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gustus, who to the common herd seemed some strange omnipotent in his remote and sumptuous paradise of Rome, had issued a decree that all the world of his subjects should be enrolled, and every man, woman, and child must enroll himself in his own city. And to the little town of Bethlehem all these travelers were wending their way to the place of their nativity, in obedience to the great Cæsar's command.
All through the day he watched them -men and women and children who belonged to one another, who rode together on their beasts, or walked together hand. in hand. Women on camels or asses held their little ones in their arms, or walked with the youngest slung on their backs. He heard boys laugh and talk with their fathers-boys of his own age, who trudged merrily along, and now and again ran forward, shouting with glee. He saw more than one strong man swing his child up to his shoulder and bear him along as if he found joy in his burden. Boy and girl companions played as they went and made holiday of their journey; young men or women who were friends, lovers, or brothers and sisters bore one another company.
"No one is alone," said Zia, twisting his thin fingers together-"no one! no one! And there are no lepers. The great Cæsar would not count a leper. Perhaps, if he saw one, he would command him to be put to death.”
And then he writhed upon the grass and sobbed again, his bent chest almost bursting with his efforts to make no sound. He had always been alone-always, always; but this loneliness was such as no young human thing could bear.
He was no longer alive; he was no longer a human being. Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!
At last he slept, exhausted, and past his piteous, prostrate childhood and helplessness the slow procession wound its way up the mountain road toward the crescent of Bethlehem, knowing nothing of his nearness to its unburdened comfort and simple peace.
When he awakened, the night had fallen, and he opened his eyes upon a high vault of blue velvet darkness strewn with great stars. He saw this at the first moment of his consciousness; then he realized that there was no longer to be heard the sound either of passing hoofs or treading feet. The travelers who had gone by during the day had probably reached their journey's end, and gone to rest in their tents, or had found refuge in the inclosing khan that gave shelter to wayfarers and their beasts of burden.
But though there was no human creature near, and no sound of human voice or human tread, a strange change had taken place in him. His loneliness had passed away, and left him lying still and calm as though it had never existed, as though the crushed and broken child who had plunged from a precipice of woe into deadly, exhausted sleep was only a vague memory of a creature in a dark past dream.
Had it been himself? Lying upon his back, seeing only the immensity of the deep blue above him and the greatness of the stars, he scarcely dared to draw breath lest he should arouse himself to new anguish. It had not been he who had so suffered; surely it had been another Zia. What had come upon him, what had come upon the world? All was so still that it was as if the earth waited—as if it waited to hear some word that would be spoken out of the great space in which it hung. He was not hungry or cold or tired. It was as if he had never staggered and stumbled up the mountain path and dropped shuddering, to hide behind the bushes before the daylight came and men could see his white face. Surely he had rested long. He had never felt like this before, and he had never seen so wonderful a night. The stars had never been so many and so large. What made them so soft and brilliant that each one was almost like a sun? And he strangely felt that each looked down at him as if it said the word, though he did not know what the word was. Why had he been so terror-stricken? Why had he been so
wretched? There were no lepers; there were no hunchbacks. There was only Zia, and he was at peace, and akin to the stars that looked down.
How heavenly still the waiting world was, how heavenly still! He lay and smiled and smiled; perhaps he lay so for an hour. Then high, high above he saw, or thought he saw, in the remoteness of the vault of blue a brilliant whiteness float. Was it a strange, snowy cloud or was he dreaming? It seemed to grow whiter, more brilliant. His breath came fast, and his heart beat trembling in his breast, because he had never seen clouds so strangely, purely brilliant. There was another, higher, farther distant, and yet more dazzling still. Another and another showed its radiance until at last an arch of splendor seemed to stream across the sky.
"It is like the glory of the ark of the covenant," he gasped, and threw his arm across his blinded eyes, shuddering with rapture.
He could not uncover his face, and it was as he lay quaking with an unearthly joy that he first thought he heard sounds of music as remotely distant as the lights. "Is it on earth?" he panted. "Is it on earth?"
He struggled to his knees. He had heard of miracles and wonders of old, and of the past ages when the sons of God visited the earth.
"Glory to God in the highest!" he stammered again and again and again. "Glory to the great Jehovah!" and he touched his forehead seven times to the earth.
Then he beheld a singular thing. When he had gone to sleep a flock of sheep had been lying near him on the grass. The flock was still there, but something seemed to be happening to it. The creatures were awakening from their sleep as if they had heard something. First one head was raised, and then another and another and another, until every head was lifted, and every one was turned toward a certain point as if listening. What were they listening for? Heli could see noth
ing, though he turned his own face toward the climbing road and listened with them. The floating radiance was so increasing in the sky that at this point of the mountain-side it seemed no longer to be night, and the far-away pæans held him breathless with mysterious awe. Was the sound on earth? Where did it come from? Where?
"Praised be Jehovah!" he heard his weak and shaking young voice quaver.
Some belated travelers were coming slowly up the road. He heard an ass's feet and low voices.
The sheep heard them also. Had they been waiting for them? They rose one by one-the whole flock-to their feet, and turned in a body toward the approaching sounds.
Zia stood up with them. He waited also, and it was as if at this moment his soul so lifted itself that it almost broke away from his body-almost.
Around the curve an ass came slowly bearing a woman, and led by a man who walked by its side. He was a man of sober years and walked wearily. Zia's eyes grew wide with awe and wondering as he gazed, scarce breathing.
The light upon the hillside was SO softly radiant and so clear that he could see that the woman's robe was blue and that she lifted her face to the stars as she rode. It was a young face, and pale with the pallor of lilies, and her eyes were as stars of the morning. But this was not all. A radiance shone from her pure pallor, and bordering her blue robe and veil was a faint, steady glow of light. And as she passed the standing and waiting sheep, they slowly bowed themselves upon their knees before her, and so knelt until she had passed by and was out of sight. Then they returned to their places, and slept as before.
When she was gone, Zia found that he also was kneeling. He did not know when his knees had bent. He was faint with ecstasy.
"She goes to Bethlehem," he heard himself say as he had heard himself speak before. "I, too; I, too."
He stood a moment listening to the sound of the ass's retreating feet as it grew fainter in the distance. His breath came quick and soft. The light had died away from the hillside, but the high-floating radiance seemed to pass to and fro in the heavens, and now and again he thought he heard the faint, far sound that was like music so distant that it was as a thing heard in a dream.
"Perhaps I behold visions," he murmured. "It may be that I shall awake."
But he found himself making his way through the bushes and setting his feet upon the road. He must follow, he must follow. Howsoever steep the hill, he must climb to Bethlehem. But as he went on his way it did not seem steep, and he did not waver or toil as he usually did when walking. He felt no weariness or ache in his limbs, and the high radiance gently lighted the path and dimly revealed that many white flowers he had never seen before seemed to have sprung up by the roadside and to wave softly to and fro, giving forth a fragrance so remote and faint, yet so clear, that it did not seem of earth. It was perhaps part of the vision.
Of the distance he climbed his thought took no cognizance. There was in this vision neither distance nor time. There was only faint radiance, far, strange sounds, and the breathing of air which made him feel an ecstasy of lightness as he moved. The other Zia had traveled painfully, had stumbled and struck his feet against wayside stones. He seemed ten thousand miles, ten thousand years away. It was not he who went to Bethlehem, led as if by some power invisible. To Bethlehem! To Bethlehem, where To Bethlehem, where went the woman whose blue robe was bordered with a glow of fair luminousness and whose face, like an uplifted lily, softly shone. It was she he followed, knowing no reason but that his soul was called.
When he reached the little town and stood at last near the gateway of the khan in which the day-long procession of wayfarers had crowded to take refuge for
the night, he knew that he would find no place among the multitude within its walls. Too many of the great Cæsar's subjects had been born in Bethlehem and had come back for their enrolment. The khan was crowded to its utmost, and outside lingered many who had not been able to gain admission and who consulted plaintively with one another as to where they might find a place to sleep, and to eat the food they carried with them.
Zia had made his way to the entrancegate only because he knew the travelers he had followed would seek shelter there, and that he might chance to hear of them.
He stood a little apart from the gate and waited. Something would tell him what he must do. Almost as this thought entered his mind he heard voices speaking near him. Two women were talking together, and soon he began to hear their words.
"Joseph of Nazareth and Mary his wife," one said. "Both of the line of David. There was no room for them, even as there was no room for others not of royal lineage. To the mangers in the cave they have gone, seeing the woman had sore need of rest. She, thou knowest-"
He did not ask
Zia heard no more. where the cave lay. He had not needed to ask his way to Bethlehem. That which had led him again directed his feet away from the entrance-gate of the khan, past the crowded court and the long, low wall of stone within the inclosure of which the camels and asses browsed and slept, on at last to a pathway leading to the gray of rising rocks. Beneath them was the cave, he knew, though none had told him so. Only a short distance, and he saw what drew him trembling nearer. At the open entrance, through which he could see the rough mangers of stone, the heaps of fodder, and the ass munching slowly in a corner, the woman who wore the blue robe stood leaning wearily against the heavy wooden post. And the soft light bordering her garments set her in a frame of faint radiance and glowed in a halo about her head.
"The light! the light!" cried Zia in a breathless whisper. And he crossed his hands upon his breast.
Her husband surely could not see it. He moved soberly about, unpacking the burden the ass had carried and seeming to see naught else. He heaped straw in a corner with care, and threw his mantle upon it.
"Come," he said. "Here thou canst rest, and I can watch by thy side. The angels of the Lord be with thee!" The woman turned from the door and went toward him, walking with slow steps. He gazed at her with mild, unillumined eyes. "Does he not see the light!" panted Zia. "Does he not see the light!"
Soon he himself no longer saw it. Joseph of Nazareth came to the wooden doors and drew them together, and the boy stood alone on the mountain-side, trembling still, and wet with the dew of the night; but not weary, not hungered, not athirst or afraid, only quaking with wonder and joy-he, the little hunchback Zia, who had known no joy before since the hour of his birth.
He sank upon the earth slowly in an exquisite peace-a peace that thrilled his whole being as it stole over his limbs, deepening moment by moment. His head drooped softly upon a cushion of moss. As his eyelids fell, he saw the splendor of whiteness floating in the height of the purple vault above him.
THE dawn was breaking, and yet the stars had not faded away. This was his thought when his eyes first opened on a great one, greater than any other in the sky, and of so pure a brilliance that it seemed as if even the sun would not be bright enough to put it out. It hung high in the paling blue, high as the white radiance; and as he lay and gazed, he thought it surely moved. What new star was it that in that one night had been born? He had watched the stars through so many desolate hours that he knew each great one as a friend, and this one he had never seen before.
The morning was cold, and his clothes
were wet with dew, but he felt no chill. He remembered; yes, he remembered. If he had lived in a vision the day before, he was surely living in one yet. The Zia who had been starved and beaten and driven out naked into the world, who had clutched his thin breast and sobbed, writhing upon the earth, where was he? He looked down upon his hands and saw the cracked and scaling palms, and it was as though they were not. He thrust back the covering from his chest and saw the spots there. But there were no lepers, there were no hunchbacks; there were only Zia and the light. He knelt and turned himself toward the cave and prayed, and as he so knelt and prayed the man Joseph rolled open the heavy wooden door.
Then Zia, still kneeling, beat himself softly upon the breast and prayed again, not as before to Jehovah, but to that which he beheld.
The light was there, fair, radiant, wonderful. The cave was bathed in it. The woman in the blue robe sat upon the straw, and in her arms she held a newborn child. Zia touched his forehead to the earth again, again, again, unknowing that he did so. The child was the light itself!
He must rise and draw near. That which had drawn him up the mountainside drew him again. The child was the light itself! As he crept near the cave's entrance, the woman's eyes rested upon him soft and wonderful.
She spoke to him-she spoke!
"Be not afraid," she said. "Draw nigh and behold!"
Her voice was not as the voice of other women; it was like her eyes, soft and wonderful. It could not be withstood even by awe such as his. He could not remain outside, but entered trembling, and trembling drew near.
The child lying upon His mother's breast opened His eyes and smiled. Zia fell upon his knees before Him. He held out his piteous hands, remembering for one moment the Zia who had sobbed on the mountain-side alone.