By the Salpetriere

Thomas Ashe

I SAW a poor old woman on the bench 
That you may find by the Salpétrière. 
The yellow leaves were falling, and the wind 
Gave hint of bitter days to come ere long. 
And yet the sun was bright: and as I knew  
A little sun, with the Parisiennes, 
Means light of heart, I could not but demand 
“Why, now, so near to weeping, citizen?” 
She look’d up at me with vague surprise, 
And said, “You see I ’m old; I ’m very old: 
I ’m eighty years and nine; and people say 
This winter will be hard. And we have here, 
We poor old women in this hospital, 
A mortal dread of one strange bitter thing. 
We would be buried in a coffin, we;
For each her own. It is not much you crave, 
Who ’ve striven ninety years, and come to this, 
And we would have the priest to say a prayer 
To the good God for us, within the church, 
Before we go the way that go we must.  
And sou by sou we save:—a coffin costs,— 
You hear, Sir?—sixteen francs; and if we go 
To church en route, ’t is six francs for the priest. 
There ’s some of us have sav’d it all, and smile, 
With the receipt sew’d up, lest they should lose 
This passport to the grave of honest folk. 
But one may die before; and then there is 
One coffin for us all, and we are borne 
To our last place, and slipp’d within the grave, 
And back they take the coffin for the next.
And if you’ve sixteen francs, and not the six, 
No church, but just a sprinkle with the brush, 
And half a prayer, and you must take your chance. 
Good God! and I shall die: I know I shall: 
I feel it here! and I have ten francs just:
No more!” My tears fell like a shower of rain. 
I said, “Old woman, here ’s the other twelve;” 
And fled, with great strides, like a man possess’d.