Grim, King of the Ghosts; or, The Dance of Death

A Church-Yard Tale

Matthew Gregory Lewis, Tales of Terror, (1808)

On Horror's head, horrors accumulate.

Othello.

    ---"Why, how now, old sexton? why shake you with dread?
       Why haunt you this street, where you're sure to catch cold?
    Full warm is your blanket, full snug is your bed!
       And long since, by the steeple-chimes, twelve has been told."---

    ---"Tom Tap, on this night my retreat you'll approve,
       For my church-yard will swarm with its shroud-cover'd hosts;
    Who will tell, with loud shriek, that resentment and love,
       Still nip the cold heart of Grim, King of the Ghosts.

    "One eve, as the fiend wander'd through the thick gloom,
       Towards my newly-tiled cot he directed his sight;
    And, casting a glance in my little back-room,
       Gazed on Nancy, my daughter, with wanton delight.

    "Yet Nancy was proud, and disdainful was she,
       In affection's fond speech she'd no pleasure or joy;
    And vainly he sued, though he knelt at her knee,
       Bob Brisket, so comely, the young butcher's boy!

    "---'For you, dearest Nancy, I've oft been a thief,
       Yet my theft it was venial, a theft if it be;
    For who could have eyes, and not see you loved beef?
       Or who see a steak, and not steal it for thee?

    Remember, dear beauty, dead flesh cannot feel,
       With frowns you my heart and its passion requite;
    Yet oft have I seen you, when hungry at meal,
       On a dead bullock's heart gaze with tender delight.

    When you dress it for dinner, so hard and so tough,
       I wish the employ your stern breast would improve;
    And the dead bullock's heart, while with onions you stuff,
       You would stuff your own heart, cruel virgin, with love.'---

    "---'Young rascal! presumest thou, with butcher-like phrase,
       To foul stinking onions my love to compare;
    Who have set Wick, the candle-man, all in a blaze,
       And Alderman Paunch, who has since been the Mayor?

    You bid me remember dead flesh cannot feel,
       Then I vow by my father's old pick-axe and spade,
    Till some prince from the tombs shall behave so genteel,
       As to ask me to wed, I'll continue a maid!

    Nor him will I wed, till (these terms must he own)
       Of my two first commands the performance he boasts;'---
    Straight, instead of a foot-man, a deep-pealing groan
       Announced the approach of Grim, King of the Ghosts!

    "No flesh had the spectre, his skeleton skull
       Was loosely wrapp'd round with a brown shrivell'd skin;
    His bones, 'stead of marrow, of maggots were full,
       And the worms they crawl'd out, and the worms they crawl'd in.

    "His shoes they were coffins, his dim eye reveal'd
       The gleam of a grave-lamp with vapours oppress'd;
    And a dark crimson necklace of blood-drops congeal'd,
       Reflected each bone that jagg'd out of his breast.

    "In a hoarse hollow whisper---'thy beauties,' he cried,
       'Have drawn up a spirit to give thee a kiss;
    No butcher shall call thee, proud Nancy, his bride,
       'The grim King of Spectres demands thee for his.

    My name frightens infants, my word raises ghosts,
       My tread wakes the echoes which breathe through the aisle;
    And lo! here stands the Prince of the Church-yard, who boasts
       The will to perform thy commands for a smile.'

    "He said, and he kiss'd her: she pack'd up her clothes,
       And straight they eloped through the window with joy;
    Yet long in her ears rang the curses and oaths,
       Which growl'd at his rival the gruff butcher's boy.

    "At the charnel-house palace soon Nancy arrived,
       When the fiend, with a grin which her soul did appal,
    Exclaim'd---'I must warn my pale subjects I'm wived,
       'And bid them prepare a grand supper and ball!'---

    "Thrice swifter than thought on his heel round he turns,
       Three capers he cut, and then motionless stood;
    Then on cards, made of dead men's skin, Nancy discerns
       His lank fingers to scrawl invitations in blood.

    "His quill was a wind-pipe, his ink-horn a skull,
       A blade-bone his pen-knife, a tooth was his seal;
    Soon he order'd the cards, in a voice deep and dull,
       To haste and invite all his friends to the meal.

    "Away flew the cards to the south and the north,
       Away flew the cards to the east and the west;
    Straight with groans, from their tombs, the pale spectres stalk'd forth,
       In deadly apparel, and shrouding sheets dress'd.

    "And quickly scar'd Nancy, with anxious affright,
       Hears the tramp of a steed, and a knock at the gate;
    On an hell-horse so gaunt, 'twas a grim ghastly sprite,
       On a pillion behind a she-skeleton sate!

    "The poor maiden she thought 'twas a dream or a trance,
       While the guests they assembled gigantic and tall;
    Each sprite ask'd a skeleton lady to dance,
       And King Grim with fair Nancy now open'd the ball.

    "Pale spectres send music from dark vaults above,
       Wither'd legs, 'stead of drum-sticks, they brandish on high;
    Grinning ghosts; sheeted spirits, skipping skeletons move,
       While hoarse whispers and rattling of bones shake the sky.

    "With their pliable joints the Scotch steps they do well,
       Nancy's hand with their cold clammy fingers they squeeze;
    Now sudden, appall'd, the maid hears a death-bell,
       And straight dark and dismal the supper she sees!

    "A tomb was the table: now each took his seat,
       Every sprite next his partner so pale and so wan.
    Soon as ceased was the rattling of skeleton feet,
       The clattering of jaw-bones directly began!

    "Of dead aldermen's fat the mould candles were made,
       Stuck in sockets of bone they gleam'd dimly and blue;
    "Their dishes were scutcheons, and corses decay'd
       Were the viands that glutted this ravenous crew!

    "Through the nostrils of skulls their blood-liquor they pour,
       The black draught in the heads of young infants they quaff;
    The vice-president rose, with his jaws dripping gore,
       And address'd the pale damsel with horrible laugh.

    "---'Feast, Queen of the Ghosts, the repast do not scorn;
       Feast, Queen of the Ghosts, I perceive thou hast food;
    To-morrow again shall we feast, for at noon
       Shall we feast on thy flesh, shall we drink of thy blood.'---

    "Then cold as a cucumber Nancy she grew,
       Her proud stomach came down, and she blared, and she cried,
    ---'O, tell me, dear Grim, does that spectre speak true,
       And will you not save from his clutches your bride?'---

    "---'Vain your grief, silly maid, when the matin bells ring,
       The bond becomes due, which long since did I sign;
    For she, who at night weds the grizzly Ghost King,
       Next morn must be dress'd for his subjects to dine.'---

    "---'In silks and in satins for you I'll be dress'd,
       My soft tender limbs let their fangs never crunch.'---
    ---'Fair Nancy, yon ghosts, should I grant your request,
       Instead of at dinner would eat you at lunch!'---

    "---'But vain, ghostly King, is your cunning and guile,
       That bond must be void which you never can pay;
    Lo! I ne'er will be yours, till, to purchase my smile,
       My two first commands (as you swore) you obey.'---

    "---'Well say'st thou, fair Nancy, thy wishes impart,
       But think not to puzzle Grim, King of the Ghosts.'
    Straight she turns o'er each difficult task in her heart,
       And---'I've found out a poser,' exultingly boasts.

    "'You vow'd that no butcher should call me his bride,
       That this vow you fulfil my first asking shall be;
    And since so many maids in your clutches have died,
       Than yourself show a bloodier butcher,'---said she.

    "Then shrill scream the spectres; the charnel-house gloom
       Swift lightnings disperse, and the palace destroy;
    Again Nancy stood---in the little back-room,
       And again at her knee knelt the young butcher's boy!

    "---'I'll have done with dead husbands,' she Brisket bespeaks,
       I'll now take a live one, so fetch me a ring!'---
    And when press'd to her lips were his red beefin cheeks,
       She loved him much more than the shrivell'd Ghost King.

    "No longer his steaks and his cutlets she spurns,
       No longer he fears his grim rival's pale band;
    Yet still when the famed first of April returns,
       The sprites rise in squadrons, and Nancy demand.

    "This informs you, Tom Tap, why to-night I remove,
       For I dread the approach of the shroud-cover'd hosts!
    Who tell, with loud shriek, that resentment and love,
       Still nip the cold heart of Grim, King of the Ghosts!"---

    This Tale, as will be immediately seen by all tale-readers, is written in imitation of The Cloud-King, and dedicated (of course) to M. G. Lewis, Esq.

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