The idea that thus excited the imagination of the artist was unquestionably noble and august. It was derived from that Egyptian ceremonial which Diodorus has recorded,—the Judgment of the Dead by the Living (Diod., lib. i.): when the corpse, duly embalmed, is placed by the margin of the Acherusian Lake; and before it may be consigned to the bark which is to bear it across the waters to its final resting-place, it is permitted to the appointed judges to hear all accusations of the past life of the deceased, and, if proved, to deprive the corpse of the rites of sepulture.
Unconsciously to himself, it was Mejnour’s description of this custom, which he had illustrated by several anecdotes not to be found in books, that now suggested the design to the artist, and gave it reality and force. He supposed a powerful and guilty king whom in life scarce a whisper had dared to arraign, but against whom, now the breath was gone, came the slave from his fetters, the mutilated victim from his dungeon, livid and squalid as if dead themselves, invoking with parched lips the justice that outlives the grave.
Strange fervour this, O artist! breaking suddenly forth from the mists and darkness which the occult science had spread so long over thy fancies,—strange that the reaction of the night’s terror and the day’s disappointment should be back to thine holy art! Oh, how freely goes the bold hand over the large outline! How, despite those rude materials, speaks forth no more the pupil, but the master! Fresh yet from the glorious elixir, how thou givest to thy creatures the finer life denied to thyself!—some power not thine own writes the grand symbols on the wall. Behind rises the mighty sepulchre, on the building of which repose to the dead the lives of thousands had been consumed. There sit in a semicircle the solemn judges. Black and sluggish flows the lake. There lies the mummied and royal dead. Dost thou quail at the frown on his lifelike brow? Ha!—bravely done, O artist!—up rise the haggard forms!—pale speak the ghastly faces! Shall not Humanity after death avenge itself on Power? Thy conception, Clarence Glyndon, is a sublime truth; thy design promises renown to genius. Better this magic than the charms of the volume and the vessel. Hour after hour has gone; thou hast lighted the lamp; night sees thee yet at thy labour. Merciful Heaven! what chills the atmosphere; why does the lamp grow wan; why does thy hair bristle? There!—there!—there! at the casement! It gazes on thee, the dark, mantled, loathsome thing! There, with their devilish mockery and hateful craft, glare on thee those horrid eyes!
He stood and gazed,—it was no delusion. It spoke not, moved not, till, unable to bear longer that steady and burning look, he covered his face with his hands. With a start, with a thrill, he removed them; he felt the nearer presence of the nameless. There it cowered on the floor beside his design; and lo! the figures seemed to start from the wall! Those pale accusing figures, the shapes he himself had raised, frowned at him, and gibbered. With a violent effort that convulsed his whole being, and bathed his body in the sweat of agony, the young man mastered his horror. He strode towards the phantom; he endured its eyes; he accosted it with a steady voice; he demanded its purpose and defied its power.