Page images

tle deformed creature rolling about on the littered floor of her uncleanly hovel, he had trembled at the sound of her voice and had obeyed it like a beaten spaniel puppy. When he had grown older he had seen that she lived upon alms and thievery and witchlike evil doings that made all decent folk avoid her. She had no kinsfolk or friends, and only such visitors as came to her in the dark hours of night and seemed to consult with her as she sat and mumbled strange incantations while she stirred a boiling pot. Zia had heard of soothsayers and dealers with evil spirits, and at such hours was either asleep on his pallet in a far corner or, if he lay awake, hid his face under his wretched covering and stopped his ears. Once when she had drawn near and found his large eyes open and staring at her in spellbound terror, she had beaten him horribly and cast him into the storm raging outside.

A strange passion in her seemed her hatred of his eyes. She could not endure that he should look at her as if he were thinking. He must not let his eyes rest on her for more than a moment when he spoke. He must keep them fixed on the ground or look away from her. From his babyhood this had been so. A hundred times she had struck him when he was too young to understand her reason. The first strange lesson he had learned was that she hated his eyes and was driven to fury when she found them resting innocently upon her. Before he was three years old he had learned this thing and had formed the habit of looking down upon the earth as he limped about. For long he thought that his eyes were as hideous as his body was distorted. In her frenzies she told him that evil spirits looked out from them and that he was possessed of devils. Without thought of rebellion or resentment he accepted with timorous humility, as part of his existence, her taunts at his twisted limbs. What use in rebellion or anger? With the fatalism of the East he resigned himself to that which was. He had been born a deformity, and even his glance carried evil. This was life. He knew no other.

Of his origin he knew nothing except that from the old woman's rambling outbursts he had gathered that he was of Syrian blood and a homeless outcast.

But though he had so long trained himself to look downward that it had at last become an effort to lift his heavily lashed eyelids, there came a time when he learned that his eyes were not so hideously evil as his task-mistress had convinced him that they were. When he was only seven years old she sent him out to beg alms for her, and on the first day of his going forth she said a strange thing, the meaning of which he could not understand.

"Go not forth with thine eyes bent downward on the dust. Lift them, and look long at those from whom thou askest alms. Lift them and look as I see thee look at the sky when thou knowest not I am near thee. I have seen thee, hunchback. Gaze at the passers-by as if thou sawest their souls and asked help of them."

She said it with a fierce laugh of derision, but when in his astonishment he involuntarily lifted his gaze to hers, she struck at him, her harsh laugh broken in


"Not at me, hunchback! Not at me! At those who are ready to give!" she cried


He had gone out stunned with amazement. He wondered so greatly that when he at last sat down by the roadside under a fig-tree he sat in a dream. He looked up at the blueness above him as he always did when he was alone. His eyelids did not seem heavy when he lifted them to look at the sky. The blueness and the billows of white clouds brought rest to him, and made him forget what he was. The floating clouds were his only friends. There was something-yes, there was something, he did not know what. He wished he were a cloud himself, and could lose himself at last in the blueness as the clouds did when they melted away. Surely the blueness was the something.

The soft, dull pad of camel's feet approached upon the road without his hearing them. He was not roused from his


"Alms! alms!' he stammered. 'Master-Lord-I beg for-for her who keeps


absorption until the camel stopped its tread so near him that he started and

looked up. It was necessary that he should look up a long way. He was a deformed little child, and the camel was a tall and splendid one, with rich trappings and golden bells. The man it carried was dressed richly, and the expression of his dark face was at once restless and curious. He was bending down and staring at Zia as if he were something strange.

"What dost thou see, child?" he said at last, and he spoke almost in a breathless. whisper. "What art thou waiting for?"

Zia stumbled to his feet and held out his bag, frightened, because he had never begged before and did not know how, and if he did not carry back money and food, he would be horribly beaten again.

"Alms! alms!" he stammered. "Master-Lord-I beg for-for her who keeps me. She is poor and old. Alms, great lord, for a woman who is old!" The man with the restless face still stared. He spoke as if unaware that he uttered words and as if he were afraid.

"The child's eyes!" he said. "I cannot pass him by! What is it? I must not be held back. But the unearthly beauty of his eyes!" He caught his breath as he spoke. And then he seemed to awaken as one struggling against a spell.

"What is thy name?" he asked.

Zia also had lost his breath. What had the man meant when he spoke of his eyes?

He told his name, but he could answer no further questions. He did not know whose son he was; he had no home; of his mistress he knew only that her name was Judith and that she lived on alms.

Even while he related these things he remembered his lesson, and, dropping his eyelids, fixed his gaze on the camel's feet.

"Why dost thou cast thine eyes downward?” the man asked in a troubled and intense voice.

Zia could not speak, being stricken with fear and the dumbness of bewilderment. He stood quite silent, and as he lifted his eyes and let them rest on the

stranger's own, they became large with tears-big, piteous tears.

"Why?" persisted the man, anxiously. "Is it because thou seest evil in my soul?"

"No! no!" sobbed Zia. "One taught me to look away because I am hideous and -my eyes-are evil."

"Evil!" said the stranger. "They have lied to thee." He was trembling as he spoke. "A man who has been pondering on sin dare not pass their beauty by. They draw him, and show him his own soul. Having seen them, I must turn my camel's feet backward and go no farther on this road which was to lead me to a black deed." He bent down, and dropped a purse into the child's alms-bag, still staring at him and breathing hard. "They have the look," he muttered, "of eyes that might behold the Messiah. Who knows? Who knows?" And he turned his camel's head, still shuddering a little, and he rode away back toward the place from which he had come.

There was gold in the purse he had given, and when Zia carried it back to Judith, she snatched it from him and asked him many questions. She made him repeat word for word all that had passed.

After that he was sent out to beg day after day, and in time he vaguely understood that the old woman had spoken falsely when she had said that evil spirits looked forth hideously from his eyes. People often said that they were beautiful, and gave him money because something in his gaze drew them near to him. But this was not all. At times there were those who spoke under their breath to one another of some wonder of light in them, some strange luminousness which was not earthly.

"He surely sees that which we cannot. Perhaps when he is a man he will be a great soothsayer and reader of the stars," he heard a woman whisper to a companion one day.

Those who were evil were afraid to meet his gaze, and hated it as old Judith did, though, as he was not their servant, they dared not strike him when he lifted his soft, heavy eyelids.

But Zia could not understand what people meant when they whispered about him or turned away fiercely. A weight was lifted from his soul when he realized that he was not as revolting as he had believed. And when people spoke kindly to him he began to know something like happiness for the first time in his life. He brought home so much in his almsbag that the old woman ceased to beat him and gave him more liberty. He was allowed to go out at night and sleep under the stars. At such times he used to lie and look up at the jeweled myriads until he felt himself drawn upward and floating nearer and nearer to that unknown something which he felt also in the high blueness of the day.

When he first began to feel as if some mysterious ailment was creeping upon him he kept himself out of Judith's way as much as possible. He dared not tell her that sometimes he could scarcely crawl from one place to another. A miserable fevered weakness became his secret. As the old woman took no notice of him except when he brought back his day's earnings, it was easy to evade her. One morning, however, she fixed her eyes on him suddenly and keenly.

"Why art thou so white?" she said, and caught him by the arm, whirling him toward the light. "Art thou ailing?"

"No! no!" cried Zia.

She held him still for a few seconds, still staring.

"Thou art too white," she said. "I will have no such whiteness. It is the whiteness of-of an accursed thing. Get thee gone!"

He went away, feeling cold and shaken. He knew he was white. One or two almsgivers had spoken of it, and had looked at him a little fearfully. He himself could see that the flesh of his thin body was becoming an unearthly color. Now and then he had shuddered as he looked at it because-becausewas one curse so horrible beyond all others that the strongest man would have quailed in his dread of its drawing near him. And he was a child, a twelve-year


old boy, a helpless little hunchback mendicant.

When he saw the first white-and-red spot upon his flesh he stood still and stared at it, gasping, and the sweat started out upon him and rolled down in great drops. "Jehovah!" he whispered, "God of Israel! Thy servant is but a child!"

But there broke out upon him other spots, and every time he found a new one his flesh quaked, and he could not help looking at it in secret again and again. Every time he looked it was because he hoped it might have faded away. But no spot faded away, and the skin on the palms of his hands began to be rough and cracked and to show spots also.

In a cave on a hillside near the road where he sat and begged there lived a deathly being who, with face swathed in linen and with bandaged stumps of limbs, hobbled forth now and then, and came down to beg also, but always keeping at a distance from all human creatures, and, as he approached the pitiful, rattled loudly his wooden clappers, wailing out: "Unclean! Unclean!"

It was the leper Berias, whose hopeless tale of awful days was almost done. Zia himself had sometimes limped up the hillside and laid some of his own poor food upon a stone near his cave so that he might find it. One day he had also taken a branch of almond-blossom in full flower, and had laid it by the food. And when he had gone away and stood at some distance watching to see the poor ghost come forth to take what he had given, he had seen him first clutch at the blossoming branch and fall upon his face, holding it to his breast, a white, bound, shapeless thing, sobbing, and uttering hoarse, croaking, unhuman cries. No almsgiver but Zia had ever dreamed of bringing a flower to him who was forever cut off from all bloom and loveliness.

It was this white, shuddering creature that Zia remembered with the sick chill of horror when he saw the spots.

"Unclean! Unclean!" he heard the cracked voice cry to the sound of the wooden clappers. "Unclean! Unclean!"

Judith was standing at the door of her hovel one morning when Zia was going forth for the day. He had fearfully been aware that for days she had been watching him as he had never known her to watch him before. This morning she had followed him to the door, and had held him there a few moments in the light with some harsh speech, keeping her eyes fixed on him the while.

Even as they so stood there fell upon the clear air of the morning a hollow, far-off sound-the sound of wooden clappers rattled together, and the hopeless. crying of two words, "Unclean! Unclean!"

Then silence fell. Upon Zia descended a fear beyond all power of words to utter. In his quaking young torment he lifted his eyes and met the gaze of the old woman as it flamed down upon him.

"Go within!" she commanded suddenly, and pointed to the wretched room inside. He obeyed her, and she followed him, closing the door behind them.

"Tear off thy garment!" she ordered. "Strip thyself to thy skin-to thy skin!"

He shook from head to foot, his trembling hands almost refusing to obey him. She did not touch him, but stood apart, glaring. His garments fell from him and lay in a heap at his feet, and he stood among them naked.

One look, and she broke forth, shaking with fear herself, into a breathless storm of fury.

"Thou hast known this thing and hidden it!" she raved. "Leper! Leper! Accursed hunchback thing!"

As he stood in his nakedness and sobbed great, heavy childish sobs, she did not dare to strike him, and raged the more.

If it were known that she had harbored him, the priests would be upon her, and all that she had would be taken from her and burned. She would not even let him put his clothes on in her house.

"Take thy rags and begone in thy nakedness! Clothe thyself on the hillside! Let none see thee until thou art far away! Rot as thou wilt, but dare not to name me! Begone! begone! begone!"

And with his rags he fled naked through the doorway, and hid himself in the little wood beyond.

LATER, as he went on his way, he had hidden himself in the daytime behind bushes by the wayside or off the road; he had crouched behind rocks and boulders; he had slept in caves when he had found them; he had shrunk away from all human sight. He knew it could not be long before he would be discovered, and then he would be shut up; and afterward he would be as Berias until he died alone. Like unto Berias! To him it seemed as though surely never child had sobbed before as he sobbed, lying hidden behind his boulders, among his bushes, on the bare hill among the rocks.

For the first four nights of his wandering he had not known where he was going, but on this fifth night he discovered. He was on the way to Bethlehem-beautiful little Bethlehem curving on the crest of the Judean mountains and smiling down upon the fairness of the fairest of sweet valleys, rich with vines and figs and olives and almond-trees. He dimly recalled stories he had overheard of its loveliness, and when he found that he had wandered unknowingly toward it, he was aware of a faint sense of peace. He had seen nothing of any other part of the world than the poor village outside which the hovel of his bond-mistress had clung to a low hill. Since he was near it, he vaguely desired to see Bethlehem.

He had learned of its nearness as he lay hidden in the undergrowth on the mountain-side that he had begun to climb the night before. Awakening from sleep, he had heard many feet passing up the climbing road-the feet of men and women and children, of camels and asses, and all had seemed to be of a procession ascending the mountain-side. Lying flat upon the earth, he had parted the bushes cautiously, and watched, and listened to the shouts, cries, laughter, and talk of those who were near enough to be heard. So bit by bit he had heard the story of the passing throng. The great Emperor Au

« PreviousContinue »