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Israel In Egypt. Book Fifteenth - Poem by Edwin Atherstone

Joy was in Israel; for all hoped that, now,
A three days' journey in the wilderness
Verily should they go, and sacrifice
Unto the Lord their God. So, to their tasks
That morn they went not; but within their homes
Abided, and meet preparation made
Of food; and garments, such as might beseem
That solemn festival: and to their fields
Went some, fit victims for the sacrifice
To mark from out the rest: and in all hearts
Great gladness was; and hope of wondrous things
Yet to be done for them. Throughout that day,
And through the night, by their long suffering worn,
The Egyptians heavily slept: but, the next morn,
When the task--masters not one slave could find
At wonted toil; then, to the officers
Above them, angrily they made complaint:
These spake unto the rulers next in rank;
And they to those superior; till, at last,
To Pharaoh came the tidings; and his wrath,
Hot as it was before, made overboil.
For, with the dawn, both he and all his court,
And all the Egyptian people, had arisen,
From torment free; as though that fearful plague,
Of magic alone had been. And, such the cause,
Demons persuaded them; in heart of man
And woman entering; and great wrath and shame
Stirring within them, that, by wicked spells,
Thus had they been tormented, and abused,
Befooled, and mocked. In Pharaoh, chief, had toiled
The great Arch--Fiend; his passions lashing up,
As tempests lash the waves. With burning face,
Hands clenched, teeth set, the mad king paced his room;
Picturing the triumph of those sorcerers,
And his own damning shame: for, in the ears
Of all his court, had he not cried aloud,
His sin confessing; and, of Israel's God,
Mercy beseeching! nay, even word sent forth
To the base multitude,--that they should speed
To Moses and to Aaron, and call out,
``The king will hear; quickly before him come,
And stay the plague; then shall your people go?''
Humiliation foul!--What should he now?
Not he the lord of Egypt, it might seem;
But those accurst enchanters. He had sworn
That, if their threatened plague they dared to send,
High on the gallows should they hang ere noon:
Yet they had sent it: and, in place of death,
Suddenly launched against them,--burning shame!
For mercy he had prayed! ay--prayed to them
Who had defied him! whom he had sworn to slay!
What should he then?--what could,--what dared he do!
He had given promise, Israel should go forth
Into the wilderness for sacrifice.
Before his court, and through his messengers,
Nay through the people all, so had he vowed.
Promise thus public,--promise of a king,--
Could it be now revoked? While darkly thus
He pondered,--from his rulers, sorcerers, priests,
Came prayer, that in his presence they might stand,
High things to speak of. A deep flush of shame
Spread o'er his face, when thus his servants spake:
For, of those rulers, priests, and sorcerers,
Many, no doubt, there were, who his great boasts
Had heard, the plague defying,--and his words,
Harsh and unfeeling, to themselves, and all,--
Commanding them endure it as they might;
For bow he would not to those wizards curst,--
That, on the morrow, of itself 'twould die;
And, meantime, must they bear it; for, like rock,
Firm would he stand. Had they not heard him say,
``I will not send to those vile sorcerers!
I will not let that hated Israel go!
I will not ope this door; for never here
Can plague set foot; and scornfully I laugh
At the poor sorcery''? Yet, afterwards,
Had they not heard him yell, and fling back bolt,
And clash the lock, and madly issue out,
Crying aloud for those same sorcerers
To come before him, and the plague to stop;
So Israel should go forth? Even thus, alas!
His shame those men had witnessed! But 'twas done;
And face them must he; that day,--or the next:
Better at once, then. Thinking, feeling thus,
The sign he gave; and, forthwith, through the door,--
Accustomed reverence paying, as though still
His glory all unsullied,--a long rank
Of lords, and rulers, priests, and sorcerers came,
And stood before him, and in silence paused,
Waiting till he should speak. With eye unfirm,
And wandering, he looked on them for awhile;
Then, with low tone, unsteady, thus began.

``What would ye of the king? His heart is sad;
Such strange affliction seeing through the land,
Nor remedy clearly knowing. If your thoughts
Toward Egypt's good are bent; and ye behold
Aught thereto promising, that may be done,--
Speak freely, whoso' will.'' Before the rest,
Necho, a priest of Isis, then stepped forth:
An aged man, but strong; of aspect stern:
In sacred order, than the Hierarch
Thamusin only, lower: but of mind
Loftier than he; of temper more sedate,
Or greater power o'er passion to hold rule.
With lowly reverence he bowed down; then rose;
And thus to Pharaoh spake. ``Light of the Sun!
With good cause art thou sorrowful of heart;
And all thy priests, and rulers; nay all men
Within this realm: for, through the ages past,
Even from the first of the world's history,
To the day present, never have there been
Afflictions strange as ours. Four hideous plagues,
Such as no man before this time hath seen,
Or known of, by tradition, or in book,
Have visited the land: and who shall say
If, unprevented, may not come even worse!
Things semblative to these, in days gone by,
Oft have we known; but the resemblance such
As shadow bears to substance. Every year
Hath the Nile's crystal changed to muddy red;
But ne'er before to blood, thick vital blood!
Vermin have vexed us; flies in multitudes
Tormented; from the ponds and rivers, frogs
In shoals have risen, and come upon our fields,
Our roads, and gardens: but poor shadow those,
To the great mountain of our later ills.
By natural course, O Splendor of the Sun,
These things are not. Cause preternatural, then,
Must they have had. Either, this Israel's god
No phantom is,--but Power so terrible,
That, even with the mightiest of our gods,
Should he be ranked, and worshipped: or, if he
A fiction only is, a mere pretence
Of juggling knaves,--then, or by Spirit dark,
Of which we know not, or through magic power
Beyond the wisdom of all men, save one,
These ills have been brought on us. Lives the man
Who can believe that, in this world's old age,
A new god hath been found? and, of all men,
By one of that mean, miserable race,
Ages our slaves! Find out new sun, or moon,
Or constellation in the starry host,
Then may new god be found. And what is he,
This wonder new? Seen him have they? or heard?
Or how his being know they? Moses, indeed,
Boasteth that in his presence hath he stood,
His awful voice hath heard: and where, O king,
And in what fashion, did he show himself?
From out the earthquake rose he? or the depths
Of the unfathomed sea? or from the sky,
Thundering, and girt with lightnings, came he down?
Nay; in such guise, perchance, a god of old,
Mortals might visit: not so the new god,--
Old fashions, doubtless, scorning: in a shape
More noble far came he; and with a tone
More terrible spake: a bush on fire, forsooth,
His glory; and his voice the sputtering flame!
And that which spake the flame, rank treason was
'Gainst thee, O king, and Egypt; and a lie
Even to the Israelites! By all the gods
Of the old heaven, companion strange indeed
This Moses hath made for them! Such poor thing,
That, save his stupid people, on the earth
Liveth no man who could believe in him!
A wretched fable is he; not worth breath
For argument, or mockery. Is there, then,
Some Spirit dark, mighty, and yet unknown
To all the world beside, through whom these plagues
Moses hath brought on Egypt? Why, a god
Such potent Spirit would be,--even that same god
Whom we all know, and still propitiate,
The Power of Evil, Typhon. Wherefore, then,
For those vile Hebrews, who him worship not,
Should he on us, who worship him, bring ill?
But Typhon is he not; for this new god
Of wind and bush--on--fire, Jehovah is,--
So named, at least, by Moses; and a god,
Not of all earth, but Israel's god alone;
A phantom, therefore; a mere mock, a cheat!
Nor god, nor Spirit is there, then, through whom
These plagues could he have brought: but, as we know,
A dread reality there is, by which
Sorely might he torment us: that dark power
Of magic, wherein, far above all men,
Accomplished is he: and, by that alone,
Be thou assured, O king, hath all been wrought.
His god of Israel is a mere pretence,
Through which he would o'erawe thee: his true god,
Sorcery is; and thereby hath he done,
What veritable god had scorned to do.
Even from his boyhood, ravenous was he
For all dark learning; feeding evermore;
Yet ever hungry still; so that ripe age,
'Gainst his mere youth, no strength had to contend.
Long ere from Egypt, for foul murder done,
Compelled was he to fly,--thus eminent
In the dark power he stood: but, two score years
Since then have passed: and in the deepest depths,
Be sure that he unceasingly hath worked;
Gathering up knowledge of all mysteries:
Till, at the last, in potence confident,
Hither hath he returned; defying law,
That should have sentenced him; defying thee,
O king; and, with audacious look and word,
Demanding of thee to set free our slaves,
That they, forsooth, might in the desert go
To worship his new god! That power he had
Sorely to vex us, knew he; and this power
A god he named; so hoping most to awe,
And bow us to his purpose. For, if god,
A true god, though to us unknown before,
Plainly through him had spoken, thou, O king,
And all thy priests and rulers, as one man,
Had hastened to obey: but, clear to sight
As sky and earth it is, that this new god
A lie is, merely; a most wretched mask
For magic damnable. Why, every act
That hath been done, is such as gods would scorn:
Not great, and dread, as of Supernal Power,
Wrath pouring upon man; but petty, foul,
Vexatious, venomous; such as poor despite
Of wizard only, would have stooped to inflict.
Bare sorcery is it all. A dead staff, first,
To living dragon changed he; bidding us
Proof therefrom take that from his god he came,
Bearing command divine: but, from their staffs,
Thy sorcerers instantly called serpents forth;
Aid from no god pretending. Verily,
Had it been god indeed, who, for a sign,
That staff had turned to dragon,--not aloof,
Or idly looking on, had he remained,
To see his power thus mocked! A thunderbolt
Would he have hurled among them; or called forth
The earthquake to engulf them. No,--alike
By magic both were done; sole difference this;
One was a giant's power; and one mere man's.
Greater the might that bid a dragon come,
Than that which called the serpents. Nay, the one
Swallowed alive the others; as to show
That Moses, singly, in the dark art stood
Mightier than all thy sorcerers combined.
And how, next, proved he that from god he came?
By turning Nile to blood! Terrific spell,
Truly, that so could work!--but spell alone;
Mere magic still: for even that self--same trick
Thy sorcerers also did; though, as before,
Less in degree of wonder. He, a hill,
They, but a hillock made: yet they, and he,
By same means wrought: and what for him is proof,
Proof also is for them. If he from god
His strength had,--they, too, had from god their strength.
But, while his god saith, `let my people go,'
Ours answereth, `keep that people still your slaves.'
To which, then, should we hearken,--his, or ours?
Yet well thy sorcerers know, that strength of god
None was there in their work; but solely might
Of magic; and, in his, nought else. Alike
In nature both, as hillock is to hill;
In bulk alone unlike. Then sent he frogs,
Vermin, and flies: and these thy sorcerers,
In part, brought also. If, in part, they failed,
What proveth this, save what before was proved,
That his the deeper cunning? Reason none
It brings, to force belief, that other power
Than at the first, he used. No! plain as day
Outstandeth it, that his pretended god
Is, veritably, witchcraft: and himself
Boldly hath made avowal, that his aim,
In so tormenting us, hath been, and is,
And will be to the end, to force from us
Freedom to Israel. Splendor of the Sun,--
If this rebellion be not, against thee,
And 'gainst all Egypt,--let the judges say
What is rebellion. He defieth thee,
Defieth all the realm: our lawful slaves,--
Our property, as much as are our lands,
Our horses, oxen, houses, mules, or dogs,--
On terror of worse plagues, demands from us;
As robbers, upon pain of death, demand
Spoil from the traveller. Laws, indeed, we have
To punish rebels. In the public court,
Such may be tried, convicted, and condemned.
But, for this rebel, trial none there needs;
Since he himself, before thy face, O king,
And in the presence of thy servants all,
Hath blazoned his rebellion. Cause beside
Is there, why formal trial should be none,
For traitor like to him; since much the fear
That his great magic might the law defeat;
Blinding his judges, so that black from white
Could they not know: or, were he cast in chains,
Might make steel fetters, cobwebs. For thyself,
And for all Egypt, boldly say I, then;
No safety is there while this man shall live:
And no assurance is there he shall die,
Save by a stroke, rapid and unforeseen
As lightning from clear heaven. For, be assured,
If but a moment his black spells can work,
To him will victory be--to us defeat.
And if he live, and his old course pursue,
Ruin, erelong, will cover this whole land.
Already, from our rivers, streams, and ponds,
All fish have perished; by his magic killed:
And, of our cattle, by these two last plagues,
Thousands are lost to us; horses, and mules,
Oxen, and sheep; while, of their cattle, none
The Israelites have lost; not even one!
Surely, O Splendor of the Sun, 'twere just
To force from the wrong--doers recompense
To those whom they have wronged. A punishment
Most righteous, then, it were, from them to take
Even three for one, of all that we have lost;
Mules, asses, oxen, horses, sheep, and goats,--
So teaching them that gods o'errule the earth,
And make the stroke of evil to rebound
Upon the striker. But even more than this
Should they be mulcted. Through the land 'tis known
That, while beneath their cursed plagues we writhed,
Nought suffered they at all. Water they had,
While we but blood: no frog their doorway crossed;
Nor was there of them woman, man, or child,
On whom the vermin, or the fly, once touched.
This wrought their magic: but thou, too, O king,
Power hast of magic; power by which to force
Silver and gold from them who have it not,
Or say they have not; and the which to lose,
To them worse plague would be than those they 'scaped.
In answer, then, to their plague, thy plague send:
Their taxes double: and, for each default,
The penalties double also. For our wrongs,
In part thus may they pay us. But, in vain
This, and all else, that remedy, or redress,
For evil done may seem, while yet untouched
Stands the prime cause of all. Thy plague, O king,
Worse plague would answer, if, ere it be sent,
Thou strike not down the sorcerer,--who will, else,
Thee strike; and this whole realm. First, foremost, then,
Let the magician die: all, afterwards,
Will be a downhill journey, smooth and swift:
Else, mountain--climbing; crags, and precipice
Awaiting us at last. O Pharaoh, hear,
And ponder; for, as I have spoken now,
So speak thy princes, judges, rulers, priests;
One thought, one fear, one hope pervading all.''

He ended; lowly bowed; and silent stood,
Approval hoping. But the king sat mute;
Angry, yet fearful: burning, now, to send
Swift vengeance on his enemy, and wipe out
The shame of his debasement; shivering, now,
With apprehension dark of some strange ill
That bitterly might repay him. Life to take
By secret stroke, even if success were sure,
Would argue feebleness, or cowardice,
Unworthy of a king: but, if the blow
Its mark should fail, shame tenfold would be his;
And some dire vengeance, inconceivable,
Even tenfold might requite it. Kingly pride
From danger of reproach to guard;--to 'scape
Peril of retribution, for a crime
Successless in attempt,--and, yet, to slake
Thirst of revenge, for injury and disgrace
Brought on himself, and Egypt,--on safe course,
Or what safe seemed, at length he fixed resolve;
And, his bowed head uplifting, thus replied.

``Garment of fashion wondrous strange, O priest,
Thou offerest to a king; of silk, in part,
But, part, of coarsest flax: a robe, indeed,
Might token him half monarch, and half slave.
As monarch, thou wouldst have him send command,--
Of his own will alone, not law's award,--
That a great criminal die: as timid slave,
Wouldst have him whisper in a murderer's ear,
To take him suddenly off! What! thinkest thou
The king so feeble is, that he need fear
The power of this one Hebrew? So cast down
That, knowing him a traitor, he yet dreads
In public court to arraign him? or so vile
That, vengeance to make sure, and peril 'scape,
He'd have him stabbed in the dark? Great shame, indeed,
Thou flingest on the king,--presuming him
A listener to such counsel. Majesty
And power of monarchs, o'er the herd of men
Soars high as thunder soars above the earth.
Kings hurl their lightning,--and the subject tree
Falls blasted. But, as heaven's dread thunderer
His own time chuseth to let go the bolts,
Even so will Pharaoh his own moment chuse,
And his own manner, to send punishment.
The Hebrew's spells, perchance, are now worn out;
His poisoned shafts all spent: or, if he still
Point, threatening, to his quiver, he shall learn
That every arrow against Egypt sent,
Strikes Israel also; in him rankles most:
For, thy last counsel, priest,--the woof of silk,
Ill matched with vilest flax,--the king accepts.
Let, then, proclaim be made throughout the land,
That whosoever by this plague hath lost
Horse, ox, sheep, mule,--or other living thing,
May from the Hebrews take, even three for one;
Found wheresoe'er, or whosesoe'er they be:
Three horses for one horse, three sheep for one,
Plague--killed. But, if of more they be despoiled,
Then let them go before the magistrate,
And cry for justice. A requital fair
For loss of substance this; and warning, too,
That, Egypt aimed at, Israel will be struck.
But, in like fashion, can we not repay
Bodily torment, terror, hunger, thirst,
By Hebrew plagues inflicted: curse for curse,
Of one same nature both, we cannot send:
But yet, a plague which terror, hunger, thirst,
Mind--torment, will bring on them, can I fling;
And it shall go. Let the tax--gatherers, then,
All tributes double; and all penalties
Laid on default, make threefold what they are.
And to the task--masters let it be said;
`Your slaves are idle still: get ye more work
From their vile bodies: and, if more they grudge,
Stir them with music of the whip, and stick;
Till to the sky, or wheresoe'er he be,
Their howlings reach, and their Jehovah wake,
To help them, if he can.' Moreover, send,
And on the instant,--for the slaves, I hear,
This day no work have done; but in their homes
Abide, quick preparation making all
For their fool's journey to the wilderness,--
Send forth, I say, on the instant, and proclaim
Throughout the city and all parts around,
`Thus saith the king: get ye to work again,
Ye cunning slaves; for ye shall not go forth
Into the desert. If to your false god
Ye must give sacrifice, within the land
Is room enough. When all your tasks are done,
Here worship if ye will; or not at all;
For hence ye shall go never! By all gods
So swear I. To this realm your toil ye owe;
To this earth owe your bodies: work, and die:
Then rot, and with your fat enrich our fields:
For ours ye ever were, and still shall be;
In life, in death. Then know yourselves; and haste
To do the king's command; else, speedily,
Shall vengeance be among you!''' Speaking thus,--
By the Arch--Fiend inflamed,--his starting eyes
Gleamed fire--like; his lips quivered; and his voice,
Like to a tiger's howl articulate made,
On all brought wonder. Sign of audience o'er,
Suddenly making then,--down from the throne
With hurried step he trod, and left the hall.

Astonished, for brief time in silence stood
The princes, lords, and rulers; man on man
Looking, and marvelling. In low tone, at length,
Spake one unto the rest; and all went forth.

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