should drown the sound of mine!

[Innumerable skeletons, riding in chariots, advance at a rapid
pace, with cries of joy and triumph. They drag broken branches and
crowns of laurel, from which the dried and yellow leaves fall
continually in the wind and the dust.
]

Lo, a triumphal throng from Rome, the Eternal City! Her Coliseum
and her Capitol are now two grains of sands that served once as a
pedestal; but Death has swung his scythe: the monuments have
fallen. Behold! At their head comes Nero, pride of my heart, the
greatest poet earth has known!

[Nero advances in a chariot drawn by twelve skeleton horses.
With the sceptre in his hand, he strikes the bony backs of his
steeds. He stands erect, his shroud flapping behind him in billowy
folds. He turns, as if upon a racecourse; his eyes are flaming and
he cries loudly:
]

NERO.

Quick! Quick! And faster still, until your feet dash fire from the
flinty stones and your nostrils fleck your breasts with foam.
What! do not the wheels smoke yet? Hear ye the fanfares, whose
sound reached even to Ostia; the clapping of the hands, the cries
of joy? See how the populace shower saffron on my head! See how my
pathway is already damp with sprayed perfume! My chariot whirls
on; the pace is swifter than the wind as I shake the golden reins!
Faster and faster! The dust clouds rise; my mantle floats upon the
breeze, which in my ears sings "Triumph! triumph!" Faster and
faster! Hearken to the shouts of joy, list to the stamping feet
and the plaudits of the multitude. Jupiter himself looks down on
us from heaven. Faster! yea, faster still!

[Nero's chariot now seems to be drawn by demons: a black cloud
of dust and smoke envelops him; in his erratic course he crashes
into tombs, and the re-awakened corpses are crushed under the
wheels of the chariot, which now turns, comes forward, and
stops.
]

NERO.

Now, let six hundred of my women dance the Grecian Dances silently
before me, the while I lave myself with roses in a bath of
porphyry. Then let them circle me, with interlacing arms, that I
may see on all sides alabaster forms in graceful evolution,
swaying like tall reeds bending over an amorous pool.

And I will give the empire and the sea, the Senate, the Olympus,
the Capitol, to her who shall embrace me the most ardently; to her
whose heart shall throb beneath my own; to her who shall enmesh me
in her flowing hair, smile on me sweetest, and enfold me in the
warmest clasp; to her who soothing me with songs of love shall
waken me to joy and heights of rapture! Rome shall be still this
night; no barque shall cleave the waters of the Tiber, since 'tis
my wish to see the mirrored moon on its untroubled face and hear
the voice of woman floating over it. Let perfumed breezes pass
through all my draperies! Ah, I would die, voluptuously intoxicated.

Then, while I eat of some rare meat, that only I may taste, let
some one sing, while damsels, lightly draped, serve me from plates
of gold and watch my rest. One slave shall cut her sister's
throat, because it is my pleasure--a favourite with the gods--to
mingle the perfume of blood with that of food, and cries of
victims soothe my nerves.

This night I shall burn Rome. The flames shall light up heaven,
and Tiber shall roll in waves of fire!

Then, I shall build of aloes wood a stage to float upon the
Italian sea, and the Roman populace shall throng thereto chanting
my praise. Its draperies shall be of purple, and on it I shall
have a bed of eagles' plumage. There I shall sit, and at my side
shall be the loveliest woman in the empire, while all the universe
applauds the achievements of a god! And though the tempest roar
round me, its rage shall be extinguished 'neath my feet, and
sounds of music shall o'ercome the clamor of the waves!

* * * * *

What didst thou say? Vindex revolts, my legions fly, my women flee
in terror? Silence and tears alone remain, and I hear naught but
the rolling of thunder. Must I die, now?

DEATH.

Instantly!

NERO.

Must I give up my days of feasting and delight, my spectacles, my
triumphs, my chariots and the applause of multitudes?

DEATH.

All! All!

SATAN.

Haste, Master of the World! One comes--One who will put thee to
the sword. An emperor knows how to die!

NERO.

Die! I have scarce begun to live! Oh, what great deeds I should
accomplish--deeds that should make Olympus tremble! I would fill
up the bed of hoary ocean and speed across it in a triumphal car.
I would still live--would see the sun once more, the Tiber, the
Campagna, the Circus on the golden sands. Ah! let me live!

DEATH.

I will give thee a mantle for the tomb, and an eternal bed that
shall be softer and more peaceful than the Imperial couch.

NERO.

Yet, I am loth to die.

DEATH.

Die, then!

[He gathers up the shroud, lying beside him on the ground, and
bears away Nero--wrapped in its folds.
]

~


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