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- The Little Hunchback Zia - 3/4 -
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? Zia could see nothing, 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 the night, and the far-away paeans 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 his 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
[Illustration with caption: "Zia's eyes grew wide with awe and wondering as he gazed, scarce breathing"--Page 38]
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 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 Caesar'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 entrance-gate 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--"
Zia heard no more. He did not ask 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
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