George Sylvester Viereck

The Smile Of The Sphinx

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AND one day of late a dream oppressed me . . .
And in dreams through the long streets I wandered.
(Through the streets with many footsteps throbbing! )
And a burden lay upon my heart,
And my weary eyelids sadly quivered,
And a sob rose choking in my throat,
And the shadow of some rare disaster
Weighed upon the houses of the town,
And encircled by the sombre shadows,
Sombre men with tortured faces walked
( Pallid men with weary tortured faces! )
Through the streets unending to and fro.
Midnight sounded solemn from the tower,
And the stillness trembled as it smote . . .
Further went I on the wonted pathway
Further . . . further . . through the darkling night.
Dark foreboding seized upon my heartstrings . . .
Yet no swifter would I tread the path,
The appalling, vaguely-boded tidings
Later, somewhat later, to discover.
Nightly pilgrims of the monster-city
Stared behind me dimly wondering.
And a woman, dark of hair and feature,
With the gleaming of rapacious teeth,
And her scarlet feather ever nodding,
Seemed to smile . . .
Yet I went still onward, undeterred,
Ever onward, ever, ever onward,
Onward, onward through the darkling town.
And at last I came where stands thy dwelling;
Ever slower grew my lagging footsteps,
Ever slower . . .
Then my eyes beheld the sombre hangings;
They beheld the heavy mourning symbol
That men hang upon their dreary doorways
When a dead man slumbers in the house . . .
Slowly I ascended the steep stairway,
Pressed upon the bell with trembling fingers,
And the heart rose leaden in my throat.
Footsteps . . .
And a woman with sad tear-stained eyes
(Pallid woman with sad tear-stained eyes!)
Set thy door wide open at my summons.
Neither spoke a word: I knew already
What for me within the house was waiting.
But she beckoned and I followed her.
Slow and silent then the stairs we mounted,
Till I stood before thy chamber door,
Where a breath of incense and of roses
Sweetly, sadly floated out to meet me,
And an icy shudder filled my veins . . .
On the bed half hid by fragrant blossoms,
As in prayer thine hands so gently folded,
Thou wast sleeping. Softly I came nearer
One last kiss upon thy mouth to press.
But upon thy pallid, silent features
Was a smile . . . a weird and ghostly smile,
Was a pallid, a mysterious smile,
Past explaining, strange as thou wert strange.
And it seemed as though thou wouldst have spoken,
Given the hidden meaning of the riddle
That the riddle of thine own existence,
That the riddle of all riddles is —
When too soon the icy hand of Death
Came and sealed for evermore thy lips.
And the hour-hand of the quaint old timepiece
That had vexed me with its solemn ticking
When of old within the room I tarried
Stood at twelve . . . I shuddered . . . and I knew.
But the pallid woman now was speaking
(Ah, so pale, and eyes with grief so heavy!)
Seeing how I stood in helpless sorrow:
"Yes, at twelve it was . . . when failed the light,
And throughout the house a tremour passed,
And a dark and sorrow-bringing angel
Stirred the heavy air with noiseless pinions,
And I heard a long, despairing struggle,
Then a fall (ah, dull and heavy fall!) . . .
Then a cry (ah, such a cry!) . . . And then
Death, a shadow, brooded on the bed."
And again I looked upon thy face,
And again I saw the same mysterious
Pallid smile upon thy quiet features,
And remembered how one night of June
I had seen it . . . flickering . . . on thy lips.
And anew I went into the night
From the house bedraped with signs of mourning,
And the woman with the weary voice
(Pallid woman with wan tearful eyelids!)
And the clock, its hands at twelve arrested,
And the bed where Death kept solemn vigil,
And the couch upon which one lay dead
Who was dear upon this earth to me
Ah, but still forever I am seeking
For the answer to the darksome riddle,
That Death's hand with icy touch has closed,
And that now eternity keeps locked.
And wherever my sad footsteps wander,
Evermore I see that pallid smile,
See upon thy lips the hopeless riddle
Past explaining, strange as thou wert strange,
That the riddle of all riddles is!

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George Sylvester Viereck