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- The Little Hunchback Zia - 1/4 -
THE LITTLE HUNCHBACK ZIA
FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY SPENCER BAIRD NICHOLS AND W. T. BENDA
And it came to pass nigh upon nineteen hundred and sixteen years ago
THE LITTLE HUNCHBACK ZIA
The little hunchback Zia toiled slowly up the steep road, keeping in the deepest shadows, even though the night had long fallen. Sometimes he staggered with weariness or struck his foot against a stone and smothered his involuntary cry of pain. He was so full of terror that he was afraid to utter a sound which might cause any traveler to glance toward him. This he feared more than any other thing--that some man or woman might look at him too closely. If such a one knew much and had keen eyes, he or she might in some way guess even at what they might not yet see.
Since he had fled from the village in which his wretched short life had been spent he had hidden himself in thickets and behind walls or rocks or bushes during the day, and had only come forth at night to stagger along his way in the darkness. If he had not managed to steal some food before he began his journey and if he had not found in one place some beans dropped from a camel's feeding-bag, he would have starved. For five nights he had been wandering on, but in his desperate fear he had lost count of time. When he had left the place he had called his home he had not known where he was going or where he might hide himself in the end. The old woman with whom he had lived and for whom he had begged and labored had driven him out with a terror as great as his own.
"Begone!" she had cried in a smothered shriek. "Get thee gone, accursed! Even now thou mayest have brought the curse upon me also. A creature born a hunchback comes on earth with the blight of Jehovah's wrath upon him. Go far! Go as far as thy limbs will carry thee! Let no man come near enough to thee to see it! If thou go far away before it is known, it will be forgotten that I have harbored thee."
He had stood and looked at her in the silence of the dead, his immense, black Syrian eyes growing wider and wider with childish horror. He had always regarded her with slavish fear. What he was to her he did not know; neither did he know how he had fallen into her hands. He knew only that he was not of her blood or of her country and that he yet seemed to have always belonged to her. In his first memory of his existence, a little 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 two.
"Not at me, hunchback! Not at me! At those who are ready to give!" she cried out.
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 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
[Illustration with caption: "'Perhaps when he is a man he will be a
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