In Egypt

A poem by Virna Sheard

It was the Angel Azrael the Lord God sent below
At midnight, into every house in Egypt, long ago -
0 long, and long ago.

All day the wife of Pharaoh had paced the palace hall
Or the long white pillared court that was open to the sky;
A passion of wild restlessness ensnared her in its thrall
While she fought a fear within her - a thing that would not die.

She had sent away her maidens - their weeping vexed her ears -
Their pallid faces filled her with impatient pitying scorn; -
But she kept one time-worn woman, who long had outgrown fears,
The old brown nurse who held her son the day that he was born.

The mighty gods had failed her - the river-gods and the sun,
And the little gods of brass and stone - who stared but made no sign,
So she pled with them no longer, her prayers were said and done,
And now she neither bowed her head, or knelt at any shrine.

Her hair was blown upon the wind like wreathes of golden flame,
And the sea-blue of her eyes cast blue shadows on her face,
For she was not of Egypt - but unto the king she came
A captive - yet a princess - from a northern sea-bound place.

She watched the fiery wheel roll down behind the level land,
One small hand curled above her eyes, and one above her heart,
But when the ruby afterglow crept up and stained the sand
She turned and gazed toward Goshen, where Israel dwelt apart.

* * * * *

Nine plagues had wasted Egypt with their tortures grim and slow;
The earth was desolated, and scarred by hail and fire;
Still even yet her Lord refused to let his bondsmen go
To worship in the wilderness, the God of their desire.

The yellow Nile had turned to blood before her watching eyes -
It was branded into memory - a haunting death-strewn sight; -
The very dust upon the street the rod had made to rise
In a living moving horror, of atoms, leprous-white.

The frogs had come as things bewitched; an army without fear
They had broken through the rushes their upward way to take;
And each one followed steadily a voice no man could hear -
While poisoned wind and pestilence came swiftly in their wake.

Then oh, the little flies that swarmed from out the earth and air!
And the murrain of the camels, and cattle in the field!
She prayed the king for love of her to hear the people's prayer
And send the slaves far hither; - but for love he would not yield.

His face was like the carven face upon the basalt door; -
Her beauty could not charm him, her voice had lost its power;
So she wrapped a veil about her and entreated him no more
But sat alone and watched, from out her window in the tower.

She saw the Hebrew leader with uncovered silvery hair
Come with the priest at daybreak to the outer palace gate,
And the rod of woe and wonder they carried with them there, -
Yet Pharaoh bid them enter - for he dared not bid them wait.

But naught prevailed, for sore disease had scourged the low and high,
And the hail of God had fallen and crushed the growing grain,
And a fire no hand had kindled in searing wrath swept by -
Such fire as none had seen before - as none would see again.

Then came the pirate locusts, with a sea-song free and bold; -
The spent and broken people lacked the strength to force them back,
But watched them take the last green blades that never would be gold -
And shut their doors against the foe that turned the meadows black.

Then Pharaoh wavered - more - he called the Hebrews in his haste
Imploring respite - pleading his repentance bitterly -
For there was death on every side, and all the land was waste; -
So the western wind of God blew the locusts out to sea.

Yet not enough. Once more the king denied his given word;
He dared the wrath of Heaven, and he made his heart as steel;
Then all the lights of God went out, and no man even stirred -
But stayed companioned by his fear, in darkness he could feel.

So had each dreadful day gone by, each slow departing night,
And the queen stood now at sunset alone with grief and shame,
When one came running towards her through the failing crimson light,
A little lad, with Egypt's eyes - but hair like golden flame.

"Thou has been long, Beloved!" she cried, and frowned all tenderly,
"Indeed I have not seen thee since the burning noon took wing."
"Mother of mine," he answered, "I have been where I should be
These burdened times of Egypt - beside my Lord the King.

"'Twill take the country many days to gain its old time peace,
But thou shalt suffer nothing; - I, myself, will care for thee
And see that naught doth harm thee - until all these troubles cease; -
These sad and magic doings that no man can solve," said he.

"Ay! That thou wilt," she said. "But tell me, how doth fare the king?
Doth he relent? Or is his face forbidding - dark and cold? -
Or hath he sent thee hither but some word of me to bring
As he cannot leave the council, and now the day grows old?"

He shook his head. "I came because I longed to see thee so; -
And Pharaoh reads the chart of stars while time goes creeping by,
Or he sits in weary silence - or paceth to and fro.
Since he banished the magicians, all fear him - all save I.

"Put on thy golden girdle with the mighty emerald clasp
And thy lotus broidered robe. Braid thy hair all cunningly,
And wear the winged head-dress with the turquois jewelled asp -
Then come and coax him from his gloom. - Thou only canst," said he.

"Wise counsellor!" she smiled; "Nay, but too wise for thy short years,
I will unto the king; - and such great issues are at stake
This time I dare not fail. I must go queenly - without tears
Or humble supplications - but as one no woe can break.

"Stay thou with thy old nurse, Beloved - she sitteth in the hall -
And she will tell thee wondrous tales, to win from thee a smile,
Then take thy supper by her side, and when deep night doth fall,
Go to the tower, whence I'll come, but in a little while."

Arrayed in her most lovely robes she took her stately way
By courtiers unattended, through the palace vast and still.
Her beauty was a thing to hold all bitterness at bay,
To move the hearts of men, and bend their spirits to her will!

She passed beneath the rose red lights that hung from roof and door,
And by unseeing gods, where curled an incense, blue and sweet;
As one who walks in sleep she crossed the cool mosaic floor,
That echoed to the music of her little sandalled feet.

She reached the council chamber and there entered silently; -
But though the bowing wise men had been reeds the wind could sway
Would have noted them as little. She only seemed to see
One face, inscrutable and dark, toward which she took her way.

The king sat still as Fate. "Most High," she said, "I come for truth
Of this new threat of vengeance. There is horror in the air; -
The Ethiopian runner hath brought word to me in sooth
Blood is sprinkled on the door-posts of the Hebrews everywhere!"

"There are rumours - so he sayeth - of an Angel who will slay
The first-born sons of Egypt - should these bondsmen not depart.
Thy people weep in anguish - I myself must hear thee say -
The Hebrew leader threatens no such danger to my heart -

"He is my heart - my inner heart; - 0 straight he is and strong!
To me he meaneth Egypt - Egypt meaneth but my son -
So I would take him swiftly toward the land where I belong
To return to thee in safety when these troubles all are done."

"The streets are filled with mourners; - every day more tears are shed;
The embalmers have grown weary - they will not work for gold -
And everywhere the eye doth see processions of the dead,
Till they seem but mocking phantoms, we watch unmoved and cold."

"Thou wilt not let the Hebrews go - I read it in thine eyes -
There are no gods in Egypt - there is nothing but thy Will -
That sets itself against some force that yet in Strength will rise
But to silence all thine answers and bid thy voice be still."

Then Pharaoh leaned down toward her: "0 most beautiful!" he said,
"There is not a man who liveth dare say so to my face;
And truly were there such a one 'twere better he were dead,
For dead men suffer nothing. - Yet I pray thee of thy grace

"Have patience now to hear me. 'Tis as the Ethiope heard.
They threatened all the first-born; - but the tower is brass and stone;
There my son shall stay to-night, guarded well, I give thee word. -
Where armies could not enter - can one angel pass alone?

"Thinkst thou that I am one to be affrighted by the dark?
A weakling to be played upon - a coward or a fool?
Nay! - I defy the Israelites! - Their weapons miss their mark,
They have roused my utmost anger: it taketh long to cool.

"But thou!" he said; "but thou! Methinks had they but threatened thee
I should perchance have known the very quality of fear; -
Thou thing of perfect loveliness! Content mine eyes will be
Though in the land of Egypt is no blossom for a year.

"But thou art queen, and thou art free; - free now to go or stay,
I would not bind thee to my side - not by one golden hair. -
Leave thou this land of peril e'er the breaking of the day,
Or give thy life to my dark life - and bear what it doth bear."

Then blanched her face to whiteness of the lilies on her gown,
And low she bowed as lilies bow in drift of wind and rain;
"My Lord," she said, "I have no will except to lay it down
At thy desire. As I have done, so will I do again.

"Thou art my king; my son is thine. It is not mine to say
That I will bear him hence. - Yet gropes my soul unto a light;
The quarrel is 'twixt Heaven and thee alone - so I will stay
With him I love within the tower throughout this fateful night."

"And if the Angel cometh through the walls of stone and brass -
And if he toucheth Egypt's son, to seal his gentle breath,
Then will we know that God is God, He who hath right to pass
Our little doors, for He Himself is Lord of Life and Death."

O when the desert blossomed like a mystic silver rose,
And the moon shone on the palace, deep guarded to the gate,
And softly touched the lowly homes fast barred against their foes,
And lit the faces hewn of stone, that seemed to watch and wait -

There came a cry - a rending cry - upon the quivering air,
The sudden wild lamenting of a nation in its pain,
For the first-born sons of Egypt, the young, the strong, the fair -
Had fallen into dreamless sleep - and would not wake again.

And within the palace tower the little prince slept well,
His head upon his mother's heart, that knew no more alarms;
For at the midnight hour - 0 most sweet and strange to tell -
She too slept deeply as the child close folded in her arms.

Hard through the city rode the king, unarmed, unhelmeted,
Toward the land he loaned his bondsmen, the country kept in peace;
He swayed upon his saddle, and he looked as looked the dead -
The people stared and wondered though their weeping did not cease.

On did he ride to Goshen, and he called "Arise! Arise!
Thou leader of the Israelites, 'tis I who bid you go!
Take thou these people hence, before the sun hath lit the skies; -
Get thee beyond the border of this land of death and woe!"

Across the plains of Egypt through the shadows of the night
Came the sound as of an army moving onward steadily,
And their leader read his way by the stars' eternal light
While all the legions followed on their journey to the sea.

The moon that shineth overhead once saw these mysteries -
And then the world was young, that hath these many years been old;
If Egypt drank her bitter cup down even to the lees
Who careth now? 'Tis but an ancient tale that hath been told.

Yet still we hear the footsteps - as he goeth to and fro -
Of Azrael, the Angel, that the Lord God sent below,
To Egypt - long ago.

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