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- The Little Hunchback Zia - 2/4 -
great soothsayer and reader of the stars'"]
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 alms-bag 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--because--There was 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 hehind 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 mountainside. 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 Augustus, 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 Caesar'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 Caesar 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
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