High on their cliff-edge convent-perch1
They watch—those human birds of prey
For God and Holy Mother Church—
They scan the distance far away,
Report what dahabîyehs gleam,
Where move the faint far clouds of steam.
‘Ho! Theodorus, strong of limb!
To those God-given boats we toll
Thy name is kindred; thou must swim,
And from the passengers claim dole.’
So cries the Elder,—Theodore
Goes grumbling down towards the shore.
Then when our vessel comes in sight,
The Coptic Monk he strips him bare,
Guesses the rolling torrents’ might
To aid his course, and breathes a prayer
For safety from the crocodile,
So plunges headlong in the Nile.
Hand over hand with frequent splash
The swarthy swimmer comes a pace,
Now close beneath, his dark eyes flash,
We see the working of his face;
Another stroke—the rope!—the rope!
He leaps aboard beyond our hope.
In utter nakedness he stands,
He begs for alms and craves for food,
And shows his cross-imprinted hands,
Sure token of his brotherhood;
Puts in his mouth what each one gives,
Then sudden from the deck he dives.
Swift come, swift gone, we watch his head
Slant-wise across the river steer,
We feel his hard-won bit of bread
A whole community may cheer:
Cast on the waters, lo, how soon
We find our gift regiven boon!
[1 The Coptic convent ‘of the Pulley,’ Dêr-el-Bakarah, said to have been founded by the Empress Helena. The patriarch has forbidden the practice, but alms are still solicited, from time to time, by sturdy monkish swimmers.]
(Idylls and Lyrics of the Nile, p. 88)