Edwin Atherstone

(1788-1875 / England)

Israel In Egypt. Book Fourteenth. - Poem by Edwin Atherstone

On the next morning early, Voice Divine
Again to Moses came. ``To Aaron say;
`Stretch out thy rod, and smite the dust; that lice
Through all the land of Egypt it may be.'''

Awe--struck, to Aaron Moses went; and spake
Even as the Voice had spoken. Forthwith then
Beyond the city passed they to the plain,
Where arid was the ground. With outstretched arm,
The rod uplifting, Aaron smote the dust;
And it was turned to lice. Throughout the land,
All dust was changed to lice; which man and beast
Alike infested. Borne upon the air,
Through every house of Egypt,--save alone
The houses of the Israelites,--swarmed the plague:
Therein it went not, nor touched living thing.
But, on the Egyptian dames, who scornfully
Had mocked at Hebrew women, and called out,
Bidding the taskmasters to scourge them hard,
Even as the men,--on them so came it down,
That each to the other, each one to herself,
A loathing, and abomination grew;
For, even from head to foot the vermin were;
Crawled in the porches of their ears, their eyes,
Their nostrils, and their mouths; on hands, and feet;
And over all their bodies; even as flies
Cover the putrid carcass: so that life
Became a misery, and they longed to die.
Over the sprightly youths, and haughty men;
Over all rulers, judges, princes, priests;
Over the king, and over all the land,
The plague was; and to madness many stung,
And many fired to fever, that they died.
Dogs howled; and oxen bellowed, and fell down,
And rolled upon the ground: horses broke loose,
And dashed on franticly, o'er plain, through wood,
As stung by serpents; or in rivers plunged,
Or deep mud wallowed,--their hot flesh to cool.

A cry was o'er all Egypt. Even the priests,--
Yea sorcerers also, who in vain like thing
By their enchantments to bring forth, had striven,--
To Pharaoh said, ``this is the finger of God!''

Yet was his heart still hardened; and their words
He heeded not. To Moses then again
Thus spake the Voice; ``Early at morning rise,
And before Pharaoh, as he goeth forth
Unto the water, stand, and say to him.
`Thus saith the Lord,--let thou my people go,
That they may serve me; else, if thou wilt not,
Behold, I will send swarms of flies, on thee,
Thy servants, and thy people. Every house
In Egypt shall be full of swarms of flies;
Yea the ground also, whereupon they are.
And I will sever, in that day, the land
Of Goshen, in the which my people dwell,
That there no flies shall come; so of a truth,
Mayst thou be taught that I alone am God
In midst of earth. Tomorrow this sign shall be.'''

Early at morning, therefore, went the sons
Of Amram; and beside the river stood,
There to await the coming of the king.
He, drawing near, beheld them; and, for rage,
Fain would have smitten: for, though threatened not,
Well knew he that through them, as punishment
For promise broken, that abhorrëd plague
Had fallen upon him. Mind and body both,
Nigh unto madness fretted,--with harsh voice
Breaking upon them, thus then did he cry.

``Out of my sight, ye wizards! for your deed
This filthiness is. Behold! even on the king
Ye cast your dirt. But, hearken now my word.
This pest, I doubt not, quickly as it came,
As quickly will depart; like your blood--plague,
And those detested reptiles: but, if not,--
Or if yet other magic ye put forth
On me, and on my people,--by all gods
Here swear I, on the gallows ye shall hang,
Till every bone be whitened! Get you hence!
I will not hear you.'' ``For thine own sake, king,
List thou my words,'' calmly then Moses said:
``For not mine are they, but the Lord's. Great sin
Hast thou committed: and the punishment
Lighter than thy desert. For, not content,
To hold enslaved whom thou hadst vowed to loose,--
Their bonds thou didst make heavier; yea, didst send
To servile labor, women delicate,
And maidens young and tender, who, till then,
Such tasks wrought never,--their own household work,
Sole labor they had known. And thy proud dames,
Seeing their wretchedness, no pity felt;
But pointed with the finger; mocked at them;
And bade the taskmasters to scourge them hard,--
Even as the idle men. But now, behold,
Pure as fresh snow from soil, from this foul plague
Pure are those Hebrew women;--thy proud dames
Filthy, abominable, loathsome, vile;
Detesting each the other,--each herself;
All weary of their lives!'' ``And whose the blame?''
Fiercely cried Pharaoh; ``Is not this thy work,
And his, thy fellow wizard? Nought, indeed,
Of this ye threatened; ne'ertheless, 'tis yours:
Gainsay it if ye can. Your insolence
And spite alone had dared it. Take it off,
Or death shall you take off, and speedily;
By Egypt's gods I swear!'' ``Not ours the work,''
Calmly said Moses, ``but the Lord's it was:
Nor threatened, as to come, but sent at once;
A punishment direct, on sin then done:
For thou hadst lied to God. When that last plague
Strongly was on you all, didst thou not say,
`This is indeed from God! Entreat the Lord
That He may take away this scourge from me,
And from my people,--then shall Israel go,
That they may sacrifice unto the Lord'?
Yea, Pharaoh, so thou saidst; and yet, behold,
When He my prayer had hearkened; and the plague
Had bid depart,--harshly didst thou refuse
To let our people go: nay heavier tasks
Didst put upon them; and their women, too,
As slaves didst make to labor! Then, O king,
For thy great falsehood, and the cruelty
Of thy proud dames,--with this abhorrëd plague
The hand of God did smite you. Nor think thou
That threat of thine can make us take it off.
Not ours it is; nor, at our word, will bide,
Or will depart. He only, who hath sent,
Can bid it stay, or go.'' ``Come what come may,
I will not let you go,'' by Satan fired,
Cried Pharaoh: ``and, if soon it pass not hence,
Worse for yourselves, and for all Israel too,
Be sure ye'll find it. Hence then: and think well
Of what ye do; and what may be the end:
For, verily, of your black spells alone,
Believe I all hath been; and, for your god,
A fable still I hold him,--a pretence,--
A cloak to hide your sorcery,--a thing
With which to scare us,--that your cursed race
We may set free. Deceive yourselves no more:
For, though ye split all Egypt; pyramids
And hills fling in the ocean; dry up Nile,--
By Isis and Osiris do I swear,
Our slaves ye still shall be.'' By passion racked,
Words failed him there: but, with a face of fire,
He stared upon the Hebrews,--as with looks
He would have slain them: and, with arm outflung,
Signed them to go. But Moses raised his hand,
Attention asking; and, in calm, firm voice,
Thus spake. ``Even so, O king, the Word Divine
Taught me that thou wouldst do; for, hard thy heart;
And, when beneath the hand of Heaven made soft,
As iron by the fire,--that hand removed,
Hard waxeth it again, as iron cooled.
So, for awhile, perchance, against Heaven still
Thy pride may battle: but, a point there is
Of heat intense, 'neath which in fume doth fly
The solid iron, as in vapour flies
Water, when cast on fire: and point there is,
At which the iron hardness of thine heart
Soft will become as air. Hear now my words;
Then judge if of thy threatening aught we heed.
Thus saith the Lord: `Let thou my people go,
That they may serve me: else, if thou wilt not,
Behold, I will send swarms of flies, on thee,
Thy servants, and thy people. Every house
In Egypt shall be full of swarms of flies:
Yea the ground also, whereupon they are.
And I will sever, in that day, the land
Of Goshen, in the which my people dwell,
That there no flies shall come: so of a truth
Mayst thou be taught, that I alone am God
In midst of earth. Tomorrow this sign shall be.'''

``Tomorrow be it then!'' bellowed for rage
The infatuate King; and, with long hasty stride,
Abruptly left them; yet, with backward glance,
Shot on them wrath and hate. But, suddenly,
Round turned he; and, with threatening arm, and voice
Like maniac's, roared, ``At sunrise send your plague,--
Ere noon I send you death!'' That said, right on,
Hurriedly went he; but still oft looked back,
Fierce--eyed, and muttering; as a beast of prey,
Furious, yet fearful, from yet stronger beast,
Perforce retreating. Nought to him replied
The sons of Amram; but, in solemn mood
Discoursing, toward the city took their way;
That, to the few whom they could find, the words
Of comfort might they speak, and their hearts cheer.

But worse throughout that day the loathsome Plague
Maddened the people. No Egyptian was
Who at his occupation might be found.
No taskmaster was in the field; no smith
Wielded the hammer; not a tool was heard
Of workman, in the garden, or the house.
The dikes, embankments, brick--fields, roads, and walls,
Whereon the Hebrews toiled,--by them alone
Were visited; for, looker--on was none,
Save of their people only. All the streets
Were empty: neither woman nor man dared stir
From out the houses; all in wretchedness
Hid from each other, writhing 'neath the curse.
No food was there prepared, for none could eat;
So vermin all things covered. The king's court
Was vacant: justice slept. To seize the thief,
No hand had been outstretched: for murder done,
None had pursued. Temple, and judgment--seat
Stood empty! All was foul, and desolate!
So, by even vilest things that crawl on earth,
The pride, and power, and majesty of man,
By God may be brought low! The sun went down,
But respite was there none: no soothing sleep
Closed any eye of Egypt. All night long,
From every house the cry of misery came;
And, from the fields and plains, the voice of beasts,
In howl, shriek, bellow; that no spot there was,--
Save in the dwellings of the Israelites,
And in the land of Goshen,--where rest, peace,
And holy silence reigned. But, at grey dawn,--
So from on high commanded,--the plague ceased;
Again the lice were dust! Through Egypt then,
On every man, and woman, child, and beast,
Deep slumber fell: that, when the sun arose,--
As on a country of the dead, he looked; or waste,
Wherein, save bird, and fish, no life there was.

Heavy that slumber over all the land;
But terrible the wakening! for, behold!
While yet the sun shone brightly,--on the leaves,
Dew--steeped, and grasses, and the rippling streams,
A diamond sparkle flinging,--the clear air
Suddenly 'gan to thicken. Cloud was none,
Nor gentlest waft of wind, that from afar,
O'er sea, or desert, might that gloom have brought.
In the same moment, over all the land
At once it fell;--as though the firmament
Black dust were gendering. The bright--blazing sun
Grew dim and ghastly,--as, before his face,
A thick veil had been drawn. Dark,--darker yet,--
Fainter than shadow now,--now blotted quite!

The Hebrews, then abroad, with wonder looked
On field, tree, hill, fast blackening,--as if Night
Had turned again, to strangle the young Day:
And, marvelling while they gazed--suspecting each
His own sight failing,--lc! upon the ear,
Came also wonder strange! A sound it was,--
Or as the feeble twilight of a sound,--
Real, and somewhere; but, in sky, on earth,
At right, or left, behind them, or before,
Still doubtful was; for everywhere it seemed;
As if all air were quickening into life,
And feebly moaning thus. But more and more
It swelled, and deepened: darker, and more dark,
Gathered the veil o'er heaven: and, all around,
Thicker and thicker grew the atmosphere.
Colors the brightest, to an inky hue
Quickly 'gan turn: things distant, were shut out;
Things nigh, appeared as shadows. Louder yet
Became the great, deep, universal hum,
Making air quiver: for the black fog, now,
A cloud of life became; a cloud, from earth
Upreaching into heaven,--from East to West,
From South to North, o'ershadowing all the land!
Silent they stood, astonished, motionless,
Gazing, and listening: and, when toward the ground
At length they looked,--behold, no ground they saw;
But a black sheet of life, o'erspreading all,--
Flies of strange fashion; such as eye of man
Never till then had known,--large--headed, lean,
Bodied like scorpions,--their dark wings outstretched,
And quivering as the horizontal air
Of tropical noon. And lo! even while they looked,
The black wings to the hue of dull red fire
Changed rapidly, till like to flame they grew;
And on their broad fronts, eyes, like diamond specks
In sunshine, 'gan to flicker. More and more,
The murmur swelled, and deepened: and above,
And all around them, when the Hebrews gazed,--
Poised in the air, a mighty sea of life,
Filling all space, they saw,--a fire--like life,
From wings flame--hued; and numberless as sands
On broadest ocean--shore. Anon, behold!
As when, from slumber of long centuries,
In his deep bed the giant Etna wakes,
And stirs the abysmal fires,--cloud heaped on cloud,
From the vast crater, rolls upon the air,
Hill and plain hiding, and the firmament,--
Even so, as by command, rolled on at once,
Cloud upon cloud, that infinite of new life;
Mounting, and sinking; surging to and fro;
Like smoke before a tempest driving on;
And carrying noise as of a mighty wind
Amid the forest, when great trees bow down,
Moaning in thunder. All astonished stood
The Israelites, that living hurricane
Hearing, and seeing: but, erelong, arose,
Though faintly in the distance, other sounds;
Mad bellowing of beasts, and howl of dogs;
Strange shrieks from horses, and wild cries of men,
Women and children,--for the Plague was now
Fiercely at work; nor living thing could 'scape!
Up from their slumber, throughout all the land,
As if fire--scorched, the millions started,--wild,
Screaming with terror and pain: for, wheresoe'er
Was opening left,--in hovel of the poor,
In palace, house, or temple,--therein shot
The living tempest: on the faces poured,
And hands of heavy sleepers; and their stings
Struck deep: nay, through light drapery of the bed,
Pierced to the body; that as one great scald
From head to foot, the torture might have seemed,--
But that the eye, in one brief glance--the ear,
Dinned by the fierce hum,--as from hornet's nest,
Suddenly stirred,--the terrible Plague spake out.

Through all the land of Egypt did it rage,
Save in the houses of the Israelites,
And in the land of Goshen. Therein went
No flies; nor of the Hebrews, at their tasks,
Touched they one man or woman. From deep sleep,
Pharaoh, at length, by his young queen was roused,
The mild--eyed Sirois, ``Awake, awake!''
In terror she cried. ``Again some hideous thing
Is come upon us. Pharaoh, Pharaoh, wake!''

Upstarted he, by that shrill cry alarmed,--
And stared her in the face; as knowing not
What she had said; or wherefore in such haste
She had aroused him. But the murmur deep
Of the life--ocean came upon his ear,
Like far off thunder; and the chorus dire
Of cries, and shrieks,--like a great mist of sound,
From all the tortured city going up.
Paleness of death swept o'er his countenance,
As thus he listened. ``Demons! they have brought
Their pest upon us! though with sudden death
I threatened them, so dared they! But to us
Plague cannot come, my Sirois: no fly here
Can bring his venom: locked is every door;
Each window with its snowy drapery closed,
That not even gnat can enter. Calm thee then.
Here, shut up, will we bide, till dies the scourge,--
As, ere tomorrow, will it,--like the curse
Of those foul reptiles, and that other thing,--
And then, be sure, this their last trick shall be;
For, as I live, ere set another sun,
Those sorcerers shall hang. Fruit, cates, and wine,
And water, have we here: and such light fare,
A day, or even twain, may serve us well:
For no door shall be opened; lest thereat
Plague enter, as before; and force me send
For those vile wizards; promising again
Freedom to Israel, so they take it off.
I will not do it! Safe abide we here;
And, for the people, in best way they can,
Must they endure. The day at length will end,
And end the night; and then, by natural death,
The plague will perish; and the Hebrew's spells
Bring on me no disgrace. To pleasant sleep
Return we then, my Sirois; so the hours
Shall flit away; and we the scourge escape.''

But sleep they knew not; for loud wailing rose
Throughout the palace: on the chamber door
Heavy strokes sounded; and, from those without,
Cries as of agony came. Still, for awhile,
The king regarded not; for word distinct
None could he hear,--so loud the thunderous hum
Of the dire plague; and such the din that rose
From the tormented city. But more fierce
Anon the strokes fell, as by hammers given,
The massive wood to break. From out his bed
Leaped Pharaoh then; and, smiting on the door,
With voice high--pitched cried out, ``Whoe'er ye be,
Get hence! till this plague go, I open not.
Take ye your swords; and to those wizards fly,
And put them to the death, if, instantly
They stay not this foul torment.'' ``We are blind,''
Shrieked then a voice, ``and cannot find the way:
Blind are we all, and mad: from crown to toe
Stung as by hornets. Thou know'st not my voice,
Or would'st not bar me out. I am thy son
Lanetho; help me father, or I die.''

``I cannot help thee,'' Pharaoh shouted back!
``If but one instant I throw ope the door,
The curse will burst upon us. Think, my son,--
What would it profit thee that, like the rest,
Thy sire and mother were stung? We now are safe.
The plague will quickly die: then bear it ye
As best ye may; or, as I bid you, haste,
And end it with your swords, deep in the hearts
Of those accurs'd magicians. Or, if blind
Wholly ye are, then from the windows call
Upon the people, saying, `the king wills
That forthwith ye make speed, and put to death

Then shall it cease.''' ``Oh Pharaoh,'' cried aloud
A voice without; ``so would it never cease:
If they who sent, revoke it not, who else
May their dread spell call back? Send, rather, thou,
Light of the Sun, to those dread men, and say;
`Take off this curse, and Israel shall go free.'
Then will they hearken; and our misery end:
Else quickly end must we, and all the race;
And Egypt be one charnel house; for thus
The threat was, that o'er all the land alike
The plague should fall. Oh Pharaoh! send thou, then,
That it may cease; else, ere new day shall come,
Over the dead alone wilt thou be King!''

``I will not send!'' with harsh voice Pharaoh cried,
``To be again the mock of those accurs'd.
Whether they will, or no, the morrow's sun
Alike will see its death. Then, as ye can,
Endure, if end it ye will not, in blood
Of those who sent it. And now get ye hence:
Ye know my will; and, though till night ye pray,
Vain were it as of clouds to ask for gold.
Haste to the vaults beneath the palace floor;
Or to the catacombs: to that dark night
Plague will not follow you: and the cool air
Will ease your burning. Answer not, but go;
For more I will not hear.'' So to his bed
Pharaoh returned, and found his queen in tears,
Because of that loved son, whom entrance thus
His father had refused. ``Set Israel free,
I pray thee Pharaoh,'' cried she piteously;
``Thou hast no right to hold them. Oft and oft
Have I not said, evil will come of it,
If them we hold in slavery, who for us,
With their own blood and life, deliverance wrought.
I pray thee let them go.'' With gentle words,
And fond embraces, her he sought to soothe;
Predicting for the morrow sure release
From that affliction; for all time to come,
Security from evil, by the death
Of those accurs'd magicians. Long she sobbed;
But ceased at last,--grief by great terror crushed:
For louder yet, and louder rose the cries
Within the palace, and from all around;
As though throughout the city every voice
Sent up its yell: and, mingled with that din,
Came the still waxing roar of the fierce plague;
Millions by tens of millions multiplied;
For vengeance clamoring, and athirst for blood.
In silence then she lay, and Pharaoh too,
Quaking with fear. Speechless, long time they lay.

But now again upon the solid door
Came blows so loud that, lest it should be rent,
Upstarted Pharaoh; smote it, and cried out,
``Whoe'er ye be, get hence: till this plague die,
I open not. Have ye the wizards slain?''

``Oh father,'' cried a voice, ``fling open now,
For but one moment. Sethos 'tis who calls;
None else is here: for but one moment now
I pray thee open; else, before thy door
Wilt thou behold me dead!'' ``I tell thee, son,
I will not open till this plague be gone.
Wouldst have thy father suffer,--and his queen,--
All selfish as thou art, in pity of thee;
Yet thee availing nought? The plague without,
Would enter with thee; and alike wouldst thou
Here be tormented, as where now thou art;
We but thy partners in the misery be;
Nor thou one sting escaping. Speed thee hence;
With thine own sword those cursed magicians kill;
At once then dies the scourge. If thou wilt not,
Endure it as thou may. 'Tis but one night:
At sunrise will it die. Till then, this door
Firm as a rock shall stand.'' Again his cry
Sethos began; but now such din arose,
From priests, and sorcerers, women of the court,
Rulers, and servants, clamoring all at once,
That Pharaoh heard him not: but, in alarm
Lest entrance they should force--the silver bolts
Shot in the staples,--struck upon the door;
And, at the shrillest pitch of voice, cried out;
``Who are ye now? and what your errand here,
At the queen's chamber? Suddenly get hence,
Whoe'er ye be; and smite with all your swords,
Those Hebrew wizards. Nought else can be done,
This curse to stay. I will not ope the door.
Dare ye to force it, by our gods I swear,
Ye all shall die the death.'' Rose then a voice,
Shrill as an eagle's scream; ``Oh father, hear;
'Tis I, thy youngest daughter: open quick:
I am on flame, blind, dying; let me in.''

Then touched was Pharaoh's heart; and he cried out,
``Fall backward from the door; fall back afar,
All, save my child: and Meroë, mark thou well;
Stand close; that, when I open, like the wind
Thou may rush in; and I may shut again
In that same instant.'' Answer was there none;
His words unheard without; so loud the din.

``Oh Pharaoh, open, open instantly,''
Cried Sirois, tears streaming down her cheeks;
``'Tis that young child whom, as my own she were,
Thou know'st I love!'' But Pharaoh heard her not;
For, suddenly, within the chamber stood
A shape gigantic, and of regal mien:
In habit of Egyptian king, the first
In Heliopolis throned. His countenance
Was like pale flame; his voice was soft, and low
As murmur in a rocky seashore cave,
Heard at deep midnight, when the slow waves heave
Upon the pebbly beach, and backward glide
Reluctantly, as moaning at repulse.
With wonder and with terror Pharaoh gazed;
But word found none. Upon him looked the Shape,
With awful eye, and thus. ``From Amun sent,
Come I before thee, king; myself once king,
In days far gone, o'er this Egyptian realm;
Long ere the pyramids: Menes was my name.
Thus saith the god. `Pharaoh, make firm thine heart:
Bow thou no more beneath the unholy spells
Of Hebrew magic. Where thou art, there stay;
So plague can never touch thee. Open not
To priest, or son, or daughter: nay, though all
Thine offspring with one voice cry out on thee;
Hearken thou not. Once opened, through the door,
Will burst the torment--flood; and thou wilt cry
Upon the sons of Amram, as before;
And they will triumph o'er thee: and their hand
Thereafter yet far heavier shalt thou feel.
Baffle them now; and, from this day, their power
Shalt thou make harmless. Heed the terrible god;
Lest thou incense him; and a plague he send,
So dire, that this, against it weighed, were nought.''
Ceasing, the dread form frowned upon the king,
And vanished. Stiff with terror, Pharaoh stood,
Staring on vacancy. His queen, amazed,--
For nought she saw, or heard,--hastily rose;
Grasped his cold, trembling hand, and gently thus.
``What ails thee, Pharaoh?--Speak,--on what dost look?''
``'Tis gone,'' he answered; in a warm embrace
Compressing her: ``A dream,--my sweet,--nought else.
Get thee to bed again. I am forbid
To open, even though priests, sons, daughters, all,
With one voice cry unto me. Come,--to bed.
'Twas but some woman of the palace. She
Must bide it as she may. So must they all;
Else will the god be wroth, and worse plague send;
Heavy, to this, as iron to dove's down......
There,--lie thou still, my Sirois. And, now, mark,--
Oh gods! those shrieks! they stab me to the heart!--
If, in some madness,--though for but one glance,
One atom--instant,--I the door should ope;
And the curs'd hum of but one fly thou hear,--
Tomb thee within the bed: leave not such space
Where even dust might enter.'' Anxiously
While thus he warned her,--on the door again
Heavy strokes sounded; and a clamor rose
Of voices louder gathering momently;
Outcries of terror some; and some of rage,
And all of torment; many, on the king,
Imploring entrance; some, that he would send
To Moses and to Aaron; but so mixed,
So lost in discord, that scarce word at all
Clear meaning brought. Then on the door again
Sharply he smote; and, lifting high his voice,
Thus spake. ``Be silent now; ye clamorous,
And let one speak alone. Who are ye there?
And what your business, that, with such rude noise,
Even at the chamber of the queen ye storm?
Now, let one only answer; and be brief.''

He paused; and instantly a voice was heard,
Strongly uplifted. ``Splendor of the Sun,''
It said, ``thy people all are madness--struck,
By reason of this plague. If no relief
Come quickly to them, they will rend themselves,
Or slay each other. One great cry ascends
From all the city, praying thee again
On Israel's sorcerers to call for help,
And let their people go.'' Upon the valve
Fiercely then Pharaoh struck, that speech to stop;
And in a very roar of fury cried,
``Fools! they would shun one stroke, to suffer ten!
Bear this they must, and shall. I will not pray
Of those detested sorcerers! They shall die,
When this plague dies: and that will be at noon
Of even tomorrow. If the time seem long,
With you it rests to press it in one hour.
Slay those two Hebrew wizards; and 'tis done!
If this ye will not, your own fault alone,
Or folly, smites you; for ye hug the plague
That ye might fling away. Do as ye list:
Immoveable as mountain stand I here:
I will not send to those vile sorcerers;
I will not let that hated Israel go;
I will not, though with clamors ye rend heaven,--
Even but the width of one small barley corn,
This door draw open. Never here can plague
Plant his black foot. Here, my loved queen and I,
Safely defy it. By a God indeed
Had it been wrought, and not by magic spell,
Here, as elsewhere, the scourge had found its way:
Nay, fiercest here of all, for 'gainst myself,
Chiefly the curse was threatened; me to scare,
That I might loosen Israel: but I laugh
At the poor sorcery--Hah--'' With a wild yell
Of terror he stopped: for, suddenly as falls
Shadow on earth, when the thick--volumed cloud
Shoots, tempest--driven, across the noontide sun,--
So suddenly around him darkness fell,
And the Plague--roar burst forth. A hurried glance
Toward the close--draperied window cast he;--no--
Closed was it still,--no fly therein could come;
Yet was the chamber, even from floor to roof,
Filled with the Torment: and, as troops of wolves
Rush on the fallën steed,--even so on him,
From head to foot, the angry thousands poured,
Stings driving: while the vast, deep, sullen hum
Of myriads, calling in their turn for blood,
Horrific came upon him, as night--howl
Of famishing tiger. Madly, with both palms,
He pressed his face; and crushed, and flung them off;
Shrieking aloud: but, ere again his hands
He could uplift, fresh hundreds filled their place;
Fresh stings infixing: on his throat, and neck,
And breast they fell; and wheresoever else
They might find entrance,--therein shooting fire.
His hideous howlings told to those without
That Plague at last had caught him: and fierce joy
Uplifted them; for now they knew that soon
Would the sole help be summoned. 'Gainst the door,
Boldly then thrust they; hoping lock and bolt
To force, and win quick entrance: but in vain:
Firm as a rock it stood. The king, meantime,
Like to a blind man groping,--yelling still,
And stamping as he went,--with arm outstretched,
Sought for the portal--leftward now--now right,--
Like to a drunkard reeling: till, at last,
Coming upon it, back he cast the bolts,--
The key wrenched round,--flung wide;--blind,--howling,--mad,--
Headlong rushed out; amid the thronging crowd
Forcing his way,--assured that in no place,
So fierce as whence he came, could be the plague.

Forgotten was his queen,--but now so loved,
So cherished, so secure. Within that hell
Whence he had fled, stayed she,--yet of her fate,
Thought had he none,--his own keen torment--flame
So maddening, that to all else was he dead.
But she his warning, with attentive ear
Had listened, and remembered. At first sound
Of that new Plague--life,--quickly as the hand
Of loving mother from her infant's face
Wafts the fierce hornet,--even so quickly she,
The silken coverings seized,--above her head
Flung in a heap; and, with a trembling hand,
'Neath neck and shoulders pressed; space leaving not
Whereat even dust might enter. The thick silks,
Like coat of mail secured her 'gainst the darts
Of the loud murmuring scourge; and she alone,
Of all the Egyptian people, felt no sting.

But Pharaoh, urging on, from change of place
No respite found. As if blown on by flame,
Seemed face, and hands, and whatsoever else
The darts might reach. Loud yelling, for awhile
Amid the throng he struggled: but, at length,
Frantic with torment, shrieked,--``To Moses run,
And Aaron: cry to them,--`the king will hear:
Hasten ye, then, before him,--stay the plague,
And suddenly,--then shall your people go.'....
Which of you answers me?...all dumb? all blind?...
Ye then who nigh unto the windows stand,
Call on the men without; and tell my words.''

Thereat, from out the windows a great sound
Of voices flew,--all calling eagerly,
Yet all confused,--voice 'gainst voice clamoring,
That word distinct was none. One man, at length,
The hubbub lessening, with great power spake out
The bidding of the king. His words to hear,
The people ceased their wailing. When they had heard,
Glad were they; and a feeble shout sent up:
Then, toward the well--known house of Aaron, some,
Stretching their arms, 'gan grope along the way.

But in that throng,--for, through the palace gates
The multitude all day had crowded in,
To cry unto the king,--were Hebrew men,
With the Egyptians mingled, all unknown;
And they, untouched by harm, at full speed ran;
And, to the door of Aaron coming, struck
Sharply, and long; and, when he hastened forth,
Cheerily spake, ``Oh Aaron, to the king
Speed thou, and Moses; for he calleth out,
That, if ye come, and suddenly stay the plague,
Our people shall go forth.'' Then Aaron went,
And summoned Moses; and together they
Walked swiftly,--a great pity in their hearts
For that tormented people, who, nigh mad,
Groped blindly through the streets,--for their own sins
'Gainst Israel, and for sin of him who ruled,
Afflicted thus. Within the palace soon
Arriving, mid the throng they found the king,
To and fro staggering; yelling out aloud:
Then Moses, with uplifted voice,--for din
Of outcries all around, and the dire hum
Of the fierce plague, nigh deafened every ear,--
Thus briefly spake. ``O king, awhile be still,
And hear me. Hebrew men have said to us,
`Aaron and Moses, Pharaoh calleth out,
That, if ye come before him, and the plague
Stay suddenly, then Israel shall go forth.'
Moses and Aaron, now before thee stand.
Dost thou repent thee, Pharaoh, of thy sin;
Thy lie to God? and wilt thou now, in truth,
If He take off this plague, let Israel go?''

Then Pharaoh, from beneath the mantle's folds
That wrapped his head, though for protection vain
'Gainst fury of the scourge,--cried piteously;
``Oh! I repent me! Take ye off this plague,
Quickly; then sacrifice unto your God,
Within the land.'' But Moses, answering, said;
``It is not meet that in Egyptian land
We so should do: for we shall sacrifice
Unto the Lord, what all of Egypt hold
Abomination. Lo, before their face
Shall we abomination sacrifice,
And will they then not stone us? We will go
A three days' journey in the wilderness;
And sacrifice unto the Lord our God,
As we shall be commanded.'' Pharaoh then
With tremulous voice cried, ``I will let you go,
That ye may sacrifice unto your God
Within the wilderness: but ye shall not
Go very far away. Entreat for me.''

Then Moses said, ``Behold, I go from thee;
And will entreat the Lord that all the flies,
Even early on the morrow, may depart
From thee, thy servants, and from all the land.
But, deal thou not deceitfully again
Toward God,--refusing to let Israel go;
Else yet again, and with a heavier hand,
Be sure, the rod will smite.'' Thus having said,
And with stern voice of warning,--he went forth
With Aaron from the presence of the king;
And to the Elders, and the people spake:
``A three days' journey in the wilderness,
That we may sacrifice unto the Lord,
Soon may we go, for so hath Pharaoh vowed.
Get ye then ready; that, when comes the day,
At dawn we may set forth.'' From man to man,
Flew the good tidings; and all hearts were glad.

Then, when alone he was, Moses bowed down,
Entreating of the Lord that all the flies,
Even early on the morrow, might depart
From Pharaoh, and his house, and from the land:
And the Lord heard his prayer. But, through the night,
Still rose the din of torment, and the roar
Of the terrific Plague; from earth to heaven
Seeming all air to fill: like thunder's moan
At distance, now,--now, like the uproar wild
Of hurricane--flashes, as, in mountain--waves,
Arrow--swift shot the living ocean by.
Many were they who perished: and, of beasts,
Great also was the number. But, when morn
Donned his first robe of grey, and issued forth,
A stillness fell 'neath all the cope of Heaven:
The burning passed away from beast and man:
And, when the sun had risen, and men looked round,--
Nor in their houses, nor upon the earth,
Nor throughout all the air, one fly was seen!

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Poem Submitted: Friday, October 8, 2010

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