The night is dark, the stars are bright,
Our crew are sleeping sound below,
But on the bank, in ruddy light,
The village watchmen’s faces glow.
The old man sits, his wrinkles tell
He has few watches more to keep;
His son, and his son’s son as well,
Crouch by, to guard the strangers’ sleep.
The talk burns up, the fire burns down,
New flame the broken corn-stalks raise,
And naked limbs, lean, lank, and brown,
Are stretched towards a cheerful blaze.
In that cold land from whence we came,
We sat beside our fires erewhile,
But never knew the joy of flame
Like these poor children of the Nile.
With skirts tucked up to belted waist,
They huddle round it, knees to chin,
They seem its warm-breathed power to taste,
They rub its rosy comfort in.
Old Egypt’s oracles are dumb,
Tho’ yonder burns the Sothic star,1
The Sun-god Horus, Ra, and Tum,
By Nilus’ bank, unworshipped are.
But this red flower of flame that springs
Is kindred to the rose of morn,
And to these village watchmen brings
The blessing that with day is born.
Unconscious votaries the band
Around their burning altar sit,
And offering make, with careful hand,
And break the fuel, bit by bit.
Then when the mist is white as snow,
In abbas wrapt the watchmen rise;
Beyond the Arabian hills, they know,
The dawn prepares its new surprise.
The cocks are crowing in the plain,
The pigeons fly, the village wakes,
The girls go forth to weed the grain,
The Shadûf-man his bucket takes.
Then to their toil afield they fare,
Our guards,—with ne’er a word of thanks,—
And leave behind their seal of care—
Black ashes on the silent bank.
[1 From the rising of this star, Sirius, the Egyptians calculated their Sothic year of 365¼ days.]
(Idylls and Lyrics of the Nile, p.66)