Israel In Egypt. Book Twenty-Fourth. Poem by Edwin Atherstone

Israel In Egypt. Book Twenty-Fourth.

Moses, meantime, straightway unto the house
Of Aaron speeded back: for, gathered there
By hasty summons, knew he that the priests
And Elders waited him: and when, at length,
All stood attentive, wondering what should come,--
In their astonished ears the words he spake,
Which, by the Voice, to Aaron, and himself
At sunrise had been spoken: how that month,
Thenceforth, first month of all the year should be:--
How, on the fourteenth night, first Passover
Should Israel keep; throughout all time to come
Should keep it as a feast unto the Lord,
An ordinance for ever. And all rites
Thereto pertaining, which prescribed had been,
Even by the Voice itself,--with words distinct,
From first unto the last, did he make known:
So, on that holy feast, might fall no blot.

``And thus, then, shall ye eat it: with loins girt,--
The shoes upon your feet,--the staff in hand:
And ye in haste shall eat it: for, behold,
About the midnight, will the Angel of God
Pass through the city, and through all the land,
And smite the first--born, both of man, and beast.
In that hour throughout Pharaoh's realm will be
A sound of wailing: and, with one great voice,
All Egypt will cry on us to depart.
Therefore, that night, bid ye the people speak
To the Egyptians,--as old custom is
Of guests departing,--asking of them gifts;
Jewels of silver, and gold: for favor great,
In sight of man and woman shall they have,--
Yea honor; and with riches be sent forth.''

That having heard, the priests and Elders went
Throughout the city, and the lands around,
The tidings bearing: and swift messengers,
To Goshen, and all places wherein dwelt
The Israelites, hastened; and in every house
Made known what must be done; that every soul
Of all the people, when the hour should come,
Might be found ready. To the Egyptians soon
Plain was it that again some wondrous thing
By Israel was expected; which, at length,
Might the king force to loose them: and the most,--
Maugre the Spirits of Evil, who still strove
Against the Hebrews hatred and wrath to raise,--
Longed to behold them go: for both great fear
Toward Moses felt they, and a reverence great;
His power well knowing, and his righteous ways:
And even of Pharaoh's servants many there were
In whose sight he found favor. But the king,
And those about him,--sorcerers, priests, and lords,--
Yet made of him their mock: and, day by day,
Seeing that still the threatened Plague came not,
More insolent grew; at Moses, and his God,
Flinging worse scoffs. Nor, when it had been told,
How that the slaves by night toiled secretly,
Preparing to depart, cared Pharaoh aught;
But suffered them, that more might be the laugh
At their cloud--fabric melting. Still the days
Passed cheerfully; and not one shadow signed
The approaching Terror: all seemed joyous and light;
Plague gone for ever; peace eternal come,
Even as the dead had prophesied. But lo!
The earthquake was at hand! The fourteenth sun
Had risen, and set. All preparation made,
All ordered rites preformed,--the Israelites
Stood at the feast of Passover; loins girt;
Shoes on their feet, and staffs within their hands;
All silent, pale, expecting. Suddenly,
About the midnight, there went up a cry,
Throughout the city; a great wail of woe,
Louder and louder waxing; women, and men,
And children, all together clamoring;
All crying out that death was in the house;
Death horrible,--unknown before,--Black Death,
Swift as from lightning. To and fro they ran,
Shrieking and yelling in their misery.
And when, at length, each of the other asked,
The same dread tale heard all,--the first--born slain,
As by a thunder--stroke; yea, like a coal,
Scorched up, and black. Louder than howl of storm,
Over all Zoan rose the wail of woe:
And over all the land, in city, and town,
Village, and lonely house, was heard the wail.

After a joyous banquet, soundly slept
The headstrong king; a vision of the night
His pride uplifting: for, before his feet,
Prostrate lay Moses; a low voice of prayer
For pardon uttering; and him owning king
For ever, and sole lord o'er Israel:
Even as he would, to deal unto them life,
Or death; labor, or ease; pleasure, or pain,--
His slaves they, body and soul. With lifted foot,
Upon the neck of the great sorcerer,
So dreaded once, in dust so humbled now,
Threatening to tread, he stood,--when, on his arm
A grasp,--and, close to his ear, a hurried voice,
Quivering with terror,--roused him. ``Pharaoh, list--
Some evil is there. Hark! Oh God, oh God,
The Plague,--the Plague is on us! Hush,--again,--
Didst thou not hear a cry, `my son, my son,
My first--born!' Ha! a sea of voices now
Roars o'er the city! Up; up; get thee up,
My Pharaoh; to thy first--born let us haste.
And bid the leech be nigh, lest sickness come.
Haste, haste. Oh gods have mercy!'' With faint tone
Thus ending, from her bed the queen arose,
And flung a robe around her. Pharaoh, too,
Silent with stroke of fear, rose hurriedly,
And robed himself; and both together then
Were passing from the chamber, when, behold!
Even in the palace a loud wail burst forth,
So hideous, that they started, and stepped back,
And looked each other in the face, and griped
Each on the arm of the other, and stood still,
Ghastly as death. But, nigh and nigher came
The outcry; every instant louder still,
And wilder waxing. Staggering, went the king;
Drew wide the door: and, close without, beheld
A throng of women, and men, with heads bent low,
Wringing their hands; weeping and wailing loud,
As each for a lost child. When him they saw,
At once they ceased their cry. He could not speak;
But with looks piteously questioned. On his knees
Then one, the favored servant of the prince,
Sank down before him. ``Splendor of the Sun,
Slay me not for the tidings that I tell!
Thy first--born....'' ``Bring us to him instantly,''
With faint voice gasped the queen, outstepping quick:
``And some of you go swiftly; and the leech
Bid follow. Pharaoh, come.'' With trembling hand,
His arm she seized, and gently drew him on;
Whispering of hope,--though in her was no hope.
Speechless,--with foot unsteady,--all strength lost,--
Jaw dropped,--eyes glaring,--his loose shaking hand
On her frail arm low hanging,--he crawled on,
Smitten at last to the dust. The attendant group,--
As though a corpse they followed to the grave,--
With streaming eyes, and bowed heads, sobbing aloud,
Behind them walked: but, when the chamber of death
Open before them stood, shuddering, drew back.
The father, and his queen, went in alone;
And the door closed upon them. Hushed, and pale,
While those without awaited, momently
The king's wild cry expecting,--once again
Within the palace a great shriek arose;
Another--and another--and a fourth!
And while, all blank with terror, fixed they stood,
Each on his fellows staring, lo! like lead,
Even of themselves dropped one upon the floor;
Black, shrivelled, as a fly scorched in the flame!
All looked upon him,--screamed; and, screaming, fled,
As if, behind them, a grim Death they had seen,
With bony hand outstretched. The king, meantime,
Tottering feebly,--for no hope he had,--
Went onward toward the bed. A snow--white sheet,
All covering up, with icy tongue spake plain,
Death underneath. He touched it,--shivered, shrank;
Dropped on his knees; with both palms pressed his head;
Bowed down, and a low piteous wailing made,
Even like a homeless dog. The weeping queen
Beside him kneeled; his left arm with both hands
Tremblingly grasped, and leaned thereon her cheek,
Lovingly pressing it,--yet no word spake.
All they who in the chamber were, looked on,
Silently weeping. But, when ceased at last
The father's piteous wail,--as from the clouds,
Came in a voice of lamentation dire,
From the whole city rising; then, anon,
The cries within the palace; and, more loud,
And close without the chamber, the great shriek
Of them who, horrified, fled. The attendants all
Looked each in the face of the other; but moved not,
Nor a word uttered. Once, with startled look,
The queen lift up her head; but soon again
Rested her loving cheek on Pharaoh's arm,
And low words 'gan to speak. Nought heard the king;
Deafened by sorrow. But a stroke, at length,
Came on the door; and, white and trembling with fear,
The aged physician entered: on the bed,
And on the kneeling king and queen, his eyes
Fixed, horror--stricken; and stood motionless,
Fearing, he knew not what. But, to the queen
A woman went, and whispered. To the king
Then whispered the fond wife. He shook the head;
But, aided by her weak arm, tottering, rose,
And stood, and turned him toward the leech, and said;
``Too late! too late! even power of magic now
Too late to save!.... Yet, look upon his face;
And say what slew him.'' Slowly moving then,
The aged physician, quaking, mute, advanced,
To look upon the corpse. Near to the head,
Arm locked in arm, stood Pharaoh and the queen;
Shrinking, yet eager--eyed,--on the white pall
Fixing their gaze,--expecting soon to see
The pale, calm face of death. But common death
To this had seemed as life: the shaking hand
Of the scared leech snatched hastily away
The ominous sheet; and lo!--a hideous thing,--
Shrunk as with fire; eyes open, mouth agape,
Tongue hanging out, all black as midnight,--glared
Like a foul demon on them! One dire shriek
The king sent up,--a moment, rigid as stone,
Stood staring; then fell heavily; and lay,
Struggling and foaming. One ear--piercing cry
The queen sent also; but, the piteous state
Of Pharaoh seeing, sank upon her knee
Beside him; and, with fond words, vainly strove
His sorrow to soothe. But the physician now
Spake with authority; and submiss she rose:
With clasped hands then, and streaming eyes, stood still,
Waiting the issue. Water on the face
Freely was cast: on brow, and temple, and breast,
Was pungent essence rubbed: and when, at length,
The eye--lids twinkled; the chest slowly heaved;
And deep sigh followed,--then, all hurriedly,
The leech commanded. ``With a careful hand,--
But on the instant,--lift ye up the king;
And to his chamber bear him; and speak not.''
Thus having ordered,--lest a second glance
Death--stroke should be,--with hasty step he went,
And covered up the corpse. Soon on his bed
The king was laid; and gently, drop by drop,
Life--stirring draught was given; till, with full eye,
Upon his loving queen clear looks he cast;
Tokening of sense returned; but bitterest grief
Torturing the soul. Then on her knees she sank,
Pressing his hand; and, with a trembling voice,
Implored him. ``Oh, my Pharaoh, seest thou not
How vain, how wicked were it, more to strive
Against the God of Israel: for, be sure,
He is it, and not magic, that such things
Hath brought on thee, and Egypt. The first--born
Throughout the land were threatened; and that wail
From all the city, telleth how the threat
Hath been fulfilled. If longer thou persist
Israel to hold in bondage,--think, oh think
What then may be the punishment! That same Power
Which smote the son, may, next, the father smite;
Nay, even the whole people! Send thou, then,
I do beseech thee, lest even now should come
Worse evil,--for the sons of Amram send;
And beg of them implore their God to stay
This pestilence,--so all Israel may depart
Out of the land for ever.'' While she spake,
Louder, and louder, close without the door,
Was heard a moaning, and a mingled sound
Of many voices talking earnestly;
Like men in grief, and terror. Soon there came
Within the chamber Pharaoh's younger sons:
Soter, the eldest now, and heir to the throne,
Drew nigh unto him; and, with tremulous voice,
Thus spake. ``Oh send, my father, quickly send
For Moses: bid him stay this plague; then go,
He, and his people with him, from the land;
Else shall we perish all. Thy priests and lords
Are gathered at the door; and call on thee
To send the Hebrews forth; yea, this same night,
To bid them hence; even though with silver and gold
Need be to urge them: for, with one accord,
All people cry,--`our first--born hath been slain!'
And death on the whole nation soon may fall,
If Israel go not quickly.'' ``I will send,''
With weak voice Pharaoh said; ``but, will he come?
For, when, in my great wrath,--in sight of all
The princes, priests, and rulers,--from the court
I drove him,--cried I not to him aloud,
`See thou my face no more; for in that day
Thou darest to see it, surely shalt thou die'?....
Yet, haply, when I send, he may forgive;
And come before me. Haste ye then away;
Ye, and the priests and lords who are at hand:
Go on the instant; stay not to speak word;
But go: and, if the Hebrews slumber, strike
Loudly upon the door, till they arise.
And, when ye shall behold them, then cry out,
Even all together, imploring them, once more
To come before me; for, in verity, now,
Shall their whole wish be granted. In your hands
Take with you jewels of silver, and jewels of gold;
All that ye have upon you:--and of mine,--
There, on the porphyry table--take them quick,--
Rings, chains, necklaces, armlets,--take them all,--
All save the ruby alone: and, when ye see
That they have both set forth,--then, in the house
Of Aaron enter; and, to them within,
Give freely, saying,--`get ye out with speed
From Egypt, all ye Hebrews,--even this night
Get ye all forth. Your young, your old, your flocks,
Your herds, your cattle,--whatsoe'er is yours,
Take with you, and depart,--for thus the king
His will hath spoken. When the sun shall rise,
In the desert let him see you. Unto all
Your people this make known; and bid them ask,
Each of Egyptian neighbour, jewels of gold,
And jewels of silver,--as the custom is
Of guests departing,--for the king will send
Command that such be given you, with free hand,
Even as we now have given.' ``So unto them
Speak ye, and earnestly: then, afterward,
See ye that messengers and criers go
Throughout the city, and the lands around,
Proclaiming so my will. Now speed ye--speed:
Life, death, are on your steps. Away! away!''

Not tarrying to say word,--terror, and joy,
Contending in them,--in their tremulous hands,
From off the porphyry table, the rich gems
The princes eagerly snatched, and hurried forth;
And, to the priests and lords without, declared
The will of Pharaoh. With one impulse then,
At speed went all together to the house
Of Aaron; and on him, and Moses, cried,
Beseeching them before the king to go,
And stay the Plague. ``Even I, O Moses, I,
Thamusin, thy stern enemy of old,
Implore thee lift the curse. Mine eldest born
Hath fallen before it; and my second child
Suddenly lieth sick. Be merciful,
And take away the scourge!'' And even as he,
The stern High--priest,--so, with uplifted hands,
And tearful eyes, prayed all the priests and lords,--
Each mourning his first--born. No word replied
The sons of Amram; but,--for well they knew
Summons would come; and ready stood prepared,--
Straight toward the palace sped. The princes, priests,
And lords, meantime,--as the command had been,--
To the house of Aaron hastened,--jewels of gold,
And jewels of silver,--all that on them were,
And all the king had sent,--with eager hand
Unto the people giving. Nor refused
Any of these, when richest jewel of gold,
Or silver, was thrust on him; ``for great debt
Ye owe to Israel,''--said they; ``and the Lord
Willeth that thus ye do.'' ``Yea, and the king
So willeth.'' cried the prince; ``and this the word
He sendeth to you. `Get ye out with speed
From Egypt, all ye Hebrews;--even this night
Get ye all forth. Your young, your old, your flocks,
Your herds, your cattle,--whatsoe'er is yours,
Take with you, and depart. Now unto all
Your people this make known: and bid them ask,
Each of Egyptian neighbour, jewels of gold,
And jewels of silver,--as old custom is
Of guests departing,--for the king doth send
Command that such be given you, with free hand,
Even as we now have given.' ``So unto you,
Through me, saith Pharaoh. And we hasten now
Throughout the city, and the lands about,
Criers to send, and messengers,--who his will,
To all of Egypt, and of Israel, too,
Loudly shall trumpet forth. Lose not the hour,
Ye Hebrews; but, when next the sun shall rise,
In the desert let him see you.'' ``As thou say'st,''
Calmly a priest replied, ``so do we mean;
So meant; for, wilt thou look upon us, prince,
Thou may behold the shoes upon our feet;
Our loins up--girt; the staffs within our hands;
All ready to set forth: our flocks, and herds,
And cattle, too, are ready; and, of food
For a long journey, such as may suffice:
And, ere the night shall pass, be sure we go;
For thus hath God commanded.'' All this while,
Tremblingly Pharaoh waited; a great fear
Shaking him, lest no more should Moses trust
The tongue that four times to his God had lied;
But, in a righteous anger, should hound on
The Black Death; till all people it should strike,
And Egypt make one charnel--house. Distraught,
This way, and that, he looked, as rose the cries,--
Now, in the palace,--in the city, now,--
Now, shrieks of women; now, hoarse wails of men;
Now, all together rising, like the howl
Of a whole nation perishing. On the face
Of those about him,--on his own pale hands--
Anxiously stared he oft,--dreading to see
Death--shadow on them; and impatiently,
Still muttered; ``Wherefore come they not? long since
Here had they been, so willed. Ah! bent are they
On vengeance; and will have it. Fool! fool! fool!
To hope that yet the fifth time would they trust
Who four times lies had spoken. Send ye forth,''--
At length aloud he cried,--``or haste yourselves,
Some of ye,--to the house of Aaron haste,
And hither bring them. No refusal hear;
But tell them......Ha! they come.'' With staggering foot,
All pride o'erthrown, thus speaking, he went on;
And, half--way meeting them, with lifted hands,
Cried piteously: ``Have mercy! stay this plague!
And by all gods of Egypt do I swear
Never to cross you more! But now, now, now,--
This instant stay it: for, like other plagues,
If three days, or but one, it ravage us,
Dead are we all! Already have I sent
Full word unto your people; and again
Thus do I speak it. Hasten, and get forth;
Both ye, and all of Israel, from the land.
Go--serve the Lord as ye have said: go all:
Horse, camel, mule, flocks, herds,--all that ye have,--
Take quickly, and be gone.......And bless me too.''

Upon the haggard face, and quivering limbs,
Silent awhile, the sons of Amram looked;
Noting the mortal terror; the hard heart,
Soft as an infant's; the great pride laid low;
The tongue, at last, truth speaking. But, even yet,
Misdoubted Moses, lest, what now firm fixed
As earth appeared,--might, under passion's blast,
Sway to and fro like water. Pondering thus,
Came back on him that vision terrible,
Erewhile in spirit seen,--an ocean depth,--
A host engulfed,--gone utterly, as stones,
In deep sea cast!.....Had all illusion been?
A daylight dream,--sense wandering?--or, alas!
A flash from that great mirror, which on eye
Of prophet flings the future;--a thing fixed
As the hills, though unexistent?.....Or, perchance,
A token had it been of what would be,--
Pharaoh repenting not, obeying not?
And, now,--repentant, and obedient,--
The doom might he not 'scape?.....But, what if sin
Again he should commit? Again call back
The God--pledged word,--aiming again to gyve
The limbs of once freed Israel?--Verily, then,
Might the dread hand fall on them; yea, even so
As in the vision shadowed,--utterly
Overwhelming him, and all! With look awe--filled,
Voice solemn as low thunder at dead night,
And eyes that, like to fires on sea--cliff fixed,
Calm warning gave of peril,--thus, at length,
Lifting the hand, he spake. ``Thy words, O king,
Not by the tongue alone, as heretofore,
But from thy soul are spoken. What thou say'st,
That, truly, dost thou mean. Thy stony heart,--
As I foretold would be,--soft hath become,
Even as wax: thy stubborn oak of pride,
As a weak sapling. By power greater far
Than thine, subdued thou feelest; and dost bow
From topmost leaf to root; knowing how vain
Longer to stand resisting. But, the thoughts
Of man are foolish oft: though firmest set
On the right path to go,--yet, urged by pride,
By error led, too easily his feet
Turn off into the wrong; and to the pit,
Or quagmire bring him. If indeed thou seest
That by the veritable hand of God
Thou hast been smitten,--never more will pride,
Or hate, or lust of wealth, so blind thine eye,
That thou may think to oppose it. Well for thee,
If surely, then, thou knowest that God alone
All these great things hath done: but, if, alas!
Again, as heretofore, the power of spells,
Solely, thou deem thy vanquisher; if pride,
Wrath, hate, revenge, and hope of victory yet,
Again should madden thee to make a lie
Of promise to God spoken,--then, O king,
Cometh the end! Let not thy finger stir;
Speak thou not word,--make sign,--give look,--think thought,--
Aiming to bring back Israel, once gone forth;
Or, as the earth by deluge overwhelmed,
Beneath destruction infinite wilt thou lie,
Buried for ever! When the sun hath set,
Couldst thou recall him? bid him backward rise?
As little when, God--led, hath Israel passed
From out this Egypt,--may thou him bring back.
Here, face to face, stand we, who never more
Shall on each other look! word never more
Shall to each other speak! Be, then, thy last,
The words of truth: lie not again to God!.....
As for this plague, already hath it ceased;
Your first--born all are dead. On them alone,--
Even as I said to thee,--the doom was sent.
It is accomplished. For thy sin 'twas sent:
Thou hast repented; and the firm word given
That Israel shall go forth. The rising sun
Will see him in the wilderness. Now, farewell.
My voice thou'lt hear no more: oh! on thy heart
Lettered for aye, as if on granite rock
Deep cut,--keep thou its warning! Haply, then,
The blessing which from me thou hast besought,
Even from the God of Israel may descend.''

Thus having spoken, Moses paused awhile,
Awaiting if the king might answer him.
But all distraught stood Pharaoh; haggard, and pale,
Confused, and trembling; a great terror, and grief,
Still racking him; and no word could he speak.
This when he saw,--to him, and to the queen,--
Who, at a distance standing, with moist eyes,
And hands hard pressed, looked on him anxiously,--
Moses, with pity filled, inclined the head,
Obeisance rendering. Aaron, too, bent low;
Then, with slow foot, together they went forth.

On the instant, Sirois hurried to the king,--
By the hand caught him; and, with loving tone,
And brightening face, thus spake. ``Oh Pharaoh dear!
At last thou hast done well; and never more,
Oh never more to folly wilt return!
Clear as in sunshine seest thou now, that God,
Jehovah, Israel's God, those fearful plagues
On thee, and Egypt, sent. For magic spells,
Think thou of them no more: nor let thy priests,
And sorcerers, as too oft, thy clearer thoughts
With their poor madness darken. Israel gone,
And gone for ever, Egypt will arise
Like a strong man whom sickness had bowed down,
When new health comes upon him as a flood,
And he goes forth rejoicing. Thank the gods
That now our night is gone, and daybreak come.
The past is past. If thou much evil mourn,
Think how much good remaineth: that the worst,
Worse tenfold might have been. Two sons thou hast;
Two daughters; and they love thee; thou lov'st them:
Oh Pharaoh! if that plague had smitten all!
Think, think; and be thou grateful to the God
Who, though incensed to the utmost, took but one!
Ponder on this; and let it comfort be;
But, oh, a warning too! Those terrible words
Forget thou never: think not even a thought
Of touching Israel more!.....But, to thy bed
Return thou now, my Pharaoh; for yet night
Hath much to run; and oh, may gentle sleep,
Like a soft rain, fall on thee; and thy leaves
And flowers, now parched, to new life raise again;
That, as in spring's first freshness, they may bloom;
And once more all this land with fragrance fill.''

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