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The Last Plague

By Miss Sarah Cohen

It was early in the night, an unclouded moon shone serenely, surrounded by her million of glittering attendants; all was still, for the hours of labour were passed. But the unbroken silence that prevailed was unusual in that delicious clime; for no sounds of music, nor glad voices of gay revelers, fresh from the banquet, were heard in the streets; no tone of merry jesting, or sprightly laugh of maidens, as they bathed in the cool river, broke on the ear. But no wonder that the people mourned the desolation of their land! Proud Egypt was now a waste. Within the last few days there had been a prospect of abundance, and the husband­man’s heart had exulted as he gazed on his fertile fields, which gave such fair promises; or viewed his trees loaded with their, as yet, immature burden. Now, all was desolation! In an hour, nay, a moment, had sped forth the rain. The word of command had been spoken by that powerful and skilful magician, (for so deemed they the prophet Moses,) and, obedient to his call, came down that fearful hail and fire; and the Egyptians mourned the destruction of their cattle, and much of their promised plenteous harvest. The promise had been given for the liberation of the oppressed Hebrews, and  was disregarded, as frequently before, hitherto, after the first moments of terror were over; and again, at the summons of Moses, a new evil came speedily along, and a mighty army of locusts completed, in their insatiable appetite, the utter devastation of the land. Once again had that mighty man stretched forth his hand; when quick, at his word, spread that awful, that palpable darkness, which had shaded the once fair land in heavy gloom. What wonder, then, that an unwonted silence prevailed?

But, though horror-stricken by these tremendous strokes, the king and wise men and priests of Egypt were not yet subdued, and they were still resolved to detain the despised and hated Hebrews in their hard and galling bondage. It was but the very day, on which this beautiful night of the full moon of the spring month had followed, that Moses had again demanded the freedom of his people; when, also, the magicians and men skilled in the secret arts, had been summoned to consult with the king, to devise with him some cunning scheme to arrest the power of their dreaded antagonist. Fools! they knew not who that antagonist was! they weened that it was a mortal with whom they strove, when his hand was strengthened by that mighty One who rules to eternity. It was therefore with slow speech, becoming his station, that the chief priest of Isis, surrounded by his followers and sorcerers, thus addressed Egypt’s ruler: “Let not thy heart be troubled, O king! at the bold speech of the presumptuous rebel, and suffer not these men of Israel to leave our service; are they not our property, born to perform our labour? did we not inherit them, with our land, from our fathers! and shall we now, at the bidding of one of their own race, deprive ourselves of our rightful possession and the product of their toil? Eternal disgrace be ours, to harbour a thought to let them go free! It was none but a few craven hearts, dastards, who could, in the moment of fear, counsel thee, O mighty monarch of this fair land! to consent to such a demand as yon rebel addressed to thee; and to their sorrow shall the slaves experience that we heed not the threats of their leader, though he come armed with tremendous power. And fear not, O king! for the gods will surely aid us in our contest with this new Deity, whose vengeance we are, of late, commanded to dread, and soon will it be seen who will prevail; and we predict a speedy death to the leader of the slaves who would needs be free.” He spoke, and all the priests that filled the presence chamber shouted their assent; and the deluded king but too readily listened to their admonition, and believed in the boast of their supposed power, and had, therefore, wrapped in his fancied security, uttered the imperious speech to the prophet: “Get thee away from me, take heed of thyself, that thou see my face no more; for on the day thou seest my face, thou shalt die.” Moses had reproved him for his breach of faith in yielding to his bad advisers; wherefore he threatened the man of God with his presumptuous words, in the fullness of his arrogance and confidence in his kingly power. Again the magicians came to Pharoah, after he had dismissed Moses, and they rejoiced in their renewed importance, in having induced their king, who was almost ready to yield, to scorn the last warning of the prophet; and they vainly hoped that his power was now rendered unavailing. From morning, till the shadows of evening began to spread over the earth, they had been in earnest consultation with the king, and only when the night had set in, they turned their steps again to their temple of idolatry. And when they had reached there, they again spoke among themselves of the cowardice of two of their order, till then amongst the wisest and most learned of their magicians, who had, on a late awful occasion, when their tricks failed to produce the effect they desired, thrown down the implements of their art, and the books of their science, and boldly said to the monarch of Egypt: “The power to do this is not ours; vain and impotent are all human enchantments; it is not alone the skill of Moses which bringeth desolation on the land, and worketh the mighty deeds we witness, but the finger of God! Not as our gods is the great God of the Hebrews. He reigns over them, and his power extendeth over all; his will may not be controlled; He speaketh his word to thee by Moses, his chosen messenger. Hearken then to his voice, and let the sons of Israel depart in peace.” How did these idolatrous priests scoff as they spoke of those men; but louder arose their laughter of derision, when one of them related how these two men had been seen, that very day, with their wives and children, on the road to the land of Goshen, there, no doubt, to dwell with those people, who had, for ages, been no more than their herds and cattle; inherited, like them, from sire to son: and the very temple of idolatry rang with their peals of scornful merriment!

“But,” said one, “the king was at one time inclined to follow their advice; their counsel seemed wise to him; but a few words from our revered chief showed him the great injustice he would be guilty of in commanding us to divest ourselves of our rightful possessions.”

“Shame on us, though,” said another, “for thus allowing a stranger to outstrip us in our own art; and shame it was in the late king to educate him in our knowledge. He has been diligent, whilst we have grown careless; now he directs  his skill against us, and we also see, by the manifestation of his power, how much yet remains for us to attain; but of this anon; our conquest is attained, and this night ends Egypt’s trouble, when that vile rebel’s life is ended. No more will these sons of Israel make their insolent demands for freedom. The destruction of their leaders will intimidate them into a proper submission to us, their rightful masters. Behold this vase, it seems but small, but if destruction to the whole race of Israel were our object, it could be accomplished by its power.” He then placed before them a small vessel, of a transparent, ruby colour, beautifully formed, and tipped with a golden flame of curious workmanship. “Long have I striven to accomplish this great work, to rid my country of her enemy; my task is done; now ye shall see the success of my labours; straight to the dwellings of these audacious slaves will I repair; I know the habitation of that proud troubler and his coadjutors and brothers, they have dared to menace our land with such plagues, about the midnight hour, its land was never yet visited with; but not the utmost stretch of their boasted skill can accomplish what they have threatened; for ere it be midnight they shall sleep in death; this golden flame shall be removed from this vase by my hand alone, for to no other will I entrust the task; from it, when unsealed and placed within the threshold, such a pestilential vapour will pour forth, that no one may breathe it and live. The subtle and destroying air will soon reach the inmates, and then how broken will be the hopes of those who seek their leaders in the morning, and find foul and putrid corpses! Long and silently have I toiled; sleep has not refreshed my weary frame for many a night; feverish have been the brief slumbers I could snatch since the time these plagues desolated our once fair land. But now all will be well, the workers of mischief will be annihilated; and had I ten lives to lose, willingly would I lose them.”

“ But, father,” said a vigorous and comely youth, “thy cheek is pale; thy hand trembles, be mine the task; trust to me the deliverance of our country, I burn to take vengeance on its enemies; seek thy rest, dear father, destroy not thyself with unnecessary toil, but leave to me the completion of this glorious work.” “Oh! that it might be mine,” exclaimed another youth. “Sorely grieved am I that I may not be present,” cried another; and yet another, and another, expressed a wish that they might share in the great deed which was to rid them for ever of their enemies.

“Brother,” said one of the chief priests, “thy son speaks well, leave to young and more vigorous hands the consummation of thy glorious undertaking.” “Come, father,” again resumed the youth, “let me entreat thee, grant me a portion in the glory; that, which the wisdom of my father has planned, let the hand of his son execute; I will not cease my entreaties till thou yieldest to me; I beseech thee, dear father, to grant me my request.” With earnest words he prayed, and at length his father granted his desire. “Go then, my son,” said he, “on thy way, and falter not.” “No fear, my father, that I falter or fail, I will not pause nor rest till the deed is accomplished; triumphant shall I return; the morn shall witness Egypt’s deliverance from her tormentors; come then, repose in peace, my father, and you too, honoured instructors, distrust me not.” He suddenly paused, all eyes were turned on him; he turned pale, strove to speak, in vain, utterance failed him; a few sharp, harsh sounds, scarce human, escaped from his lips; he looked wildly around, snatched at the vacant air, tottered, fell to the ground—and he lay on the marble pavement an inanimate corpse. In a moment had all this passed; but now his comrades raise him; the skilful men apply their remedies. In vain! life has fled; the father’s cries resound through the temple; “my son! my first born!” Nought avail thy potent remedies, O magician—or thy shrieks and wails, O father! What charm can restore life? what  lamentations recall the tenant breath?  Hoping against reason, his comrades wish to bear him out into the cold air; they advance to raise the lifeless one; suddenly, another, with a hollow groan, convulsively raises his hand to his breast, and with that movement he falls prostrate. A third, with a scream of, horror, sinks down a corpse on his companions’ bodies. Wild shrieks run through the columned sanctuary; another, and yet another, falls headlong to the ground; consternation takes the place of grief. “Ha,” screams one, “the threatened plague is on us, the plague is on us.” They rush madly into the streets; what meets them there? the sky was clear still, serenely clear; still bright and glowing shone the sparkling stars in their deep blue canopy, and as silvery shone the cold moon; but the streets! are they silent yet? Oh no! wild cries of terror, screams of despair, sobs, groans, and lamentations resound on every side. “My first born,” “my only one,” are heard from a thousand tongues, mixed with sounds of agony and affright, and thus with one acclamation they shout, “Oh let us to the king! let us to the king! drive out the sons of Israel! or we are all dead men! To the palace! to the palace!” And still the shrieking, wailing crowd increases; and as they pass on to the royal residence, from palace, from hut, from dungeon, still resounds that fearful cry.

“Art thou not, father, the deliverer of Egypt? didst thou not counsel the king well? doubtless a royal reward awaits thee.” So spoke a young pupil to his instructor, at whose word, but a few short moments before, he would have braved the utmost danger, and thought it glory; but, a beloved brother had been stricken down by his side, and he now saw the utter futility of the scheme which so lately was thought certain of success; his comrades fell fast around him, and he knew not who might be next.

Another scene appears. In a gorgeous apartment, in the habitation of one of Egypt’s proud nobles, a young and beautiful pair, but lately linked by wedlock are seated; their conversation is on the late grievous troubles of the land, but they see nothing, in these visitations, beyond the skill of a cunning magician, who might yet be overpowered by others more skilful yet. They speak confidently of the power of the priests, to render impotent the art of Moses. And then, what retribution, what terrible retaliation, should be taken on those hereditary slaves; what fearful exactions should be imposed of them, when that fell destroyer, who had so desolated Egypt, should be deprived of power and life. From this they turn to many a waking dream of future life, of fame, wealth, glory, love, and royal favour, of the transmission of their honour to future generations, who would, to their latest descendants, hand down the glorious deeds, which the youth had already performed, and those also which he would yet accomplish. Vain thoughts! in the midst of his proud anticipations, his eloquent tongue grows silent, a violet hue o’erspreads his face, fast followed by a ghastly green, and in a moment he is a breathless corpse; her wailings ring through that proud mansion, rouse the menials, and reach the ears of his parents; they hasten into the apartment to know what those ill-omened sounds may mean. A glance tells the tale. “Oh, my child! Oh, my husband!” mingle in their shrieks. But what is this? down, convulsed, falls his favourite attendant, who was leaning over his young master’s cold and senseless body. He gives one struggle, and is as senseless. Another starts, as if from the touch of a being invisible to all but him, and falls on his young master’s corpse, and as inanimate too as he; affrighted the survivors all rush out. Who can stay in the house of death? Grief is for­gotten in their frantic affright. They mingle with the crowd in the streets, and join the wild shout: “Oh, send the Hebrews out before we are all dead.” “Drive them forth without one moment’s delay;” and they hasten forward to the royal mansion. Every moment fresh crowds join them, wailing and shrieking in wild confusion; those who fall, rise no more; they are trampled on, and trodden down by their companions, till not a breath of life dues remain in their bruised and bleeding bodies. They halt not in their course for those fallen ones, for fear triumphed over love. The slave steps now over his fallen master, and brother over brother, exclaiming, “Egypt is lost.”

But there are sounds of lamentation too from those valiant and stern warriors. See them, how they too hasten to the King. Does panic seize them, too? Hark to their cries! They have seen their comrades fall around them, fast as falls the ripened fruit when the tree is shaken by the rude blast. The prison-houses, too, are standing unguarded; the doors are open, and the late captive inmates go forth unheeded. What! has death been there too! Behold, how those wan and wasted creatures drag with difficulty that young child’s inanimate clay to the portals of their late prison, shrieking, “Help for my child!” but soon forgetting grief for that lost one in wild horror, as a terror-stricken group, with frantic shouts, came rushing along the streets: they join the throng hastening to the palace, leaving that young child’s corpse, the body of that only one, so dear, so loved as he had been, their solace in their sorrow, amidst the shouts, “Egypt is lost!” “Seek the wise men of the Hebrews!” “Send them out!” “Haste, oh King! haste, before we are all dead!”

They are now within the precincts of the royal residence; they rush unhindered through the portals, for no armed guards oppose their entrance; unmolested they enter the chambers of state. What! death there, too! Here, on the royal seat, lies the corpse of one of the menials of the palace, his father bending over him, bathing his cold face with his tears, forgetting, in his grief, the sacredness of the place where he had laid the body, which but to touch with a meaner hand than royalty were a crime worthy of death. But listen to those wailings! In rushes Pharaoh, disordered in his apparel. “Hearken to our demands,” called out a hundred voices; “Send out the Israelites, or we are all lost!” “If thou refuse, thy house shall be instantly consumed by fire, and even thou shalt not escape!” “Thou hast brought this trouble on us,” shouted one, furious with rage, forgetting that it was the monarch whom he addressed, and that he had been as much opposed to the release of the bondmen as the king himself; “thou hast destroyed us, but think not to escape thyself,” he said, and raised, with threatening gesture, his hand, armed with a weapon which had been dropped by one of the affrighted guards. “Stay those rash words,” said the king; “thinkest thou that I participate not in this frightful desolation? Death has been busy here also; low in death lies Egypt’s heir. And look around; even as this chamber is every one of this mansion; there is no place within these gates without a corpse struck down by this pestilence! My brightest hope is gone; like you I am bereaved; I mourn, and suffer. We must seek instantly the dwelling of the messenger of the great God of the Hebrews, and humbly beg of him to intercede for us, that this stroke may be removed. We have all sinned, I your king, and ye my people; let us now speed these people on their way, so may we hope that this fearful desolation may be stayed.”

They all leave the palace, the king taking the lead. What a contrast to that disturbed scene below, is that calm, cloudless firmament above; bright as ever blaze those glittering stars, and as lovely and mild does that pale moon pour down her silvery beams. On now hastens that weeping, wailing crowd, in melancholy procession; no longer in the midst of horror, but, in the sad bitterness of grief, they gain the dwellings of their bondmen; all is serene and peaceful there. Quickly they reach the residence of the messenger of God, and, with humble entreaties and deprecating words, the tyrant requests once more the influence of the prophet to arrest the awful destruction which he so recently had impiously defied, when warned of the consequence of persisting in his obdurate perjury. As the mourning multitude pressed on, many a door of a peaceful habitation was thrown open, to see what this unwonted disturbance might portend; but those who  looked out seemed not as if roused from sleep, but with garments girded, and staff in hand, they were prepared for journeying. Their ears are greeted with unusual sounds; it was no more the haughty, exacting, insolent master; oh no; it was the humble, trembling language of supplication that they heard: Oh! men of Israel, we beseech ye leave us;” “Even now, this instant, intercede with your God for us, that this judgment may be removed from our land. We have all sinned, both king and people. Your God is just; terrible is his power; no god is as wonderful as He. Stay no longer, we beseech ye; spare us, for your stay is death.” Others, frantic with fear, shrieked out, “Ye shall tarry no longer; go out, even now, since ye desired to worship your God in the wilderness; depart from the land this very night.” They are obeyed; the dwellings of the Israelites pour forth their peaceful inhabitants, unharmed, unscathed by the pestilence, followed by their flocks and herds, and led on by their venerated leaders, of whom, with humble words, the monarch solicited a blessing for himself and people. And now, with thanksgivings and songs of praise to the God of all worlds for their deliverance, the Israelites turn for ever their steps from the land of their hard captivity.

Note by the Editor.—The above sketch, descriptive of the last plague, comes to us from a subscriber, as the production of a young Jewess of New York. We are aware that it has defects, inseparable from first attempts at composition ; but still we insert it, to encourage our young sister to attempt vain the illustration of her faith, we trust with better success, as her experience, and judgment become more matured.